How do you go on living in a ruined world? In Mamoru Oshii’s surrealist animation Angel’s Egg (天使のたまご, Tenshi no Tamago), a solitary young girl and a nihilistic soldier find themselves on opposite sides of an ideological divide one living by faith alone and the other needing proof yet in his own way seeking signs of salvation. “You have to break an egg if you are to know what is inside” the soldier tells the girl, yet the girl knows that to break the egg open is to forever destroy what it represents however fragile or illusionary that may be.
In a distant time, a vast ship lands in a desert on an apparently ravaged world. Meanwhile, a little girl cradles a large egg, often placing it under her dress appearing as if she were pregnant. While roaming the land, perhaps in search of something, she encounters a young man in a military uniform who carries a weapon in the shape of a cross. The pair begin travelling together, but it soon becomes clear that they are ideologically opposed. The soldier cannot understand why the girl continues to protect the egg without knowing what, if anything, it contains while she cannot understand his need to know or why the simple act of faith in its potential is not enough for him.
The egg seems to represent something like hope for the rebirth of a world humanity may have already have ruined. Both the soldier and the girl talk of a giant egg nestled in a tree that contains a kind of saviour bird who will herald the world’s recovery. The soldier quotes at length from The Bible and in particular the story of the flood, implying that they are in a sense still waiting for the return of the dove but while the girl feels a need to protect the egg, convinced that it may one day hatch, the soldier barely believes anymore in the bird’s existence. When he strikes, it is as much to crush hope as it is to verify it because this hope is painful to him and his life is easier without it. The soldier is a representative of a wandering people, feeling himself abandoned and no longer knowing who he is or where he has come from, yet clinging to a vague memory of potential salvation in the image of a bird in a tree he cannot be certain was not part of a dream.
The pair find first the image of a tree, but to our eyes is looks almost like a circuit board hinting a technological advance that may have been lost. The fact that it’s a fossilised skeleton of a bird that they later come across may perhaps suggest that hope is now extinct and the egg merely an empty shell that represents only false promise and delusion. But even if that were the case, it’s a delusion that allows the girl to go on living, incubating a better future in the hope of the rebirth the bird would bring with it in the restoration of the natural world.
“Keep precious things inside you or you will lose them” the soldier claims, in a way reminding the girl that it is not the material object of the egg which she needs to guard but what it represents. The soldier’s nihilistic despair is in a sense echoed in authoritarianism which he serves and which the girl’s faith undermines. The ship’s exterior is peopled with statues which later seem to represent those in prayer, the girl later among them fossilised like the bird as symbol of a failed salvation. But then, connecting with another self, the girl births new hope for the future, fresh eggs awaiting other hands and bodies to keep them warm in the belief that they may one day hatch.
Working closely with artist Yoshitaka Amano, the world that Oshii conjures is one of complete despair in which there is only pain and loneliness. Perhaps the girl is no different than the fishermen chasing shadowy ghosts of whales as they float through the air in what appear to be the streets of a 19th century European city. A surrealist tone poem, Angel’s Egg is defiantly obscure in its ontological questioning yet in the end may suggest that hope’s survival is in its own way a kind of salvation.
Angel’s Egg screens at Japan Society New York on Oct. 14 as part of the Monthly Anime series.
Trailer (English subtitles)