Angel’s Egg has a firm reputation as one of the premier “anime art films,” for whatever that’s worth. In anime fandom, it doesn’t really mean much; fans have a tendency to scorn the unfamiliar, and when you get to the kind of visual storytelling or narratively disruptive scene-setting that are often part and parcel with “arthouse film,” people who are into anime for the girls or robots tend to check out. “Pretentious” is the word – a word that in fandom dialect has come to mean anything outside of the familiar, and when your “familiar” is almost strictly genre fiction for teenagers, the Other can be a fairly broad place.
But it’s true that Angel’s Egg is a very unusual film. It’s clearly a personal project for Mamoru Oshii, who both directed and scripted the work (for all of its thirty-odd lines of dialogue). It’s about a girl who harbors a giant egg, keeping it safe with her as she wanders a neglected city and makes contact with a mysterious man. It’s a mood piece gesturing towards a message piece, but one of those stories where the thematic touchstones are vague enough that it relies on the viewer to bring it individual meaning. This is not a failure of the work – the experience of finding meaning in Angel’s Egg feels like the daily experience of the girl herself, sifting through evocative wreckage and finding lost secrets in decay.
The plot as described in that last paragraph nearly covers the film itself. Its first twenty-five minutes feature one line of dialogue, and aside from that are wholly devoted to articulating the daily experiences of the nameless girl. Those experiences are their own ample reward; Angel’s Egg is an almost unbelievably beautiful production, and its stately procession evokes a rich and specific world. The film depicts a world in decline; the man later muses on how their world might very well be an ark that has forgotten the world has flooded, and every frame of the film makes that feel like an entirely valid theory. The city is likely the film’s most vivid “character” – full of winding alleys and spindling lampposts, it feels like the eternal Lost City as described by Lovecraft, a place forgotten by time but somehow still alive, and instilled with the sensation of being watched.
Windows loom overhead as the girl explores her city, with shots often framed to heighten the sense of lurking danger. The fraying architecture feels like it might one day simply collapse into the twisting vines of the forest, or that if it were to once sink beneath the waves, it would at least look no different from those creeping branches. The fact that the film’s few instances of “modern” machines seem organic as well does little to diminish this impression. War machines are constructed of pulsing metal veins and twisting spires, echoing the organic sharpness of every other design. When the film later reveals that the girl’s home is essentially a great mausoleum of creatures too old and terrible to mention, it feels like just one more interpretation of the fluid transition from brick to bone. The men who still inhabit the city feel like statues themselves, standing sentinel with their long poles beneath gargoyles and fish with sightless eyes.
There is a rich and consistent employment of negative space in Angel’s Egg, with the girl and her billowing hair seemingly the only bright things left in this world. Most objects are evoked in contrast, through shadows broken only by the vague outlines of what might be there. Darkening shading is rarely employed – instead, the world presents a beautiful delineation between white and black. Shadows hang like the ribs of some great animal, or swallow streets whole to create deliberate contrast. When the girl is glimpsed through a window, that window seems like all there is – in this world, what is lit is the outline, the bare fringes of a world largely sunken to cavernous blackness.
There is only one constant here, outside of that sensation of being in a city past time. It is the water – rushing, pouring, bubbling up or raining down. Every object is a symbol in Angel’s Egg, from the girl’s hair, which billows like a river or the roots of a tree, to the gnarled cross carried by the man. And the water is the most persistent symbol of all. Early on, the girl kneels by a river to drink, filling one more glass jar and staring out across the blackness. Like everything else, the water is defined by darkness, but in its shadow we can see the girl’s reflection – or her own fate, a future this ark-world may not be able to avoid. Bubbles rise like the girl herself, a small outline of white in inky darkness, as shots frame the world from below in obscurity and beauty. Water is something to be both treasured and spurned, and to the girl, it seems to echo her identity. She collects water from the city, and seems captivated by its ability to reflect. Water pours from the sky and from the mouths of old statues, waiting gently to swallow this city whole.
The men of the city reflect the state of their world. They stand like statues or soldiers, clad in fishing garb and clutching long spears. Their ugly hooks are drawn in contrast against the blackness, and when they move, it is to capture the fish that haunt their town. They rush through cobbled streets and across rooftops, thrusting at phantoms but spearing only the ruins of their own homes. If this even is their home – perhaps, like the great behemoths that carried the stranger, they are intruders here, soldiers looking for clean, hard answers. The men’s grey-blue tarps and jackets sink into the city, and when the water rises, they seem as one with the gargoyles overhead. They seek fishes or violence or certainty, hunting ghosts as the water pours down.
The waves and rains rise up over the city streets, in the end. Water promises cyclical renewal, and this is a world waiting to be washed away. The stranger does the act he had come to do, and the girl plunges into the water, meeting the reflection she’d longed for as the inescapable bubbles rise to promise a new age. The ultimate meaning is vague, but that seems coyly appropriate; Angel’s Egg opens with a grasping hand, that when closed only promises violence, and it is in keeping with that message that it holds secrets close to the end. Was the great bird a destroyer, and was the girl herself the angel, or its keeper? Is the mirrored ending a sign of renewal, or of a cyclical fate? And what does the watcher of this world think of any of us, of those who keep the secret or those who chase its embers? The men seek answers to these questions, throwing spears at phantoms. The girl weeps for her loss, and joins the mourners above.
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