Millennium Actress begins straightforwardly enough with Genya Tachibana (Shozo Iizuka), director/president of a small media production company, being contacted by the well-known Gin Ei studios in order to direct a documentary interview intended to commemorate their 70 years of production. Genya's project focuses on Gen Ei's legendary superstar actress Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shoji, Mimi Koyama and Fumiko Orikasa at different ages) who inexplicably ended her career at its height 30 years previously and retired from public life.
Genya, fondly obsessed with the reclusive star, eagerly seeks to discover the reasons for Chiyoko's abandonment of the limelight. With only his cameraman/assistant Kyoji Ida (Musaya Onosaka) to help him, Genya finds the elderly Chiyoko living alone, except for her housekeeper, in an elegant, traditional-style home. In the encounter that follows, Genya finds that Chiyoko, despite the passing years, still retains her vigor and charisma and a certain reticence that opens up to disarming candor when she receives his gift. This present consists of an old ordinary-looking key of immense sentimental value, which the actress long ago thought irretrievably lost but which Genya recently, accidentally found. Re-possession of this item literally and metaphorically unlocks Chiyoko's flood of memories that she recounts to the pair of protagonist filmmakers.
Here the narrative structure becomes intriguingly fuzzy. The story doesn't get told in simple flashbacks to Chiyoko's film career spanning the 1930s to the 1960s; rather, the boundaries between memory, imagination and ordinary reality become blurred so that scenes from Chiyoko's movies mingle with the present day documentary/interview process and Genya and his cameraman somehow become able to interact with these flashbacks. At first, the two men just appear to be hidden observers, unseen by anyone else around them but gradually, they get more and more involved in the events of the actress's recollections, though Genya plunges in a bit more enthusiastically than his cameraman.
The three protagonists become vivid, compelling characters while Millennium Actress's panorama unfolds through dazzling visuals so skillfully composed they overcome noticeable budgetary constraints. Susumu Hirasawa's excellent, dynamic score complements the film's wide-ranging emotional kaleidoscope. This hugely entertaining and mesmerizingly moving film also offers thoughtful subtexts dealing with ageism; sexism; the search for meaningful relationships; and the need for artistic fulfillment and personal integrity, giving Millennium Actress depth and substance rare in anime (but comparable to Hayao Miyazaki's exceptional, masterful oeuvre) and rare in most films in general, for that matter. Millennium Actress, destined to be a classic for its richness, imaginative storytelling and appealing imagery, is a product of astonishing talent and cinematic skill—and deserves to stand the test of time, with Satoshi Kon worthy of the accolade Millennium Director.