(Studio DEEN, 1985)
On October 14, Japan Society offered cinephiles one of the rarest opportunities in New York this year: a one-time-only showing of the 1985 animated film Angel’s Egg. The film has never received any kind of distribution in the US, and screenings are nearly unheard of. Multiple generations of American anime fans have only been able to appreciate Mamoru Oshii’s beguiling art film in bootleg form—whether via imported home media or online links. But despite originally being made to go direct-to-video, this is absolutely worth catching on a big screen, in an environment where a viewer can be fully immersed in the movie’s gorgeous visuals and uncanny tone.
The label “direct-to-video” doesn’t carry the same whiff of low-quality filmmaking in the anime industry that it does in the US. Just the opposite, in fact: while television anime was historically quite cheap, original video animations (OVAs) have higher budgets and longer production timelines, facilitating work which may not be as flashy as what’s seen in theatrical features, but is markedly better than the norm. Angel’s Egg was one of the earliest OVAs, made a decade before Oshii became known worldwide for directing the influential cyberpunk anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995). Many of his hallmarks as a director and fixations as a writer were present even at this earlier stage of his career. But while Angel’s Egg eventually became a cult favorite, it derailed Oshii’s career for a time. The movie flopped in Japan, and Oshii was unable to work in animation for years afterward before rebounding with the popular proletarian mecha series Patlabor (1988–89). What eventually endeared the film to enthusiasts is what initially repelled potential VHS buyers: a minimalist yet highly ambiguous, symbolism-laden story.
There are only two characters: a girl and a boy, both unnamed and wandering a post-apocalyptic world. The boy carries a cross-shaped weapon, while the girl nurses a large egg which she believes will eventually hatch. The boy is doubtful that this will ever happen, and encourages the girl to instead break the egg to learn what’s inside—an idea that horrifies her. The pair scavenge for food and water, travel long distances together, and observe the robotic inhabitants of their city futilely trying to spear the giant shadows of fish that waft over the streets. In this seventy-one-minute film, there are only around four minutes worth of dialogue (the first line of which is not spoken until more than twenty minutes in), most of it contained within the boy’s soliloquy about the supposed history of their world. It is, one realizes quickly, the story of Noah’s Ark—but a different, darker version than the one we know.
Angel’s Egg has accrued a reputation for “craziness” that it doesn’t deserve. The story is certainly quite open to interpretation, but the movie is hardly inscrutable. Setting aside the question of what the symbolism means, it easily works as a grim two-hander about finding meaning in a seemingly hopeless shell of a world, like Samuel Beckett but with much more visual adornment. And such adornment! Oshii collaborated on the script with celebrated artist Yoshitaka Amano, well-known for his intricate style and hyper-delicate character designs. The boy looks like the last soldier of history, with many more years than he’s truly lived weighing on his eyes. The girl is a post-apocalyptic vision of the Madonna, bearing an egg instead of a holy child, with her pale skin making her look as fragile as porcelain and her long, doll-like hair used to vividly expressive effect. They stick out in a world of dank blues and greens, ashen grays, and pitch black, one that’s either dying or already dead, full of monumental skeletons left by deceased leviathans.
One of the most interesting bits of outside context for Angel’s Egg is that Oshii was raised a Christian, and even planned to enter the seminary before he lost his faith. Viewing the film through that lens seems to clarify much of its probing for meaning in a seemingly broken world. Its heavy religious symbolism becomes not just portentous but pointed, the boy and girl representing different sides of a debate over how one can proceed from a place of shattered belief. The movie abounds in subversions of Christian icons. The boy carries a cross, but his burden is of rationality rather than faith. In this world, the dove never returned to Noah’s Ark, and it never found land.
Angel’s Egg may seem inaccessible, and not just for its bleakness and oddness, but for actively testing cinematic norms of duration. There is at one point a two-and-a-half-minute hold on a shot of the boy, unmoving, as he considers a momentous decision. It ends with a minutes-long, slow pan out that gradually reshapes one’s understanding of the film’s world. But Oshii and Amano trust their viewers, and the movie rewards those who get on its wavelength with a truly singular experience. It took a while for the film’s audience to discover it, and that journey could be jarringly odd at points. Whole scenes were incorporated into the 1988 live-action post-apocalyptic Australian film In the Aftermath (to the point that Oshii received acknowledgement in the credits). But one should accept no substitute for the real thing. Hopefully the fact that Japan Society was able to secure the film for a screening portends a future official release, or at least more such opportunities in the future.