for National Geographic News
It has tens of millions of fans around the world, more than 30,000 Web sites, and its artists are household names in Japan.
Yet most Americans have never heard of anime (AN-uh-may), the elastic definition used to describe all Japanese animated movies.
Thus, when Millennium Actress, voted Best Animated Feature at the 2001 Fantasia Festival in Montreal, finally arrived in the United States last Friday, it quietly snuck into only a handful of art house theaters.
That's a shame, say die-hard anime fans, who cherish Japanese animation for its imagination, adult themes, and unconventional storytelling techniques.
"Think of every cartoon you've ever seen, and then remove all limitations," said Patrick Drazen, author of the book Anime Explosion! "In anime, anything becomes a viable topic and nothing is beyond the abilities of the artist."
A Search for Love
The premise of Millennium Actress, the first release by Go Fish Pictures, an independent arm of Dreamworks Pictures, is simple enough.
A documentary filmmaker and his cameraman travel to a remote mountain lodge to interview Chiyoko Fujiwara, a reclusive former movie star who disappeared from public view 30 years ago. When presented with a key that unlocks her memories, Chiyoko begins to tell her life story.
As a young girl, she bumps into an injured artist who is fleeing from the police. Chiyoko hides him in a storage houseand promptly falls in love. Before she can learn his identity, however, the stranger is gone, leaving behind only a mysterious key.
But here's where things get complicated. Chiyoko's lifelong search for her elusive love is told through her movies. As her identity changes in each movie, so does that of her love interest. Further blurring fantasy and reality, the documentarians soon enter her movies and begin interacting with the plots.
"The storytelling in Western animation is usually linear," said Frank Gladstone, head of artistic development at Dreamworks. "Eastern animation is more circuitous."
Time periods and settings shift as Chiyoko's roles take her through centuries of Japanese history. She travels back to the 15th century Warring States period; through the time of the rule by the Shogunate; the rise of the Emperor in the 19th century; the militancy of the Showa before World War II; and life in post-war Japan through the occupation.
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