Ripples and Shadows in Angel’s Egg

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.

Angel's Egg

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.

Angel's Egg

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.

Angel's Egg

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.

Angel's Egg

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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8 thoughts on “Ripples and Shadows in Angel’s Egg

  1. Thank you for an excellent Formalist close reading of one of my favorite movies!

    I do think there’s an important piece of the puzzle missing here, however, and I’m pretty sure I’m not falling victim to an intentional fallacy when I say that this film is only really comprehensible when placed in the context of Oshii’s loss of his Christian faith. This idea has been extensively discussed in many other places, but the short version is this: the reason about half of the film’s few lines are twisted, darkened references to the Bible, and the reason that it’s so difficult to determine whether the cross-bearing warrior saves the girl from or condemns her to the diluvial darkness, is that Oshii had been seriously considering entering a seminary before he abruptly realized that he had no real Christian “faith”—he was simply intellectually fascinated by Christian concepts. Angel’s Egg is a depiction of Christianity as an intrusive martial force that steamrolls the cultures into which it comes with contact, in hopes of revealing “truth.” The girl, a Buddhist who hopes that by living as best she can in the expectation of a far future salvation from her Mappō-engulfed existence (note her resemblance to Eastern statuary during her final “ascension,” as contrasted with the fishermen’s Western appearance), is destroyed by her encounter with the cross-bearing warrior, who believes that comforting illusions (the Buddhist concept of Upaya, or “Houben” in Japanese, is very relevant here; a pertinent Japanese idiom is “Uso mo Houben,” meaning, “lies can be an excellent expediency”) have no salvific power: in his literalist soldier’s mind, revelation is the only escape from a fallen world.

    But as your commentary upon shadows and negative space in the film suggests, the root quality of Angel’s Egg‘s capsized world—in which the Ark, symbol of mercy and salvation, becomes a vacant and ideologically petrifying trap—is emptiness. Its inhabitants can only choose to live with that desolation, as Oshii suggests the Eastern religions do, or to attempt to destroy it with the promise of “revelation.” The two attitudes are equally meaningless, but the film reserves its harsher condemnations for the Christian destruction: those seeking the spiritual food of the shadow-fish can shatter the framework of their comfortable lives, but cannot make a catch; those seeking to save others can break the shell of their delusions, but cannot proffer any new hope. All religion is insubstantial, but Christianity is terrifying in its fanatical devotion to ruining all faiths but its own.

    Of course this is only one layer of the film’s many meanings, which also encompass Oshii’s beloved evolutionary themes (that tree is awfully similar to the one the tank shoots up in the climax of Ghost in the Shell, isn’t it?), psychological reflections on depression, creativity, and teleology, and a prolonged examination of the aesthetics of decay, among others, but it’s the layer that renders the film most cohesive as a narrative and, in my experience, generally helps even the most confused of viewers to say, “ah-hah! So there was a purpose to it all!”

    PS: Mako Hyōdō’s grievous wail upon discovering the wreckage of her only hope is probably the most chilling moment in all anime, particularly coming as it does immediately after the brilliantly extended cut of the man sitting by the sleeping girl until her light gutters out—her trust in him has been rewarded with utter devastation. Although it’s artistically the highest pinnacle of the anime industry, I still have a hard time watching Angel’s Egg because its bleak power can be so hideously overwhelming…

    • Thank you for bringing up Oshii’s own relationship with Christianity – though obviously the film’s symbology makes it impossible to avoid touching the subject, I wasn’t aware he had such a personal fascination with Christian revelation. And considering how easily both the girl’s existing relationship with the world and the cycle she seems to represent fit into Buddhist practice, that does seem like a strong and intentional contrast. Though obviously both of those priorities are archetypal enough in their representation here that the film can be mapped to a number of contrasts that involve the violent pursuit of revelation versus the suffering of existence.

      • Exactly right—I realized the moment I posted that comment that I was making the whole work seem far more allegorical than I’d really intended. (Then again, allegory is easy to understand, which is perhaps why the religious reading always seems so “correct” to lost viewers.) But for Oshii personally, insofar as his internal thought process is relevant to our reading of his finished work, the immediate crisis that prompted the creation of the film was clearly religious in nature.

        As a side note that’ll be relevant by the end of the paragraph, I’m good friends with a Japanese Lutheran minister. I’ve learned a bit about the Japanese conception of Christianity, and I think it’s helpful to understand that being a Christian in Japan is a far more “all-or-nothing” proposition than it is in Western nations. As members of an extreme minority religion with a foreign history, Japanese Christians often feel that they must define themselves by a faith that characterizes itself in a way utterly alien to mainstream Japanese conceptions of religion. (On the positive side, this leads to a very supportive “early Church” sort of community; on the negative, it also leads to strong reactionary attitudes and a fringe, cult-like atmosphere. I was also lucky enough to get to know a native Japanese Muslim woman—she converted after marrying a foreign man, but took her faith quite seriously—who reported much the same situation in that even smaller community, together with a hideously stronger sense of isolation.) This aspect of being a Japanese Christian goes a long way to explaining how the loss of his faith could send Oshii into the sort of profound ideological turmoil Angel’s Egg expresses.

  2. I really, really like this movie, but I will freely admit that my all-time favorite live-action movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I’m quite used to movies that communicate with the viewer through visuals more than dialogue. Something like this will always be a hard sell to the Kill la Kill audience, of course, but for those of us who appreciate a more diverse range of anime, it’s a really good one.

    A couple of other notable people who worked on this project: Yoshitaka Amano, best known as the character designer for the early Final Fantasy games and the first Vampire Hunter D movie, was the character designer and chief art director for this movie. And the main background artist was Shinji Kimura, who also did backgrounds for My Neighbor Totoro and Akira, and was more recently the art director for Blood Blockade Battlefront.

    • “Something like this will always be a hard sell to the Kill la Kill audience, of course, but for those of us who appreciate a more diverse range of anime, it’s a really good one.”
      Im a bit confused here. I haven’t seen KLK in a while myself, but isn’t the whole selling point its visual storytelling? I’m pretty sure that 75% of KLK fans love it because of how much is conveyed through visuals, along with the thematic keystone of “two sides of a coin”. The rest love it because boobs, which is still visuals.

      • My comment had nothing to do with KLK’s visuals. The comparison I was making was about the type of anime each one is and the type of fan experience that they’re trying to provide the viewer. To wit:

        KLK: has a fast pace, violence, fanservice, and a fairly straightforward “us vs. them” plot. It’s designed to be a piece of entertainment first, and thought-provoking second.

        Angel’s Egg: has a slow pace, dense symbolism, no fanservice, and minimal violence, and is written by someone who’s always refused to explain the story because he wants everyone to interpret it their own way. It’s designed to be thought-provoking first, and a piece of entertainment second.

  3. I have always viewed Angel’s Egg as specifically a symbolic take on the Parable of the Sower.

    The man could easily be said to be Christ figure of sorts, even carrying a cross. The girl lives in a giant ark. The shadows of fish and fishermen that dance across the town could be in reference to any number of biblical stories about them that are found all throughout Christian mythology. The man even tells a story that mirrors that of Noah and the ark, and more pertinently the dove that was sent from it to tell of the world’s salvation and rebirth (only, in this version of the tale, the dove never comes back, making for a decidedly more hopeless Earth).

    So, if we assume that this is all meant to clue is on the general nature and intent of the film, then what does that leave us to say about the girl and the egg? I would posit, then, that the egg represents a sort of spiritual innocence. She protects it, shields it away from a dark and confusing world…but after traveling with the man, and absorbing his words and teachings, it “matures” and is shattered. With that innocence broken, she “transcends”, and produces yet more eggs (or indeed, “many times what was sown”, going by the original parable), that will in time mature as she did. She even comes to be integrated into the giant eye (perhaps the Godhead itself), signifying that she is not the first nor the last to follow this path.

    In short, it’s saying that the gospel word of religion is cyclical: it takes the lost and innocent into its fold, and spreads forth further and further like blooming seeds even as its original beholders die or vanish. And you can take that as either a positive or negative thing: you can say that either the girl was “saved” by this process, or prematurely destroyed by it. Either way, it think it may have been meant to spur discussion about faith, right down to its societal impact.

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