Cartoons for Grown-Ups, Japan's Anime Draws Millions

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It's a whirlwind history lesson, albeit with a cinematic twist.

"I wanted to intertwine fragments of Japanese history with the story of Chiyoko's life," said Satoshi Kon, the director of Millennium Actress. "Historical verification doesn't really matter. We created this film with our vision of Japanese history."

Blurring Fantasy and Reality

Kon earned rave reviews for his first movie, 1997's Perfect Blue. Interweaving fantasy and reality, it tells the story of a pop singer-turned-actress who is stalked by fans in both cyberspace and the real world. In this thriller, Kon often switches to the heroine's point of view without warning his viewers.

Millennium Actress is equally demanding to watch. But the shifts in time and place are cleverly conceived. The movie creates the blurring of fantasy and reality because, in Chiyoko's memories, the two mirror each other.

On the downside, some of the dialogue, perhaps lost in the translation from Japanese to English, comes across a little wooden. And even though Millennium Actress is a love story, it lacks real emotional punch. American audiences may find it hard to accept the minimalist and often "jerky" animation.

"This is just a convention that the Japanese have come to accept over time as natural," explained Drazen. "Animation started for them in the early 1960s when Japan was still recovering from the war and resources were limited. Cartoons for Japanese TV were drawn less smoothly than Bugs Bunny, which was drawn for movie house short subjects."

From Samurais to Robots

Anime is closely integrated with comic books, or manga as they are known in Japan, as well as video games. Animated mini-movies have been used in Japanese video games for years, and many films began in the pages of comic books.

It's also common for anime to borrow from both Hollywood and Japanese cinema. Millennium Actress pays homage to the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa, Godzilla movies, and Casablanca.

Themes are reoccuring, from the tragedy of war to gender-bending romances. Some characters, like samurais and giant robots, seem to pop up in almost every anime movie.

"Anime reflects the culture out of which it grew, like Hollywood movies reflect American beliefs and values," said Drazen. "American movies emphasize the lone hero and the rebel. Japanese culture is based on the group, whether the clan or the nation or one's job or high school class. Loners in anime aren't always right or always victorious just because they're rebels."

With parts of it set during and after World War II, Millennium Actress also has a distinct anti-authoritarian streak. Drazen says it has become proper in anime to denounce the military imperialism that ruled Japan from about 1895 to 1945. Add to this a very public backlash to the wave of revelations in the 1990s about scandals and corruption among high government officials.

Whether Millennium Actress will find a U.S. audience remains to be seen, but fans think U.S. acceptance of the artform is long overdue.

"Americans have now grown up on video games and other forms of entertainment being made in Asia," said Ron Scovil, who runs the Anime Web Turnpike, perhaps the most popular anime Web site in the United States with almost 1.8 million readers. "The action, attention to detail, and varied story types are what's drawing in new fans."

Adds Gladstone, the Dreamworks executive: "Americans have pigeon-holed animation as a genre for kids. In Japan, anime has its own genres. It can be science fiction, romance, or sophisticated dramas."

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