Mamoru Oshii and Yoshitaka Amano‘s Angel’s Egg remains an enigmatic entry in both creators’ careers. Years out from his iconic directorial turn with Ghost in the Shell, Oshii wrote the film’s story with Amano before the artist touched Final Fantasy. Just a hair’s breadth longer than an hour, the film is a breathtaking concoction of spiritual symbols and visual storytelling set against an art nouveau backdrop. It is equal parts profoundly sad and deeply calming, like walking through an abandoned aquarium.
Adding to its mystique is the film’s scarcity among international audiences. It’s never seen an official release in the United States outside the amalgamation that is Carl Colpaert’s In the Aftermath. The film’s creator pedigree, paired with its rarity, led to almost a cult-like status. This is a film you need to see, if only you can find it. On September 10, The Japan Society helped lift the curtain by hosting an official film screening with Amano present. Alexander Fee, Japan Society Film programmer, told Anime News Network it was “likely the first official stateside screening in over a decade.” This was also my first viewing of the film, which I can only describe as tremendous.
Angel’s Egg is minimalist in dialogue and maximalist in ambition. Oshii himself thought it was perhaps too much so, declaring it too confusing for most audiences. This is an apt description, but Angel’s Egg shouldn’t be approached as a litmus test for bragging rights about “getting it” or “not getting it.” The creators laid enough groundwork to give the work the shape of a plot and the illusion of a setting, but what it means will be wholly up to the viewer. That exercise in and of itself will alienate some, but those willing to bask in the world and contemplate its extended camera holds will find something deeply satisfying about Angel’s Egg‘s allusions and dark beauty.
The story follows a deliberately unnamed pair, both having forgotten who they were eons ago. The girl, prepubescent and with untamed silver hair, carries with her an egg. The film immediately makes suggestions toward birth, life, and creation as she nests down on it and holds it underneath her skirts, like a laying bird. Anytime she looks to set the egg down, she crouches over it, birthing it below her. Much of the film’s runtime follows her as she exits her makeshift nest in the ruins to explore the abandoned remains of an art nouveau city. She forages deserted cupboards until she comes upon a jar of jam. Amidst this, we see her fascination with water and jugs. She collects water from the city’s many fountains and the marshes around her home. When she drinks, she enters a fugue-like state.
The man appears to be a deliberate counterbalance to the girl. He enters the city bearing two wrapped palms and a cross-shaped weapon on the back of a bio-mechanical machine. The girl is initially wary of him, and through their limited discussions, it becomes apparent that he does not share her vision of hope. This culminates in a major betrayal that pushes the film towards its climax and the closest it comes to a forthright reveal about its ecclesiastical origins. The religious motifs of a Jesus-like figure who has lost his faith and an alternate world where the Flood never abated could be explored in-depth or accouterments to frame a story about the cycle of death and life, be it the traditional sense or an abstraction on puberty, or war, or a multitude of other legitimate and varied interpretations.
Dialogue may be scarce, but Angel’s Egg is far from a quiet film. Its score by Yoshihiro Kanno is mesmerizing and lends emotional character to the otherwise starkly alien scenes. Kanno’s score invigorates the darkened battles against shadowy fish gliding across buildings and adds sentimentality to a walk through a dilapidated church. It feels criminal I hadn’t heard of his work prior to this film, but it appears Kanno’s work in film score was short; he was only five years out of University when Angel’s Egg was released and would go on to compose ballets and classical compositions featuring a blend of Western, Japanese and computer music. For Angel’s Egg, he’s rendered discordant melodies and tense strings that leave the audience unsettled. A haunting choir stalks several tracks, adding an unearthly quality to the already strange visuals.
Angel’s Egg falls into a very small window of peers, bearing the closest similarity to Eiichi Yamamoto‘s Belladonna of Sadness and René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet. There is little else like in the animation medium and fans of thoughtful, experimental works can only hope that more legitimate exposure may lead to broader availability.