Angel's Egg, or Tenshi no Tamago, sits at the forefront of a list of bizarre and eccentric anime that includes Cat Soup and Iblard Jikan, while its niche but most enthused audience promises that its complex allegory is as beautiful and philosophical as the most serious of art-house films. Directed by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh, Patlabor, Sky Crawlers), Angel's Egg is perhaps Oshii's most personal and best work. However, as interesting and surreal as it is, beneath its murky surface Angel's Egg suffers from classical problems in Oshii's stories. Past the compelling mystical, spiritual, and psychological nature of the work, there is missing a profundity and artistry that keeps Angel's Egg from being anything more than a small sample at a Michelin star restaurant; it is rich and possesses depth of flavor, but leaves an empty feeling in the stomach and a hunger for something more.
From the start, Angel's Egg is not the most approachable work. In line with other minimalist anime like Serial Experiments Lain and to a lesser extent Texhnolyze, the film sacrifices dialogue and characterization in favor of atmosphere and visual storytelling. The very beginning of the story features a set of hands that move in near absolute silence. It is only when the childlike fingers transform into a pair of brown and calloused hands and we see and hear the knuckles clench and crack that we realize that the work was indeed intended to start without a sound. Lovers of action packed sequences and fleshed out characters will probably find themselves moaning at long drawn out walks and a pair of individuals who seem to be nothing more than the reflection of certain theological beliefs. Even those who can stand slow paced material might be confounded at scenes that, if not for the flickering of the flames, seem like stills that stretch on forever.
Despite its sluggish pace, Oshii comforts us with a wide array of intriguing and fascinating visuals to pass the time. One of Angel's Egg's strengths is its good looking art and Shinji Kimura(Akira, My Neighbor Totoro), who was responsible for the backgrounds, has drawn some really wonderful images that build a haunting atmosphere almost by themselves. The first descent of a large eye from a blood red sky has a rather sublime quality to it, especially when one realizes that its black surface is lined with a seemingly limitless number of ancient Greco-Roman figurines, stretching around a glimmering aquamarine center that gives the iris its luminescent and imposing appearance.
One could complain that the color palette of the anime seems a bit one dimensional even despite its beguiling visuals, as given by the dominating prevalence of different gradients of blue in the drawings. However, it's the use of colors in this fashion that highlights some of Oshii's control of visual storytelling. The use of blue, for instance, reflects the never ending motif of water, the melancholy, cold, and even lifelessness associated with the color, and the inevitable contrasts that appear in different points in the work demonstrates how one can change the impression and tone of a story with simple alterations. The girl in the story, clothed in pink and white, stands foreign in a dilapidated world, and it is by no means a coincidence that the one she travels with is draped with a blue cloak.
From the strange duck-like creatures that inhabit mysterious translucent shells to the foreboding appearance of a gloomy forest to the stoic and morose appearance of the city's fisherman, Angel's Egg possesses a number of great visual moments that unnerves us with their creepy yet alluring presence. From that perspective, these surreal moments may be reason enough to watch this anime.
In addition, Yoshihiro Kanno, whose only anime compositions have been with Angel's Egg, provides just the right balance of spiritual and ambient music that complements the uncanny images that we are confronted with. The lamenting chorus featured during the opening title echoes the scene's mourning and longing while the powerful and sharp notes of bass instruments complemented by booming timpani strike with the same intensity of fisherman hurling their long harpoons at the shadows of fish. The rarity of the music is another strength, as silence leaves us pondering the calm before the storm, piecing together fragments of the puzzle while the entrance of music causes us to briefly forget our speculation and draws us in and surrounds us with the intensity of the moments in which it appears. With both art and sound elements, I was surprised to find that I was rarely bored when trying to uncover what Oshii meant when he gave birth to the anime.
Oshii seems to have made this anime as a meditation on faith, one that eventually leads his audience to understand a supposed rejection of the deity he had worshiped for years. Oshii was trained in the priesthood from a young age and would presumably have pursued the life of a Christian priest had events in his life lined up in a different way. It would be foolish, therefore, to ignore the popular and purposeful religious symbols and allegories that exist throughout the film. Oshii's main influences draw from Noah's ark, but The New Testament is also featured prominently in different areas.
Oshii builds a world that is, ultimately, divorced from known biblical history, which is thematically consistent with his intention of slowly renouncing some of his theological foundations to embrace a new calling. The decisions made by the man are perplexing and leaves the audience wondering whether or not Oshii intended him to be a mirror of his own self-doubt about the existence of the deity and if this man fell on the side of moral good or not. There are numerous other questions as to the nature of the tree that the man describes, the man's perplexing motivations, the girl's final transformation. Most importantly, what great beast from within that egg is just waiting, waiting ever so patiently, to be born?
These questions are interesting and many answers can be found by evidence in the story, some answers stronger than others. Surprisingly, while some may be absolutely flabbergasted by some of Oshii's more esoteric and bewildering works (Mezame no Hakobune), Oshii definitely has certain thematic messages and a story that he means to drive home here. The plethora of interpretations that one can draw from various significant imagery, such as the tree, the fossilized angel, and the egg itself are plenty, but there is still a certain consistency and wholeness to the work that leaves us with a story that is, at the final moments, a complete experience. There is indeed a point to Oshii's work, one where a society rejects God, and God, perhaps acting according to Oshii's hopes and idealism, departs without a single word.
In despite of this praise, what is wrong with Angel's Egg? The anime has good visuals, complementary music, and even if its characters are mere belief systems personified, Oshii has provided us interesting themes that presents itself through a complex and subtle story.
Angel's Egg spends a significant amount of time building up to a critical climax, but before Oshii can deliver the final blow, he adds in the longest monologue in the film, where the man narrates the story of Noah's ark, with a twist to the ending, to the audience. This is a point of clarity that is not only unneeded, but ruins the subtlety that the work was building on. Whether it was from the times the ark was shown on screen or the overwhelming importance of water, one could have come to the reasonable conclusion that the story of Noah's ark was an important element. While it is certainly true that the man's story departs from the biblical event, telling the entire story diminishes the effort that Oshii made throughout the film to reveal bits and pieces of the world around him. At best, this was just a needless monologue that explained what the audience knew, and at worst it ruined the finer points of the story, reducing them to mere unnecessary components because all you needed to know about the world in Angel's Egg was to listen to that single monologue.
I will admit that such criticism is perhaps harsh and even elitist to those who may have not easily picked up on the religious allegory, but I think such criticism reveals something even more fundamentally wrong with Angel's Egg that prevents me from bestowing it higher marks. Make no mistake, Angel's Egg is a fine work for what it is, but ultimately the themes and the artistic execution of those themes are at a level rather average compared to works that have dealt with the same issues, which is why explaining such a simple biblical story when the rest of the work had already been suggesting its relevance hurts the work as a whole. It reduces the work to its simplest conclusions.
Oshii is tackling a work where a man and society is rejecting the deity, but outside of the fact that we understand that the man is intent on doing so, there is very little reason why. Are we to assume that this desolate world is the only reason, that he rejects God because of the destruction wrought upon this desolate blue metropolis? I don't think we, as an audience, can easily extrapolate and give Oshii that benefit of the doubt. Does the man lack faith? Perhaps, as his allegory so conveniently mentions, but not only does the scene provide nothing but the ordinary laments and complaints that underline the most common and prolific of atheistic complaints (the prolonged absence of God, the existence of worldly suffering, all of which can be poignant points were they to be expanded in a beautiful way), it is, once again, a scene that is bereft of any subtlety and complexity. There is little poetic language, little visual storytelling, and little insight. It is merely a word for word retelling of a biblical story with a minute presence of creative liberties. Again, we return to the monologue that I have criticized above, and again, its blatant exposition leaves me with the need for more substance.
The girl's representation is also incredibly simplistic. Her potbellied appearance with the egg underneath her dress attests to a pregnancy, which gives us the idea of a birth of a new life. There's an astonishing innocence to her, giving us the idea that this is a virgin birth, and harks us back to imagery of the Virgin Mary. But she is nothing more than a vehicle of blind faith. Perhaps it is Oshii's intention of exposing the ignorance of her position, by demonstrating her selfishness by holding onto the egg for her own devices, but this is once again, such a simplified perspective that despite its rich simplicity, the anime's unsubtle treatment of issues leaves one who has engaged in works of similar theological questions wishing for something much more substantive. The death of childish innocence is by no means a grand and unexplored message, and when the anime does nearly nothing with it, it once again leaves one questioning what substance does the anime really have to offer?
Perhaps it is in that simplification that Oshii believes he has developed something beautiful, and certainly those who see the beauty of Angel's Egg will speak to the pleasantness of such a simple story that sits above a sea of allegories, but an issue as complex as one's detachment from a life of religion is rarely a simple affair, and while I cherish a simple story as much as others, Angel's Egg is constantly evoking something that is more than simple and half-boiled ideas but we are left with nothing but a rather simple and soft-boiled egg. Its allegories and mysteries are difficult to piece together, but that is because of Oshii's obtuseness and not because the concepts in which he is trying to expound are intrinsically complex.
This is not to say that Oshii's themes are bad or unworthy of merit. There's certainly something to glean from the work, but a simple message that sits behind purposeful obfuscation are not the winning formulas of a masterpiece, and I can give Angel's Egg nothing more than the appropriate score to reflect that.
To leave this on a note that isn't too critical, I will say that despite my last few hundred words of criticism, Angel's Egg is still one of the better anime out there. It's the one work from Mamoru Oshii that I've actually enjoyed, and despite its simple conclusions, the work itself is still interesting enough that it's fun to figure out exactly what Oshii is saying. If you're into challenging narratives, minimalist anime and want to see one of Mamoru Oshii's underwatched works, definitely give Angel's Egg a try.