Like pretty much all anime, Princess Mononoke builds toward cataclysm. It's understandable that mass destruction is a recurrent theme - after all, Japan is the only country to have suffered the atomic bomb first hand. However, whereas most anime films feature high-tech battles in modern cities, Princess Mononoke's climactic destruction has a refreshingly different setting - a mythologised 14th century landscape.
This setting is brought to life with utter magnificence by anime master Hayao Miyazaki - who has been praised in no uncertain terms by the likes of Toy Story creator John Lasseter ("Not a day goes by that I do not utilize the tools learned from studying his films").
Despite the period setting, the themes of the film are pertinent and modern: the effects of the human drive to better ourselves through technology, and the environmental repercussions of such ambition.
The hero of the piece is Ashitaka (voiced in Neil Gaiman's English translation by Billy Crudup), a young warrior prince who contracts a terminal infection while protecting his village from a horrifying marauding demon. Ashitaka discovers that a war is being waged between humanity and nature when he meets Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), a matriarch who has founded a city to smelt iron and manufacture firearms. Eboshi's chief enemy is San, or Princess Mononoke (voiced with inappropriate brattiness by Claire Danes), the adopted human daughter of Moro (Gillian Anderson), a wolf god, whose clan, along with the boar clan and the other forest creatures, is suffering from Eboshi's ruthless deforestation.
Avoiding pastoral sentimentality and a simple condemnation of human technological progress, Princess Mononoke is a complex, intriguing moral tale. With her reliance on iron and gunpowder, Eboshi exemplifies human drive at the expense of the environment. But even she has a moral dimension - her employees are women she liberates from a life in brothels, lepers and other outcasts, whose dignity she restores. Her actions and ambitions challenge the supremacy of the traditional feudal overlords. Even the hero, Ashitaka, is ambivalent - he's loyal to neither the humans nor the magic animals, instead he tries to mediate ("What I want is for the humans and the forest to live together in peace," he says with earnest simplicity.)
Despite the familiar cartoon look of the characters, the film's overall artistry - which merits comparison with Terrence Malick and Akira Kurosawa in places - matches the sophistication of its story.
In a nutshell: All Miyazaki's films are masterpieces, but Princess Mononoke may just have the edge. One of the greatest anime films ever made.
By Daniel Etherington