The reception of anime in the West has followed a torturous path: in the '60s, it was a cheap source of awful children's programming; in the '80s, it was an underground font of bent sexuality and hyper-stylised violence; in the '00s it had firmly entrenched itself as, if not a mainstream form of cinematic entertainment, certainly mainstream enough that it's no big deal when an anime picture wins Oscars, sells well on DVD, or does well at the box office. It's even managed, in some degree, to topple the longstanding "animation is for kids!" mentality that has dominated the American landscape since at least the 1950s.

Still, the modern acceptance of anime in the United States has only, thus far, produced one household name (for a given kind of household): Miyazaki Hayao, the so-called "Japanese Disney", whose elaborate, gorgeous fantasies are certainly emblematic of some of the best that animation has to offer anywhere in the world. But he's not the only genius working in Japanese animation right now; and if I but had the power to control everyone else's will, I would absolutely correct the shameful fact that for whatever reason, the work of animation director Kon Satoshi hasn't become better-known in this country outside of the expected anime-fanciers' circles. Partially, I guess, this is because Kon has a much smaller output: as of this writing, only four features and one 13-episode TV series. Partially, it's because unlike Miyazaki (whose films are designed for a pretty wide family audience, sometimes skewing a touch older, sometimes a touch younger), Kon's work is comfortably and unmistakably for adults - even when his films aren't as violent and sexual as his debut, 1998's Perfect Blue, they treat on themes and subject matter that is far more mature and complex than Americans want from the cartoons. And I suspect that it doesn't help matters any that his stories are generally psychological and non-fantastical in nature, save for his most recent film Paprika; unlike most of the extremely popular anime in this country, most of what we see in his movies could just as easily be represented in live-action (and indeed, Perfect Blue was originally going to be exactly that).

Oh well, it's everybody else's loss. Those of us lucky enough to have stumbled across him one way or another get to be treated to some of the most fascinating animated movies of the modern age; fascinating not least because they could so easily be live-action, and yet it hardly seems incidental or disposable that they're not. Something about the very artificial look of animation (and Japanese animation in particular) contrasts with the very grounded, psychology-based narratives that Kon prefers (I wouldn't be so brash as to call them "realistic"), and the whole experience is a fantastic, unnerving blend of the recognisable and the grotesque, firmly human stories coated with a gloss of impossible physicality that gives them the cryptic but intuitively accessible texture of dreaming.

All of which is a long-ass way of saying: boy, do I love >Millennium Actress, Kon's 2001 movie about a former movie star whose life and roles intersected in peculiar and unlikely ways during her too-brief career in the mid-20th Century. It's also about the history and identity of Japan from 1939-2000, the reconstruction of memory using cinematic constructs, the unreliability of cinema as a means of recording historical fact, and the tendency of movie audiences to ascribe personality to famous actors based on their personae, and it is all these things while it shifts through a variety of visual styles based upon various periods of Japanese graphic art and Japanese filmmaking trends.

For an animated movie running only 87 minutes, then, Millennium Actress is shockingly difficult - or should I perhaps say, "demanding". It's actually all quite straightforward if you give the film the attention that it asks, even if some of the themes Kon spins out of his material are fairly arcane and conceptual. The plot is fairly simple to relate: a director named Tachibana Genya (voiced by Îzuka Shôzô) and his cameraman, Ida Kyoji (Onosaka Masaya) are putting together a documentary about the demolition of one of Japan's most venerable movie studios, and Genya hits upon the idea of trying to interview the studio's most famous star, Fujiwara Chiyoko (voiced by Shôji Miyoko, Orikasa Fumiko, and Koyama Mami, depending on her relative age), who has been in seclusion some 30 years, for reasons that have never come to light. Genya manages to get an interview by promising that he has a present she'll want to receive, and certainly the battered old key he gives her triggers some kind of profound emotional response. In short order, Chiyoko prepares to finally unburden herself of the story she has carried around since the days of Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the early days of World War II, when as a child she helped a dissident artist (Yamadera Kôichi) escape the police, and formed a romantic bond to him that has persisted for 60 years.

That's just the beginning of the story, not the whole of it; for Chiyoko's attempts to find her artist led directly to her decision to become an actress, and this is where Millennium Actress becomes something wholly other than the pleasant melodrama of a love that time could not kill. Chiyoko tells Genya and Kyoji her life's story, not as a simple matter of what happened to her and in what order, but in terms of how it was symbolically represented by the movies she made in that span. From the evidence we see, all of her movies followed a similar pattern: she played a woman fighting to save her lover against the machinations of a jealous older woman, always played by her jealous aging co-star Eiko (Tsuda Shouko), and frequently running up against a scarred man who looks exactly like the policeman (Tsukayama Masane) hunting the painter. It becomes clear somewhere along the line that all of these films couldn't have exactly the same stories, and that Chiyoko's memories of life and her memories of her movies are blurring; and Genya, a huge fan of her films who worked on her last set and has something of a crush on her, isn't helping; he continuously inserts himself into her memories as a hero rescuing her from danger. Poor Kyoji keeps getting dragged along to function as the audience's surrogate, wondering where exactly the films leave off and Chiyoko's memories begin.

Finding the truth in all of this haze of cinema and memories starts to become impossible, though Genya helpfully admits that he knows a lot more than he was letting on very near the end of the film; but at that point it's become sort of like learning what "Rosebud" means in Citizen Kane - that mystery has been long since overtaken by the character investigation and emotional stridency of the piece. Chiyoko's inability to differentiate between herself and her characters isn't a means of obfuscating the point, or a cynical sign of her increasing age: it is itself the point, that she was so bent on this pursuit that defined her whole life that the distinction between herself and the figures she played is no longer essential. What matters is the will to keep on fighting as long as hope holds out. Ultimately this turns out not to be as much a matter of enduring romance as we've been assuming throughout the movie, but I will leave it as an exercise to the viewer to make of the ending what they will.

Kon fills his study of cinematic memory with quite a few cinematic memories of his own: the films of Kurosawa are clearly referenced, especially Throne of Blood, there's a fun kaiju eiga moment, and Chiyoko herself is plainly based on Hara Setsuko, the brilliant actress best known for her collaborations with Ozu Yasujiro, among other more obscure references (several of which I didn't come even close to catching myself). But Millennium Actress isn't just a compendium of film in-jokes, nor a clever attempt to recreate the style of Japanese film over a 30-year period - though it is both of these things, and quite successfully. Insofar as the movie recreates Japanese film history, it's as a means of exploring history more generally: as a personal experience of moving through time, and as a national experience of rebuilding and re-discovering what it means to be "Japanese". This is both the subtlest and most important part of the movie: the way that it uses Chiyoko as a stand in for her country and re-configures the key movements in Japanese film culture as milestones for charting the country's development in the post-war 20th Century. All that and it's a investigation into the representational limitations of its own medium. Not many animated films - or films, period - can lay claim to that particular blend of ambitions.