Mamoru Oshii at his most introspective
Spoilers to follow… (I guess? Is this something you can spoil?)
Angel’s Egg sits relatively early in Mamoru Oshii’s 43 year and counting career in the anime industry. The film comes after directing several episodes of various Tatsunoko Productions projects in the late 1970s including Gatchaman II and helming a sizable portion of the Urusei Yatsura television adaptation, including its first two theatrical outings, Only You and Beautiful Dreamer. The latter of which along with work getting the first-ever OVA project, Dallos, out the door saw many of Oshii’s stylistic fingerprints and predilections emerge that would be refined over the next several decades in works like Ghost in the Shell, Mobile Police Patlabor, as well as many less well-regarded forays into live-action. And though his style is now best known for thoughtful and slow ruminations on existence and purpose, few of his pieces even come close to the intimate meditations seen in this surreal 1985 OVA.
From its earliest shots, a child’s hands gingerly exploring only to rapidly age and succumb to rigor mortis, a bird ominously gestating inside an egg held aloft in the sky by vines, and a man standing on a checkerboard beach watching a spherical cathedral lined with countless statues sink into the water, Angel’s Egg announces itself as unabashed capital-A art. The sparse story follows a young girl as she goes out on her nightly scavenging in a nearby seemingly lifeless city. Delicately carrying a large egg with her at all times, she gathers food from empty stores and fills and places glass water jugs in buildings of implied significance. Her routine is interrupted by the arrival of the man from the beach and his large metal cross. She asks him who he is and he asks her what is inside the egg, and the answers or lack thereof hang over the pair’s quiet journey through the night. Long before man’s bandaged hands are clearly seen, Oshii has made it clear that things are going to get allegorical.
This is to say that watching Angel’s Egg isn’t about being overly literal and trying to arrange its images and few words into something that can be neatly placed into a box. Like recounting a murky dream, putting it into words will always rob it of some of its raw emotive power. The film itself purposefully emphasizes tense silence precisely because words will always fail Angel’s Egg. Sitting comfortably in between the work of David Lynch, particularly Eraserhead and “Part 8” of Twin Peaks: The Return, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, the 70-minute piece explores personal faith through a lens of deep malaise. A suffocating death hovers over everything. The city and outlying buildings are slowly crumbling, their glory days long behind them. The architecture is accented with grotesque marine life that adds a malevolence that would be right at home in Bloodborne‘s Yharnam. Fossilized animals are entombed into very the walls of buildings of spiritual reverence. The only inhabitants aside from the girl are statue-like fishermen who come to life with the sole purpose of frantically hurling their spears at shadows of their long-gone prey. Full of muted colors and haunted by a somber score, Angel’s Egg is profoundly stifling and isolating.
Broadly speaking, it is about (or at least as much as you could say it is about any single thing) an individual, a profession, and an entire space frozen in time. Adrift from even the knowledge of their original purpose, lost in a vast gulf of time, they continue on, single-mindedly performing empty rituals. The only things the fishermen’s spears will connect with are lamp posts and windows of empty homes. The sea surrounding this lonely island revealed in the final shot is a void of darkness. The egg is empty when the man smashes it, and then upon learning this, the girl loses her youth and drowns. Returning to Beautiful Dreamer‘s notion of a dream without end, Oshii was no longer obligated to return the characters and world to their status quo by the roll of the credits and free to pursue more challenging ideas. Giving the dual impression of a piece of art that only could have been made when the sky was the limit for its youthful creatives, Oshii in his mid-30s at the time with less than a decade in the industry, before the hardships of reality had firmly set in. And at the same time, carrying the air of looking back on a long-lived life, heavy with experience. I’m not one to insist on multiple viewings to “get” something, but each and every time I sit through Angel’s Egg, I walk away with a richer experience.
One doesn’t have to squint too hard to see the deep distrust and pessimism toward organized religion, even without considering that the longest sequence of dialogue is from the Christ-like man deliberately misquoting a passage from the Bible about the passengers of Noah’s ark never finding land. Having a life long interest, Christianity underscores much of Oshii’s body of work, most often surrounding crises of identity be it in Patlabor the Movie‘s struggle with the rapid rise of new technology erasing Tokyo’s past or the Major’s search in Ghost in the Shell for who she could be. However, this relationship to faith and personal drive has never felt as close as it does in Angel’s Egg, where the pretense of a science fiction thriller or familiar sitcom characters are nowhere to be seen. Just nameless figures asking questions that hang unanswered long after the credits roll.
It is a beautifully realized crystallization of the eternal struggle to maintain hope. The contents of the egg are abstract, it could be the return of the long lost bird, ready to fulfill its ordained role of guiding mankind back to land, and as long as the shell remains intact, that dream cannot be challenged, only deferred. The comfort it could provide is always farther down the road, never requiring the truly difficult act of facing the reality at hand. The girl’s desperation to cling to the idea of the egg is a warped positivity that keeps her frozen in a naive youth. Every moment of Angel’s Egg silently screams the value of something greater than the moment, something to point the way and move the soul towards it. The man, wearily and taking no pleasure, uses his heavy cross to learn the painful, but necessary truth. In the end, he stands alone on the shore of the island, as a shower of white feathers rains down. The tide begins rising but he stands resolute and unmoved. The cathedral, the closest thing to a heavenly body seen and now joined by a statue of the girl, rises out of the sea, signaling another day has begun. The perpetually exhausted look in his eyes tells us all we need to know about how the search has gone. Reality is far from easy and facing it head-on without drowning in despair or getting lost in empty fantasies is a pretty damn universal battle. It’s just over an hour of doom and gloom, but in its final moments, Angel’s Egg makes the case for carrying on, eyes open. The sliver of hope remains that one day, life can begin again in the forgotten city.
And I haven’t even mentioned the immeasurable contribution that Yoshitaka Amano brought to the table. Also beginning his career at Tatsunoko, Amano was no stranger to anime credits during the 1970s and 80s as a character designer, and he would find international recognition for his gallery work and defining the look of the early Final Fantasy games, among others. His work here, serving as character designer, art director, and story consultant, makes up essentially the second pillar of its appeal. For as much as it is Oshii’s, bearing many of his now recognizable hallmarks, particularly the eerie emptiness of urban spaces and overt Christian symbolism, Amano’s distinctly ethereal characters, with their flowing clothing and scraggly hair, and imposing European inspired setting is indispensable to the one of a kind atmosphere. Nothing short of absolutely gorgeous, the project also remains to this day, outside of a few short films, the best and most direct translation of Amano’s style into motion. At this point, I have forgotten which artist initially caused me to seek it out, but whenever I think of either, Angel’s Egg almost immediately comes to mind.
Brazenly uncommercial and wholly uncompromised in its vision, Angel’s Egg always feels like watching an anomaly. Made during a time when the anime industry saw an explosion of many new voices and projects that seemingly ran on passion and imprudent investments alone, Oshii and Amano’s boldly personal experiment still stands out. The closest companion piece I can think of is Eiichi Yamamoto’s 1973 The Belladonna Sadness, another utterly unique attempt to bring anime into the art house that did not find financial success or create any direct descendants. With no obvious traditional audience in mind, it gives the impression that the labor to bring its images and few words into the world was the cathartic endpoint and it being sold in stores was an afterthought. That it exists outside of a lavish artbook full of “what ifs?” or a gallery presentation never stops feeling like a small miracle.
Angel’s Egg has never been licensed in English, though the 1988 live-action Australian film In the Aftermath uses footage. A Japanese Blu-ray was released in 2013 and remains available. Fan translations of the very short script have floated around the internet for decades, and I personally refer to this one.