In 1997, writer-director Satoshi Kon brought Hitchcockian noir to Japanese animation with Perfect Blue, a quirky thriller about a pop-star-turned-actress who loses her grip on reality while under siege by a murderous stalker and a phantom representing her past. In Kon's hands, truth, fantasy, conscious pretense, and sick delusion merged into a breathless blur which exploded with tension, but never fully resolved into coherency. Kon's 2001 follow-up, Millennium Actress, proved he'd become more technically proficient and more ambitious, but no less opaque and no less obsessed with Perfect Blue's central themes: subjective vs. objective reality, and how art muddies the waters between them. Millennium Actress begins as a cameraman and an interviewer track down seventysomething film actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (voiced during various stages of her life by three different actors) and ask why she left cinema to live as a hermit. Chiyoko begins telling her life story, at which point she literally steps into the past, dragging the confused film crew along. Nervously standing amid her memories, they witness her accidental encounter with the fleeing political radical who inadvertently launched her film career. Obsessed with the man, whose name she never learns and whose face she never clearly sees, Chiyoko accepts an acting job so she can visit Manchuria, where she believes he's traveled. After that initial setup, Millennium Actress loses all sense of borders, as Kon depicts Chiyoko's history as a series of films in which she chases her lost love. She appears as a feudal princess one moment and a lonely astronaut the next, but she always remains fixated on her quest. The abrupt transition between projects and characters is jarring–as is the machete-subtle background music–but things get downright surreal when the film team's interviewer, Genya, throws himself into Chiyoko's movie memories, repeatedly casting himself in rescuer/benefactor roles. The scenario is fairly melodramatic, but Kon leavens it with humor, mostly expressed through the baffled and resentful cameraman, who lurks in the background as Chiyoko and Genya repeatedly re-enact a passionate past. Animated in much the same style as Perfect Blue, but with greater depth and a more elaborate sense of playfulness, Millennium Actress is a visual feast, but also a mental gymnastics routine. Kon leaves open the possibility that viewers can solve the film like a puzzle, individually deciding how much of the story is "real," or that Chiyoko is simply senile and losing her way in the past. But he subtly encourages viewers to believe she's joyfully dramatizing her own life, having seen it all as one big romantic movie from the start. That movie sometimes feels disjointed, but the powerful emotions give it a warm, sentimental charm. Perfect Blue depicted a woman fearfully falling into illusion; Millennium Actress takes a more complex and admirable route to follow another woman who dove in happily, and not only chose to stay submerged, but illuminated a fantastic path for others to follow.

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