For most audiences, the name of Mamoru Oshii is synonymous with one franchise, and primarily, with one film, his seminal 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell. Aside from playing a huge part in opening Japanese animation up to international audiences, and influencing some of the most high profile and successful sci-fi films ever made, Ghost in the Shell is a surreal, esoteric and thoughtful meditation on human evolution via technology. The centrality of this theme, arguably the most fundamental theme of all of science fiction, makes Ghost in the Shell arguably, not only one of the best anime ever made, but one of the most important works of science fiction ever created. More than debating and discussing, it’s a theme the film invokes, slowly and mysteriously, never fully confronting and exploring through its imagery and soundtrack (the film’s score by Kenji Kawai is as much of a masterpiece as the film itself) as much as through its dialogue. The sublime nature of humanity’s place in the cosmos and the grand tapestry of life in which we are each just a single fibre in one of many never-ending threads is mystically presented as the backdrop to the film’s principal action, which is on paper a fairly standard, if extremely convoluted thriller plot (the only one the minds behind the film’s Western live-action remake seemed to perceive).
However, although Ghost in the Shell and its many sequels and spin-offs have formed the dominant part of Oshii’s legacy, there is another, earlier example of his filmmaking that is, in spite of its rarity, slowly building a reputation as equal to or even greater than the film which made Oshii’s name. That film is Angel’s Egg, the 1985 collaboration between Oshii and visual artist Yoshitaka Amano. Whether Angel’s Egg surpasses its later sister film is not the subject of this article. I do prefer it myself, though both films are extraordinary achievements that rank among the most exhilarating and provocative works of cinema ever. My main interest is the way the two films parallel one another, as I have always rather viewed Ghost in the Shell as a spiritual sequel to Angel’s Egg.
Reportedly, Mamoru Oshii was raised as a Christian, and so central to his identity was religion that at one point he seemed destined for the priesthood. However, for whatever reason, shortly before Angel’s Egg went into production, he lost his faith. Even without this context, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this shift informed his mindset at the time to such an extent as to make the comforting illusions of faith and the process of their shattering the central theme of the film.
Angel’s Egg follows a young, nameless girl, living in what seems to be a steampunk post-apocalyptic nowhere. Gothic edifices lie deserted, wreathed in shadow, the world seemingly devoid of life, with only shadows remaining, of fishermen hunting the shadows of fish through the streets of a deserted city. Even the plants, though still alive, seem to have stopped growing. Her one consolation in her loneliness is the large, pure white egg she carries, tucked beneath her striped robe like a pregnant belly. She guards the egg with her life, earnest in her belief that it will one day hatch, and in preparation for this day, she gathers water, harvested from springs, aqueducts, and fountains, collected in large spherical bottles and amassed at the feet of a giant fossilized bird, presumably the same species that laid her egg. At one point she comes to a pool in the forest and daydreaming, she stares into it, experiencing a vision of herself drowned in her reflection.
This is her existence until the fateful day a military convoy rolls through town and drops off a man. His manner is severe and practical, he has bandaged hands, carries a crucifix-like weapon on his back, possibly a cannon or some kind of mace, and he is condescending to her about the egg, believing it to be empty and that the kindest thing to do would be to break it open and show her the truth. Although she tells him—in one of the film’s scant moments of dialogue—to keep his distance, he begins to follow her and slowly she begins to trust him, eventually she allows him to see where she lives, on condition that he not touch her egg.
Inside, she shows him her home, inside Noah’s ark, now nothing more than a cavernous graveyard full of the fossilized bones of the different species it was supposed to safeguard. The man finds, embossed upon the wall, a tree of life, and, describes seeing another just like it, curled around a bird’s egg. He’s not alone. In the future, we would see another just like it, a tree of life, also carved into a stone wall, in Ghost in the Shell:
In one of the film’s rare dialogue-driven scenes, the man then proceeds to tell the girl the story of Noah’s Ark. However, in this version, the dove Noah sends out to find land never returns, and he and all the living beings that remain are left indefinitely, awaiting some word that the way is clear and they can return, but no word comes, until eventually, they forget what they are waiting for and the Ark becomes a tomb. The Girl then shows him the fossilized remains of just such a giant bird as he described, and he becomes convinced, he must shatter the egg and release humanity from its suspense.
And so, he waits for the girl to fall asleep, takes the egg from her, and breaks it open.
When she awakes, to find the man gone and her egg shattered on the floor, the girl is of course devastated, letting out a blood-curdling shriek. She runs from her home in a frenzy and perhaps knowingly, perhaps in her blind despair, she plunges into a deep chasm filled with water. As she reaches the water, her descent slows, eventually coming face to face with her own reflection, wreathed in her swirling hair, and as she lightly kisses herself, we seem to switch perspectives, to this ‘other’ girl, whose design is slightly different: her limbs and body are longer, more like a grown woman’s. As she lets out a last underwater scream, the air in her lungs rises to the surface, and in it, up floats a multitude of white eggs, just like the one she had been nursing.
In the film’s prologue, the nameless warrior watches as an enormous metallic eye descend to the ocean. On its surface are countless idols of worshipers, their glorioled heads bowed in beatific obeisance. In its epilogue, the warrior again watches the eye rise in sanctimony, the girl now visible among the many worshipers. As the camera pans out into a bird’s eye view, we see the whole film has been taking place on an island, and island shaped not unlike the hull of a vast capsized ark.
Interpreting Angel’s Egg is a task that even Oshii himself—perhaps in authorial desire to preserve its intended ambiguity—has claimed eludes him. However, it’s not at all hard to see how Oshii’s conflict with his faith informed the film’s production and imagery. For believers, struggle with the institutions of organised religion is a daily effort, but to lose one’s belief in god and spirituality entirely is a much different process. To become disillusioned with one’s own most foundational core belief, that we are in the arms of a higher power and that there is a life beyond the material world, is as unmooring an experience as I can imagine. Thankfully it’s one I have been spared, as I was never raised in the faith.
So, I’m inevitably going to feel very differently about Angel’s Egg from someone who still clings to their own metaphorical egg. We look for the best in our own situations and although the experience is traumatic for her (metaphorically, it functions as a kind of rape), my empathy for the girl isn’t one of pity. When you live without faith, you are responsible for your own actions, your own goals and your own rewards. When an atheist behaves altruistically, it’s because they’ve arrived at the decision independently, motivated by empathy or sympathy, not dogma, tradition, desire for ultimate reward or fear of punishment. When she sees herself in the water, I interpret this as a moment of self-discovery.
In a more literal sense, yes. You could argue that the loss of her faith does destroy the girl, or you could argue her faith endures, her passion creating more eggs and more idols. At the very least it is true, that nothing materially changes in the world around her because she has had her faith violently ripped from her. The world will continue to be dark and full of encroaching, threatening shadows, regardless of her perspective on them or ability to confront them. I also think that Oshii’s true avatar in the film is the warrior, and not the child. When he attempts, cruelly and clumsily to break her free from what he sees as slavery, and she sees as hope, we could argue he fails, the violence of his actions only provoking a rebirth and resurgence of faith. As he stands alone on the beach at the end, he looks up at the girl’s idol on the eye-ship, with bitter reflection. Despite his violent effort, has she still won? Has her faith endured or has the eye-ship merely appropriated her story to decorate itself, while she lies drowned at the bottom of a chasm?
Ultimately, the film’s ambiguity allows it to be all these things, a testament to the enduring and possibly frightening power of faith and religious institutions and a portrait of the atheist’s frustration, portraying them as the Romantic lone antihero, rejecting religion and rejected by it in turn, and, my favourite interpretation, a film about how losing one’s faith is both traumatic, and yet ultimately, liberating. You become your own master and are free to walk your own path and draw your own conclusions. Face the world without illusions and self-actualize in your own life. When she plunges into the abyss and at her lowest, finds herself, the girl is taking the first step towards life as a free and independent person. Much as the Major is at the end of Ghost in the Shell, entering a sublime, frightening new world of infinite possibility.
Where Angel’s Egg is about seeking transcendence through religion, and how that venture is ultimately doomed, Ghost in the Shell is about seeking it through science and technology, and although Oshii seems ambivalent about both, Ghost in the Shell seems to harbor far more hope for transcendence in a secular realm than in a spiritual one. Though it is still full of trepidation. Atheism means personal responsibility, and just as some abuse the power of religion and technology, some people will not use their freedom wisely. Being truly free can be a terrifying prospect.
Whatever interpretation the film leaves you with, Angel’s Egg is an experience like no other. From beginning to end the film is just indescribably gorgeous, a masterpiece in surreal, abstract world building and storytelling. I could take any frame of this movie at sit and stare at it. The way it handles its tone and imagery is breathtaking at every moment, and any student of Japanese animation would do well to study it, as it is deserving of mention as arguably the first truly perfect masterpiece in anime, and a seminal point of thematic reference for much of what followed.