Every worthy piece of art demands to be solved, its every aspect analyzed, until all is exhausted and its every secret is unearthed from the veil of its appearances. There is a great sense of joy when that is accomplished, and I take pride in thinking that I am mostly successful in such expeditions, to feel that I have a firm grasp on a piece of art. Yet, there is a film that haunts me to this day. It resists my every attempt at full understanding, but it would not stop teasing me with its surreal beauty, inviting me back into its dark sea of mysteries once again.
Directed by Mamori Oshii, whom you might also know as the director of 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell,” “Angel’s Egg” is a 1985 animated film that cannot be adequately summarized. It appears to tell the tale of a young girl (played by Mako Hyodo) caring for a mysterious egg in a lonely, post-apocalyptic landscape, waiting for it to hatch. She meets a strange man (played by Jinpachi Nezu) in a military-style uniform, carrying a crucifix-like device, who wants to know what’s inside the egg. But, the film is not as interested in telling a story—the girl and the man remain unnamed, and there is almost no dialogue save for a few scenes—as much as communicating through its cryptic and surreal visual language. You get a taste of it right away in its opening scenes, which I call “The Hands,” “The Bird” and “The Man.”
The Hands: In total darkness, a pair of pale hands rubs against the pitch-dark nothingness. The left hand then retracts out of sight, while the right hand turns its palm facing up. After exercising its joints for a short moment, it performs a full rotation and quickly transforms into a larger, darker hand. It clutches itself tightly. There is a sound of something being crushed, though the hand isn’t holding anything. Then, everything fades to black.
The Bird: Under dark and gloomy clouds, a transparent egg rests above the ground, supported by white branches coming out of a white surface. Within the egg, a bird-like creature lies dormant. Its eyelid twitches. But before it wakes up, everything fades to white.
The Man: The man carries the crucifix-shaped device on his back, staring into the crimson sky. Behind him is a heap of strange, enormous machinery and under him are black and white tiles that are not unlike those of a chessboard. The wind howls. An enormous mechanical, spherical eyeball, with countless praying statues occupying its exterior, descends upon him from the heavens. At the top of the construct are steam whistles shrieking away to signal their master’s arrival. The man, overshadowed by the thing, gazes back coldly, as if he is expecting it. Meanwhile, a disembodied voice from the girl asks: “Who are you?”
I hope that I’ve recreated the scenes adequately so you get a sense of just how incredibly pregnant with ideas and intention they are. The film is full of these images and yet nothing is really explained. Just one mystery after another. What’s in the egg? Who are the two characters supposed to be? What is the nature of the eye-like construct? The most common interpretation argues that since Oshii suffered a crisis of faith in Christianity prior to making the film, it must be a religious allegory. No doubt this is true to some extent, as there are explicit references to the story of Noah’s Ark in one of the few scenes with dialogue, as well as other allusions and hints. But, it’s not clear what exactly the allegory is about. Is it a scorn of old beliefs, or is it an affirmation of rekindled faith? In a paper I’ve written, the best conclusion I came up with was that it was ambivalent. In other words, I couldn’t solve it, not to my satisfaction. The visuals, the plot and even the soundtrack all elude my search. They seem to convey opposite attitudes, a mixed feeling of dread and somehow majesty. Perhaps it was trying to utter something ineffable, some deeply private, complex, mystical feeling. Oshii himself stated that not even he knows what the film is about. But I can’t help but feel that all the pieces are already there, waiting to be arranged in the correct places, when I see how certain motifs, such as water and shadows, appear time and time again. They must be emphasizing something, and it is just out of my reach.
But just when I thought I’d forgotten all about “Angel’s Egg” and moved on to less otherworldly things, its beauty would suddenly re-emerge in the back of my mind, demanding me to take a look at it again. The characters were designed by Yoshitaka Amano, the legendary artist who illustrates the cover art for every “Final Fantasy” game. His characters always have this sickly yet divine feel to them, especially so for the girl. Their eyes have an intense gaze, but also give off a sense of world-weariness. The dark, hand-drawn backgrounds form a world that feels utterly lifeless but gorgeous to look at all the same. They contrast so dramatically with the two characters, who both have pale white hair (the girl’s hair was animated in painstaking detail so you can see the movement of individual strands of hair). The soundtrack embodies the film’s ambiguity perfectly, enhancing the oppressive, dreadful atmosphere of a world of unknowns. And of course, the surreal images are the most sublime of them all, as you can see from this shot in “The Man” that accompanies this article.
Until I decide to write a book about it, this film will haunt me for the rest of my life. But, I have said enough to stave it off for now. I leave you with its retelling of Noah’s Ark, which I find very striking:
“And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth. On that very day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights. But the ark floated on the surface of the waters. All flesh that moved on the earth died. Birds, cattle, wild animals, all creatures that creep on the earth, and all men. Only Noah and those with him in the ark were left. Then he sent a dove to see if the waters had abated from the surface of the ground. Then he waited another seven days, and again sent forth the dove from the ark, but she did not return to him any more. Where did the bird land? Or maybe it was weakened and was swallowed by the waters. No one could know. So the people waited for her return. Waited and grew tired of waiting. They forgot they had released the bird; forgot there was a bird. They even forgot there was a world sunken under water. They forgot where they were from; how long they traveled, and where they were going. It was so long ago that the animals have turned to stone.”