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The most sweeping film yet from Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke is so visually spellbinding that it’s worth experiencing even if you don’t quite get it. Still, the quasi-historical epic is a problematic selection for the first Miyazaki film to be distributed widely in the United States. Fully appreciating it probably requires both some knowledge of Japanese history and myth and some exposure to anime (the Japanese term for animation). Even then, the movie presents difficulties. Indeed, you might wonder if even his customary audience could fully sympathize with Miyazaki’s saga—unless you’ve already heard that in Japan, Princess Mononoke is the highest-grossing Japanese movie ever.

The subject of an ongoing retrospective at the Freer Gallery of Art, Miyazaki’s films generally share several themes: children, aviation, Japanese folklore, and nature and man’s threats to it. Set in a fanciful 15th century, Princess Mononoke doesn’t feature any airplanes, but it supplies the other traditional elements. Still, it’s not as kid-friendly as such Miyazaki charmers as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. The film doesn’t approach the most extreme of Japanese sex-and-violence anime, but its bloody battle scenes earned it a PG-13 rating.

Young Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) is the prince of a proto-Japanese tribe that’s widely thought to be extinct. Representing Japan’s preindustrial reverence for nature, the Emishi live in harmony with the forest until the day a demon attacks. Ashitaka kills the creature, in the process receiving a wound that’s as much spiritual as physical. He also discovers that the monster is actually a giant boar that was driven mad by a mysterious object embedded in its body: an iron ball.

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Hoping to solve the mystery—and lift the wound’s curse—elk-riding Ashitaka ventures into a world his people have long avoided. He soon finds himself caught between two factions. On one side are the great forest spirit, the giant animal gods, and San (Claire Danes), a girl who lives with (and rides) the wolves who raised her; she’s known as Mononoke (“Spirit”). On the other is Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who presides over the Tatara clan, inhabitants of a dark satanic mill and gun-making town. Ashitaka falls in love with San but cannot completely support her against the Tatara—even after Eboshi assists conniving monk Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton) in his quest to kill the great forest spirit, who spends his days as a many-antlered beast and his nights as an ectoplasmic sky creature.

British-born, Minnesota-based comic-book writer and novelist Neil Gaiman was enlisted to write dialogue that would make this multilayered story accessible to Americans, and he did a credible job, although some of his lines seem too vulgar for so cosmic a parable. Still, Gaiman left much to be explained. The Emishi are the original Japanese, who root the country’s heritage in an ancient (if largely legendary) civilization that (unlike Japan’s actual one) is not mostly derived from foreign sources. The iron ball that wounds the boar is, of course, a bullet—and the gun has a unique history in Japan. Originally introduced by the Portuguese, guns were successfully banned from Japan in 1637, although they returned with the Americans two centuries later.

There’s much more Japanese history and folklore underlying Miyazaki’s tale, but American viewers will probably object less to Princess Mononoke’s obscure mythology than to its style of animation and ambiguous moral. Although they move across richly detailed backdrops, the characters are the same sort of big-eyed ‘toons that inhabit all anime. This style of rendering (ironically, derived from Miramax owner Disney) is apparently inviolable in Japanimation. For those familiar with other styles, the cartoonishness of the film’s characters distracts from both its grand themes and its dazzling depiction of the Japanese rain forest, where most of the action transpires.

The other obstacle is the story, whose admirable quest for nuance yields a deflating conclusion. Aware that industry is as central as nature to modern Japan, Miyazaki depicts Eboshi as a forest-hating zealot who has a kind heart for humans. Her town may look like the 15th-century equivalent of a nuclear waste dump, but it’s also a city of refuge: The proto-feminist Eboshi frees women from brothels to work her forges and recruits lepers for her factory. Recognizing the humanity of these practices, Ashitaka can’t accept San’s idea of Iron Town as sheer evil.

Ashitaka is a man entangled in the powerful forces of both nature and civilization, and neither he nor Miyazaki ever figures out exactly what he’s doing there. The film’s lush images side with the forest, but the script is unable to make so clear a choice. Philosophically, that’s entirely reasonable, but narratively, it’s ungainly. Princess Mononoke has the look of a primal allegory, but the spirit of one of the painfully decorous Japanese conversations in which no conclusion can possibly be reached.

From its jumpy, ominous opening, which plunges the viewer into hostile territory somewhere in the Middle East, The Insider strives mightily to live up to its name. Whether behind enemy lines with the Hezbollah, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., or CBS News, the film crackles with the forbidden thrill of revealing the things that They don’t want you to see. After all, the movie is based on a true story. Is it director Michael Mann’s fault that life these days resembles a genre picture?

If the in medias res prologue suggests a James Bond flick, with CBS News producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) standing in for 007, the rest of the film closely parallels a cinematic franchise of more recent origin. Jeff Wigand (Russell Crowe) is a New South Everyman who comes to realize that the soft-spoken gentlemen who employ him would just as soon slit his throat as shake his hand. When he learns of their corruption, he decides he must take a stand, even if it means that his shallow, unsupportive wife will soon leave him. Despite the high-powered lawyers arrayed against them, however, Wigand and Bergman will prevail.

Change Bergman from a veteran journalist and aging leftist—so radical he has Robbie Conal posters on his office wall—to a young, inexperienced lawyer and Brown & Williamson to an old-line Southern law firm, and you’d have a John Grisham novel. Yet the tobacco industry’s $256 billion settlement reminds us that this story isn’t just a potboiler. Scripted by Mann and Eric Roth from a Marie Brenner article for Vanity Fair, the movie follows the facts of Wigand’s break with Brown & Williamson, which led to Bergman’s break with CBS. (Wigand was the first highly placed tobacco-biz executive to testify that nicotine was understood within the industry to be addictive; Bergman left CBS when lawyers there, intimidated by the prospects of a lawsuit, decreed that an interview with Wigand could not be broadcast.) Some names have been changed, and Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt (played by Christopher Plummer and Philip Baker Hall) have challenged elements of their characterizations, but The Insider is here to show that truth can be as entertaining as fiction.

That’s an interesting proposition for Mann, who’s previously been attracted to scenarios that tend toward the mythic, albeit with modest (Heat, Thief, The Last of the Mohicans) or even large (Manhunter, The Keep) doses of trashiness. Regardless of the material, the director always treats it with flair, photographing elegantly and scoring with the hippest of kitsch. (This time the music is by former Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard, supplemented by the likes of Arvo Part, Jan Garbarek, Massive Attack, and Einsturzende Neubauten.) The Insider uses enough handheld camera shots to resemble the work of the new breed of European documentary-inspired directors, but Mann is a minimalist only when it plays to maximum effect. He’ll use any trick he can to keep the narrative hopping.

Hop it does, propelled by quick cuts and short scenes that capture the hectic pace of Bergman’s bicoastal life. A prince of the frequent-flyer realm, the producer zips from Northern California (where he nominally lives) to Montana (where he’s brokering a deal with the FBI to unveil the Unabomber) to Louisville (to cajole, exhort, and assuage Wigand) to New York (to fight with Wallace, Hewitt, and a CBS lawyer played by Gina Gershon). He wheels, he deals, and—when absolutely necessary—he leaks to the New York Times.

With this kind of jet-lag-defying intensity, Bergman doesn’t need to swagger overmuch, and Pacino actually provides one of his more restrained recent performances. Still, the movie’s heart is Crowe’s memorable turn as the well-meaning but hot-headed Wigand. Although Plummer’s impersonation of Wallace is a hoot, and the film has a dozen sharply rendered minor roles, it’s Crowe who captures the complexity of the tale. When he’s on screen, it seems possible that the movie might become something more than an entertainment. Finally it doesn’t, but among fast-paced white-collar thrillers that chafe corporate attorneys’ pinstriped collars, The Insider is formidable competition for The Firm. CP