An entire world exists within Angel’s Egg. Oceans stretch out to eternity, jagged architecture punctures charcoal skies, subterranean caverns coil endlessly into darkness. This world feels primordial and unfathomably ancient, its decay resulting not from destruction but neglect. Quite literally, the film belongs to the ghosts.
Yet there are traces of a new beginning. The opening shot depicts two youthful hands — their owner unseen — caressing the empty space between them, endowing nothingness with invisible form. And then one hand becomes the other’s antithesis: it grows older, more weathered and, with a brittle crunch, closes into a fist.
Angel’s Egg is the third feature by acclaimed filmmaker Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor) and his first not adapted from an established property. Premiering in 1985 to tepid reception, the film allegedly kept Oshii from finding work for years, and to date its thorny distribution rights have prevented any wide release outside of Japan.
It’s a hopeful sign, then, that Angel’s Egg has recently enjoyed a slew of officially sanctioned international screenings, and will be shown at the Japan Society on October 14. This is a rarity, and well worth the attention of anyone even remotely interested in surrealistic animation. The film is masterfully realized, a haunting, elegiac phantasmagoria rich with allusive imagery and singular in its artistry.
It follows two unnamed characters: a young female scavenger living in an empty, dilapidated neo-Gothic city, and an older male vagabond who approaches her in search of answers. The girl carries a large white egg with her everywhere she goes. She intuits that she needs to protect it, but is not sure why. The man, meanwhile, bears a staff that resembles a crucifix.
Oshii has famously remarked that, prior to writing and directing Angel’s Egg, he lost his faith in Christianity. Though the film’s narrative is largely opaque, conveyed primarily through sinuous, dreamlike images and dissonant soundscapes, it makes abundantly clear that its universe has been abandoned by God. Standing in a cave crowded with immense fossils, the man spins a yarn about a figure named Noah, and the ark he built to survive a torrential flood. When Noah sent out a dove, says the man, that dove never returned. The world was left to rot.
For all its quiet, Angel’s Egg lands with the impact of a sustained, primal scream, and evokes with great severity a sudden and all-consuming awareness of existential solitude. It is overbearing in its vastness, and fierce in its abrupt stabs of pathos. Structured only by a fleeting emotional logic, it moves at a feverish, undulant pace.
The film owes its striking visual identity to illustrator Yoshitaka Amano (best known in the United States for his contributions to the video game series Final Fantasy). Amano designed both the setting and characters, and collaborated closely with Oshii throughout the project. His wispy lines and dark, desaturated color palettes lend these characters a sort of ghostlike frailty, as though they could dissipate at any moment; the loose forms he renders appear to move even when static.
Under the command of a more stringent director, this looseness may have been smoothed over. Here, it elegantly underscores the work’s acute personal bent, and speaks to Oshii’s desire to create something emotionally truthful.
Angel’s Egg screens at the Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on October 14.