Tenshi no Tamago
FEATURING: Voices of Mako Hyôdô, Jinpachi Nezu, Kei’ichi Noda
PLOT: In a desolate city, an angelic young girl cherishes an egg.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This haunting animation more or less entirely forgoes dialogue and narrative for a large helping of theistic symbolism and rich visuals.
COMMENTS: It’s often said that we anime fans fetishize the “otherness” of anime—or, put less pretentiously, it’s often said we like stuff simply because it’s Japanese.
To be honest, there’s some accuracy to that. But can you blame us? As one of the only non-Western entertainment mediums to gain measurable popularity here, anime represents, for many of us, the one substantial deviation from our entertainment norms. Hell, for many people, it’s more or less the only reminder that a norm even exists.
Of course, it’d be obscenely simplistic to say that’s what makes a work like Angel’s Egg so deeply engaging—but it’s definitely a factor.
Released in 1985, this 71-minute OVA (non-theatrical video feature) is the brainchild of director Mamuro Oshii (best known, at least around here, for his sci-fi philosophy-fest Ghost in the Shell) in collaboration with artist Yoshitaka Amano. One of the earlier efforts—and his second OVA—on Oshii’s extensive resume, Egg showcases that familiar blend of surrealism, introspection, and distinctly grit-flavored sci-fi that defines not only Oshii’s own work, but also a great deal of anime’s other “weird” offerings (End of Evangelion and “Serial Experiments Lain” come to mind).
Like so many of the movies featured here, Angel’s Egg largely supplants narrative with hefty symbolism and visual indulgence. Set in a grey and empty city of desolate Victorian/Gothic architecture—every single frame of it rendered with almost dizzying artistic excellence—the film follows a young girl who ekes out a lonely existence scavenging among the ruins and, for reasons known only to her, collecting hundreds of glass bottles of water. The girl tends to a large egg, carrying with her everywhere, believing that it holds a beautiful bird within it.
One day, a young man wielding a cross-shaped staff intrudes on the girl’s lifeless world, following her to her lonely abode. Other stuff happens, but really, to try and describe any aspect of this film with words is to sell it short.
Angel’s Egg is—again, like so many of the List’s films—a work of cinema defined by more than what happens on screen. It is defined by its atmosphere; a heavy, heavy atmosphere. The Gothic elements of this animation extend well beyond the architecture. Every frame of this film oozes ghostliness and desolation. The girl and the young man exist in a world of crumbling greyness and deafening silence, and every moment of the film’s striking visuals, ominous choral soundtrack, and heavy, lingering shots ensures that the viewer shares in every bit of the characters’ haunting isolation. Some may call it frightening, but again, I feel that sells it short; a more accurate description, insofar as one can be given at all, is “deeply, profoundly affecting”.
Needless to say, Angel’s Egg, in the spirit of anime, does a great deal of things that set it heavily apart from Western cinema—the most obvious of which, perhaps, is the often bald-faced use of Christian symbolism.
All things considered, explicit Christian symbolism, even in its ironic or subversive form, has been worn into the ground in the Western world, and it’s difficult to think of many instances of it in our cinema outside of explicitly religious productions. But Angel’s Egg and many of its peers—Evangelion being, once again, a prominent example—make it clear how, in the Eastern world, Christian iconography holds at least some of the mystique that the imagery of non-Abrahamic religion holds for us Westerners.
Egg’s use of Christian imagery is neither conventional, nor, by any stretch of the imagination, is it particularly reverent. What it is, however, is highly unique, a noteworthy achievement for such a well-worn set of symbols. The cross wielded by the young man is no geometrically formed crucifix; it’s a rugged, uneven construction, an unwieldy thing somewhere between a rifle and a staff. The film’s representation of God (according, at least, to the most common interpretation) takes the form of a vast, floating, spaceship-like sphere, angelic statues decorating its surface and a great eye in its center. And in one of film’s few segments of substantial dialogue, the young man recounts to the girl a twisted version of the story of Noah’s Ark—a version which, as it turns out, is not a story of redemption, but of abandonment.
Of course, it does seem likely that Egg’s symbolism, religious and otherwise, holds significance beyond boosting the mystical atmosphere. As many viewers of the film have noted, it wasn’t much prior to the creation of Egg that director Oshii, who had once intended to enter the priesthood, had a falling out with the Christian faith. To say there are echoes of personal resentment in this film would be to greatly undervalue its maturity and subtlety; but still, with this considered, it’s difficult to get past the sense of deeply personal undertones the film gives off.
The empty, lifeless chill that pervades both the characters and the setting likewise seeps through into the symbolism. Egg’s God looms beyond the sight of man, aloof, mechanical, silent, indifferent. Egg’s version of the Ark story ends with the dove failing to return, leaving the last living creatures on Earth to float aimlessly upon the floodwaters, abandoned by God. And when the rain falls on the otherwise lifeless city, hordes of ghostly fishermen take to the streets, vainly attempting to harpoon the great, shadowy, fishlike forms that drift by—a sequence which, considered in the light of the Bible’s “fishers of men,” comes across as an indirect, but less than flattering commentary upon religious conversion.
Naturally, precisely what significance one takes away from this heavy saturation of symbolism will come down to the individual (and, needless to say, personal relationships with theological concepts are as diverse as the individuals that have them). Like so many of 366’s other films, precisely what it ends up being is largely irrelevant. Egg, for all its symbolism, is not an experience built for academic interpretation, but on emotions. Viewers will be able to debate endlessly back and forth on the precise meaning behind the film’s symbolism and its ties to Oshii’s own experiences; yet almost all of them will be left with the same vague, yet unmistakable sense of isolation, of loss, and, to some small degree, quiet dread. With its intense artistry, Egg evokes these reactions in its viewers from start to finish, and leaves them lingering long after its final, striking shot has faded.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Oshii is no stranger to engimatic anime animations but this unique entry goes way beyond into the surreal and bizarre. It is also as punishingly slow as a slow Tarkovsky…”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre