Talking about a movie like Angel’s Egg is bound to be frustrating, because my first impulse is just to recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone with the slightest interest in animation as art. Like Koyaanisqatsi or 2001, it doesn’t lend itself to being described; it’s the sort of thing best seen first and then discussed. Unfortunately, most of the people reading this may never get to see it—at least not until someone licenses the film for an English-speaking audience—so I’m forced to improvise through words and stills.
Angel’s Egg is a collaboration between director Mamoru Oshii and visual designer Yoshitaka Amano. Oshii is best-known for directing Ghost in the Shell, Avalon, and many other films—live-action and animated—all of which deal in some way with memory and the meaning of being human. His movies aren’t for everyone, but contain many rewards for the patient and openminded. Amano has provided design work for many anime and manga (Five Star Stories) and video games (Final Fantasy); his art style is beautiful and unmistakable. He provided the character and set designs for Egg, while Oshii wrote the story and framed the action. The result is a successful hybrid of two very dynamic talents.
Egg takes place in a desolate city, with vaguely European architecture, possibly on a planet that's every bit as desolate. Not a single living thing grows; every rooftop and street is pelted by rain. The only soul to be seen is a ragged young girl with bone-white hair who spends her time scavenging tinned food from shops and collecting large glass bowls. Every day she fills a bowl with water, drinks from it, and places it on the stairwell of the ruined house she lives in. Her most prized possession is an egg—a blue egg about the size of her head, which she carries around underneath her clothes (like someone mimicking a pregnancy).
Into the city comes a young man, a soldier (voiced by Jinpachi Nezu, of Ran). The girl is terrified of him at first. Has he come to kill her? Steal her off? He doesn't say; he simply lingers in the corner or the background of each shot, watching. He wears down her resistance over time by simply being near her, earning her trust by returning her egg to her when she forgets it They journey together through various decrepit parts of the city, and he speaks in a detached voice about the Biblical Great Flood—although when he retells the story he wonders openly if God has forsaken His creation for real. Then there comes a single event that I will not describe here, but which snaps the entire purpose and meaning of his presence into focus.
Most of the animation in the film is very limited—there’s barely any motion at all, actually—but it is all beautiful and carefully thought-out. More care went into any one frame of Angel’s Egg than most movies have in their entire running time. I particularly liked a sequence where hundreds of men come out of the shadows of the city and try in vain to spear a school of giant, shadowy fish that swim slowly through the empty streets, their spears instead slamming into walls, smashing windows and taking out street lights.
Many people were frustrated by the movie’s slow pacing, but to me the slowness has a point. It is not simply to establish a mood or a frame of mind (although it does that, as well). Consider a scene where the young man sits next to the girl while she sleeps. The shot is unbroken except for the subtlest changes in the lighting; the girl does not even stir. She is completely at ease with his presence. Compare this to the earlier scenes where she ran from him in fear. The length of the shot has a point: he has established her trust, and we are seeing that trust in action.
Her trust becomes all the more poignant when we realize he’s done this for the sake of casually inflicting a great cruelty on her. He does not kill her (or rape her, for that matter), but does something far worse. He destroys her innocence and her reason for being, via a gesture that is echoed in the very first shots of the film. Why? Based on his earlier talk about God, my own theory is that it is because he is disillusioned—that God has fallen silent and betrayed all of us, and that he cannot stand to live in a universe where there are others who hold out their own form of hope, like the deluded men who try again and again to spear fish that aren’t there. His chosen purpose now is to crush hope, since it clearly has no place in a cosmos this forbidding and inimical to life.
I am probably only scratching the surface here. There’s much else I haven’t even tried to interpret yet, but I have the feeling my own interpretation is likely to be more limiting than enlightening. A movie like this is a mirror—you get out of it what you bring to it, and if you bring nothing to it you will get back nothing but boredom and frustration. Oshii (and Amano) want the audience to be subsumed into the film, rather than just watch it from the outside. This isn’t entertainment, strictly speaking (although I was never bored). It’s more like the filmed equivalent of a mantra or a prayer, an expression of a great need that words alone would not be able to encapsulate.
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