At first glance, the plot of "Millennium Actress" sounds so conventional that you wonder why its Japanese creators went to the trouble of making it as an animated film. But first glances can be deceptive, especially with as unusual a film as this.

For what "Actress" director and co-screenwriter Satoshi Kon has in mind is the shredding of the laws of space and time. In this film, past and present, fantasy and reality, film and history all occupy the same space at the same time. The director calls it trompe l'oeil or fool-the-eye filmmaking, and animation can fool the eye with the best of them.

As written by Kon and Sadayuki Murai, "Actress" starts out as the making of a "Whatever Became of ... "-style documentary about a legendary — and legendarily reclusive — Japanese actress named Chiyoko Fujiwara (voiced at different ages by a trio of Japanese performers).

The studio Chiyoko sustained for decades is being torn down, and documentary filmmaker Genya Tachibana (Shozo Iizuka), a major fan who has seen and cried at all her films, arrives at the star's isolated house expecting a tranquil few hours of reminiscence.

But as Chiyoko starts to talk about the past, Genya and his cameraman, Kyoji Ida (Masaya Onosaka), are astonished to find themselves suddenly being in and photographing the past with her. "What are we filming?" a confused Kyoji asks. "Wasn't this supposed to be a documentary?"

Things get even more dizzying when Chiyoko starts appearing in motion pictures, first as a child star and then as an adult. Her fictional films become every bit as real to the documentary crew as both the actual past and the actual present, and it is sometimes difficult for them — and for us — to determine if they are seeing Chiyoko for real or watching the roles she played.

More than that, Chiyoko's films turn out to cover a huge swath of modern Japanese history, from the chaos of the 15th century through the Edo and Meiji periods and including the rise of 20th century nationalism and the poverty-stricken aftermath of World War II.

The through-line of both Chiyoko's life and her films is her never-ending quest to find the man of her dreams (Kohichi Yamadera), a struggling artist and rebel-on-the-run whom she met and helped as a young girl. Chiyoko never learns his name, but he gives her a key for safekeeping, and she is forevermore determined to return it to him.

It's not only the Man of the Key who appears in different guises in all her films. There's the implacable authority figure, with a scar no less, relentlessly tracking the young rebel down, as well as a rival actress named Eiko who also figures in her private life. And our friend the documentary filmmaker starts to appear as Chiyoko's on-screen savior.

The film's matter-of-fact, realistic animation style makes a fitting contrast to the topsy-turvy nature of its narration. Though the moments of drama have an inescapable corniness, as a piece of visual legerdemain as well as a rumination on the place movies have in our personal and collective subconscious, "Millennium Actress" fascinatingly goes where films have not often gone before.

'Millennium Actress'

MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements, violence and brief mild language.

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter.

Miyoko Shoji ... Chiyoko in her 70s
Mami Koyama ... Chiyoko in her 20s to 40s
Fukimo Orikasa ... Chiyoko in her teens
Shozo Iizuka ... Genya
Masaya Onosaka ... Kyoji

Released by Go Fish Pictures. Director Satoshi Kon. Producer Chiyoko Committee. Executive producer Taro Maki. Screenplay Satoshi Kon, Sadayuki Murai. Cinematographer Hisao Shirai. Editor Takeshi Honda. Music Susumu Hirasawa. Art director Nobutaka Ike. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

In general release.