In the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of anime was produced exclusively for the booming home video market. Freed from the more stringent censorship guidelines associated with traditional distribution models (theatrical, television), these relatively low-budget “OVAs” became synonymous with “Mature Content,” a misleading label that in this context alludes to extreme violence and sexually explicit material (see: Demon City Shinjuku, Wicked City, Doomed Megalopolis)—superficial pleasures that are not totally without merit, but are nevertheless rather juvenile. Angel’s Egg, however, is genuinely mature; this hidden gem—which has only recently been rediscovered and critically reevaluated after being largely dismissed upon its initial release—is thematically rich, emotionally resonant, and exquisitely crafted. I don’t know if I even possess the language required to articulate what makes it so utterly compelling… but that will hardly discourage me from trying anyway.
The film begins with a tight closeup on a pair of small, delicate hands. Gradually, the thin wrists rotate, allowing the viewer to observe the creases in the pale flesh, the lines on the palms, the faint sheen on the nails; the joints audibly crack and pop as the fingers flex, curling into clenched fists. This minute attention to detail permeates every subsequent frame. Individual strands of hair billow gracefully in the breeze, mirroring the swaying motion of rustling grass. The reflections of gnarled tree branches ripple on the deceptively placid surface of a subterranean lake. Later, this same body of water slowly envelops our heroine’s calm, tranquil features as she sinks into its dark, icy depths.
Although director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) provides fluid movement and a hypnotic rhythm, Yoshitaka Amano (whose cinematic credits include Belladonna of Sadness, but who is probably better known in the United States for his Final Fantasy concept illustrations) contributes the vital framework, sculpting the visual style and establishing the oppressively bleak, haunting tone. His character designs, of course, are instantly iconic. The protagonist is particularly striking; her skin is so immaculately white that it almost appears to radiate light, starkly contrasting the dull, drab, monochromatic gray shade of the setting—a nightmarish realm of carved stone, shattered glass, and petrified bone wherein the inhabitants resemble the surrounding gargoyles and solid objects are indistinguishable from their own shadows. The backgrounds are equally evocative: barren, desolate wastelands stretch out for miles beneath the blood red sky, while the architecture is a surreal, chaotic amalgamation of Gothic cathedrals, industrial factories, and techno-organic horrors beyond human comprehension.
As for the plot… well, to be perfectly honest, it’s far too minimalistic to be properly summarized. Indeed, attempting to describe the story in literalist terms is inherently futile; the narrative is entirely figurative, revolving around such recurring motifs as feathers, fish, machinery, moisture, and incubation. Naturally, I have my personal theories regarding the intended “meaning” behind these cryptic symbols (they could represent the conflict between religion/spirituality and rationality/skepticism, for example), but I would prefer to avoid delving into concrete interpretation; to dissect the movie from an academic, intellectual perspective would merely diminish the captivating beauty of its ambiguous subtext.
Ultimately, Angel’s Egg is unlike anything that I’ve previously encountered. Sure, it’s possible to identify a few obvious artistic influences (H.R. Giger, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Andrei Tarkovsky), but such shallow Easter egg hunts are fundamentally reductive when applied to films as singularly unique as this. In an industry defined by repetitive formulas and generic archetypes, Oshii and Amano created a defiantly unconventional, experimental, avant-garde masterpiece. I’m glad that I was able to experience it on the big screen, alongside an enthusiastic audience—thank you, Japan Society!