Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago), directed by Mamoru Oshii. 71 minutes. December 15, 1985.
When Angel’s Egg came to the U.S. in unofficial fan videos in 1986(?), it was felt by all the anime fans to be very beautiful but totally confusing, despite having almost no dialogue “so there shouldn’t be any problem with not understanding Japanese”.
It was best known at the time for its fine-art and character design by Yoshitaka Amano, who was trying to break away from his reputation as a designer of ultra-cute anime art for young children’s TV cartoons (because that was all his employer, Tatsunoko Pro, wanted). Today it is better known as an early work of its director, Mamoru Oshii.
It has only two characters, both unnamed, very slow pacing, and almost no dialogue, leaving viewers to interpret it for themselves. I described it at the time (well, in a 1987 article) as “It’s rather like imagining Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ as an animated painting lasting eighty minutes: beautiful, but short on plot.”
On second thought, I should have compared it to Salvador Dalí’s surrealistic “The Persistence of Memory”; or to use an example better suited to animation, Ernie Pintoff’s & Mel Brooks’ 1963 The Critic: “This is nice. What the hell is it?”
It opens on two hands slowly wiggling about. Cut to a bare, dead tree with a gigantic blue-green egg in its upper branches, against a stormy background. The egg is translucent enough that the embryo of an unborn bird can be seen moving inside it. Cut again to a young man standing in front of giant gears who looks up into a bright red sky in which a huge, round spaceship(?) is slowly descending, full of noble-looking people (or maybe statues of Greek gods) standing as if petrified. The landscape on which they are landing is like something full of mechanical bristles near a vast chessboard, on which we see the man (tiny against the rest) standing, in front of that swirling red sky. The sound track is of a violent windstorm, and of the spaceship landing with lots of steam hissing.
This is the first 3 minutes of the 71-minute feature. The rest makes no more sense.
I’m not sure that I can provide a summary that’s any more meaningful. Other reviews call the young man “the man”, “the boy”, “the soldier”, or “the warrior”; the last two presumably because of his later appearance. The above setting is part of a large ruined baroque old-fashioned European seacoast city. It has not been destroyed, but it looks like it has been abandoned for centuries and is crumbing apart. The city’s only inhabitant is an unkempt girl who lives in the empty houses and who cares for a large egg but not the giant egg in the tree. The girl looks sad and is apparently resigned to living in the city alone. She has spent each day foraging in a forest just outside the city for food and water, carrying the giant egg under her dress. This day, she is awakened by the spaceship’s landing. The Angel’s Egg title and credits begin at 5’48”. She goes out foraging as usual, but on her return she finds the city full of slow-moving tanks and other military vehicles. She does not react until one stops and the young man dismounts to confront her; then, frightened, she runs away. When she returns moments later, the streets are empty.
The girl searches the abandoned houses until she finds a large glass bottle. Emptying it, she runs out to a plaza with a working fountain and fills the bottle with water. A great bell begins tolling and she hastens away, past a house filled with men in fishermen’s clothing. She returns to the forest to eat and (presumably) sleep, taking the egg from her dress.
Cut to the girl sitting on the lowest step of a staircase leading to a pond(?), staring at the water. As she climbs the stars to leave, she encounters the young man. (The young man is noticeably taller than the girl, suggesting that he is a young adult and she is not yet.) The dialogue begins here, 25 minutes into the movie. The man produces the egg which she has apparently forgotten, and returns it to her. This brings her to trust him enough to get her to allow him to follow her as she walks through the deserted streets. They suddenly come upon the fishermen rushing through the city with fishing nets and spears. The girl says that they are after the giant fish, even though there aren’t any. The fishermen chase after the shadows of large coelacanth-like fish swimming through the air. The men hurl their spears and nets through the shadows, shattering windows and streetlamps, but catching no fish.
Frankly, I am not inspired to describe any more since it’s all surrealistically meaningless. The girl and the young man have a conversation about eggs that may contain giant birds or angels. There is a large theater or cathedral with stained-glass windows of fish, and a stone pillar engraved with an image of the dead tree that held the giant egg. One of the two dies and is transformed into … well, watch Angel’s Egg for yourselves and interpret it as you will.
Angel’s Egg is cryptically frustrating, but undeniably beautiful. Despite being apparently made primarily for a video release, it did have a theatrical arthouse release in Japan. Its extreme slowness and mysticism resulted in bad reviews. Mamoru Oshii is reported to have said that making it kept him from getting professional work in the animation industry for years. Roger Corman, who turned Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds into the American Warriors of the Wind, integrated parts of Angel’s Egg into the 1988 direct-to-video live-action fantasy/s-f film In the Aftermath, about an angel looking for a worthy human after a nuclear war has destroyed Earth.
Angel’s Egg never got an official U.S. release, but bootleg copies from the Japanese 1985 video and a later “prestige” laser disk release, both by Tokuma, resulted in a cult following among American anime fans. Oshii, of course, has gone on to Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor, the Kerberos saga (written by Oshii which he directed as mostly live-action movies, although one, Jin-Roh, was directed as an anime feature by someone else), and other more successful works.
Next week: Sheep, goats, and wolves: A twofer.