The long-awaited second anime from cult director Satoshi Kon, “Chiyoko: Millennium Actress” is a boldly conceived set of playful variations on Japanese film genres and the transparency of celebrity and memory that, like his previous psycho-horror riff, “Perfect Blue,” contains some brilliant invention between duller stretches. Outside Asia, film is particularly suited to ancillary where, if loaded with explanatory extras, it could appeal to buffs.
Working again with scriptwriter Sadayuki Murai, but this time from his own original story, Kon once more shows that his contribution to Japanimation lies in ideas rather than toon technique. “Chiyoko” is conventionally animated, and its characters are basic archetypes. It’s the central concept that holds the attention.
Zooming in from outer space, prologue settles on a female astronaut about to take off despite warnings of impending disaster. Without further explanation, pic then moves to present-day Tokyo, where the legendary Ginei Studios is being demolished after 70 years. One of its most famous actresses was Chiyoko Fujiwara, and a reporter goes to interview the reclusive former star at her rural hideaway.
As the aged Chiyoko tells her story, the movie switches to B&W and moves to a muted, period color (almost like two-strip Technicolor). Imperceptibly, the reporter and his assistant find themselves players in Chiyoko’s own story, starting in the ’20s, when she meets a wounded fugitive who becomes the idealized love of her life. On the run from the police, the man flees to join his comrades in Manchuria, leaving the young, impressionable Chiyoko with a key to remember him.
Chiyoko’s life and career become one long search for the mysterious stranger: After becoming an actress, she accepts one pic simply because it involves a trip to Manchuria, and in a costume actioner she plays a female warrior searching for “her lord.” Always at her side, in the restaged memories, are the two journalists, playing a variety of roles depending on the genre being gently spoofed.
Pic’s first hour is a roller-coaster ride that plays with memory and genre conventions. Thereafter, as Chiyoko’s story enters the post-WWII era, it adopts brighter, ’50s colors and loses some of its inventiveness, as if Kon and Murai really don’t know how to tie up the threads in any meaningful way.
Film’s opening scene is revealed as a sequence from Chiyoko’s final movie, a late ’60s space epic, and though the final chapter in her lifelong search has a certain poignancy, it’s a rather forced capper to such an epic love story.