Few examples of Japanese animation (known as anime) make it to American movie screens, and the ones that do -- such as "Akira" -- are usually set in a violent, post-apocalyptic landscape.
"Princess Mononoke" is something quite different. This highly imaginative, beautifully rendered fable of ancient Japan comes from writer-director-master animator Hayao Miyazaki ("Laputa: Castle in the Sky") and is told with the scope and epic flair of the best live-action adventure films.
Set during the turbulent Muromachi era (1392-1573), "Princess Mononoke" portrays the middle ages of Japanese history as a complex battleground on which humans fight each other for tribal supremacy while imposing the forces of "civilization" on an ancient world that's still ruled by giant beasts and the Great Forest Spirit.
Brave young prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) saves his remote village by killing a demonic giant boar, only to find himself cursed by the touch of its tendrils. Doomed to share the fierce creature's violent bloodlust, Ashitaka begins a journey into a land he knows only through myth to discover the source of the evil that possesses him.
Arriving at a dense forest where the gods still roam, Ashitaka meets two powerful females whose world views are diametrically opposed. One is Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), a regal warrior who runs the iron-manufacturing town as a matriarchy. The other is a feral wild child raised by wolves: San (Claire Danes), a.k.a. Princess Mononoke.
With these characters, Miyazaki sets up a complex dynamic of continually shifting loyalties. It's fascinating to watch them wrangle with issues of industrialization versus unspoiled nature, a universal dichotomy that's also specifically Japanese. Here, after all, is a culture which reveres the natural world yet has become the model for better living through industry.
Some of the emotional impact of "Princess Mononoke" is dulled by lackluster English-language dubbing, but a bigger problem is the sense that much of the mythology in this surprisingly long (133 minutes) film is being made up as it goes along.
Miyazaki continually sets up internal conflicts within the battling factions. This adds more ambiguity to his no-easy-answers story, but also confuses the central issues (like the corrosive effects of violence and the destructive rigidity of gender roles).
Nonetheless, "Princess Mononoke" is a visually stunning and richly textured tale. By seeing the past with new eyes, Miyazaki draws a morally complex roadmap for the next millennium.