When people talk about something as having multiple interpretations, there's almost always one "master" interpretation of the material that bubbles to the top and gets stuck there. The more movies and shows I watch, even those not designed to be an open-ended viewing experience, the more I feel it's best to leave all such theories out of the picture until you've formed an outlook of your own. A movie should be a viewing experience first and a theory-forming exercise second, doubly so if the first viewing yields up not a storyline or even a theory, but a mood.
Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg is so heavily charged with meaning and symbolism, it practically dares you to make something of it. It seems foolish to write about the film without producing something akin to the I-think-this-means-that essays that swirled in the wake of Stanley Kubrick's equally enigmatic 2001: a space odyssey. Surely the whole point of talking about a movie this heavily symbolic is to talk symbolism, right?
But I'm loathe to do that, and not just because others have already done that work and done it far better than I ever could. It's because I think the primary "meaning" of Angel's Egg is emotional, not intellectual. A movie is not just what it is about but how it is about it (Roger Ebert), and Angel's Egg embodies its Christian mysticism and questions of faith in a story that is mainly about the feelings of loss and sorrow. Not all of us believe in God, but there's barely a one of us that does not know tears or desolation.
The only living things in a dead city
It's hard not to regard Egg through the lens of symbol or metaphor, in big part because it is so understated as a story. It is set in a great, deserted city that vaguely resembles Prague, where everything is dark even in the daytime and every street seems like a blind alley. The only inhabitant — in fact, the only living thing, it seems — is a white-haired urchin-like girl, who salvages canned goods and jars of marmalade from the shops and saves endless jugs of water. She also guards her most prized possession, an egg about the size of a human head, which (in one of the film's most blatant bits of symbolism) she takes to carrying around underneath her dress as if she were pregnant.
Eventually, she is joined by another — a young man. Judging from his armor, his curious, blunderbuss-like weapon, and the tanklike contraption he rolls into town on, he is a soldier. His attitude is not that of a conqueror or even a combat grunt, but more of a resigned witness to things. "Who are you?" she asks him time and again, and gets no answer (a motif that's introduced early in the film and becomes one of its most consistent elements). He eventually will confess he does not know who he is, and that — in true Mamoru Oshii form — he doesn't even trust what few memories he has as being real.
They are not entirely alone. Statues of fishermen adorn the city, and every so often they come to life and engage in a sort of pantomime where they try to spear the shadows of immense fish moving through the streets. All to no avail: the spears simply lodge themselves in the pavement or smash through windows. Further mysteries abound: when the soldier sees the image of a giant tree carved into a wall, it brings back memories of a similar tree, with a giant egg of its own nestled in its branches ... and a sleeping bird within the egg.
The girl's convinced her own egg will in time give birth to just such a bird, but then the soldier does something shocking — doubly so since he has to earn her trust to do it — that either ends her dreams forever or transforms them in a way she couldn't have anticipated. And the ending doesn't consist of something happening, but rather a series of images, including a striking final shot which has inspired at least as many theories as the entire rest of the film has.
Oshii's search for meaning(s)
If all this sounds hopelessly defiant of being synopsized, you're right. So much of what "happens" in the film isn't a matter of action on the surface, because what's happening on the screen isn't the whole of it. Like a radio play, a good portion of the way the movie unfolds is in our own heads, through how we choose to interpret what goes on and what meanings we bring to it.
That doesn't mean there's nothing there to begin with, though. The film is clearly not intended to be a complete Rorschach blot. Brian Ruh, in hs book Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii, talks about Angel's Egg in detail and does an excellent job of laying out how the film works as an allegory for the workings of faith. Ruh makes it clear that for Oshii, the Christian themes and symbolism in the film aren't simply an affectation — e.g., the way Neon Genesis Evangelion decked out its story with such stuff mostly as a way to make it feel alien and exotic to Japanese audiences.
I suspect Egg feels equally alien to Japanese and non-Japanese viewers alike, not just because of the theological overtones of the story but because of how they're expressed here. Such things amount to a private symbolic language, the way certain painters revisit a given theme or examine a particular subject obsessively. Ruh's essay suggests Oshii used to the story to come to terms with his own disenchantment with Christianity — that the story is a parable about how faith alone, blind faith, is not by itself enough to sustain us.
Oshii has further admitted that a good deal of the movie's meaning is highly private, and that made me worried any attempt to "decode" the movie would only leave us with esoteric symbology. We don't have Oshii's experiences, and so the movie may be fated to mean far more to him than it could to the rest of us. Where he saw a great allegory about the redemptive power of faith falling short in the face of the universe's indifference to it, many others simply see a bunch of weird images.
But Oshii did leave us a way in that has almost nothing to do with the movie's themes per se. It's through the mood and tone of the film — its great sense of sadness and loss — which say as much about his subject as the symbolism and imagery do. If we fail to connect with the film because we don't get what he's trying to say, that does not mean either we or the film have failed. That just means our first and best means of approach for the movie is not through what it's supposed to be about.
My take on this stems from the way I approached the movie, which I tried to make as much into an aesthetic experience rather than an intellectual one. I was well aware — too aware, really — of the bulk of scholarship on the film, and I had to fight the impulse to go bone up on the movie before even seeing a single frame of it. Seeing it might well have been a completely different experience for me if I'd done that: instead of greeting each image with wonder, saying "What is this?", I might well have been saying "Oh, that's the metaphor they were talking about."
I'm not arguing against interpretation here, but rather its misuse. A movie is not a math problem with a single, verifiable solution; heck, some math problems aren't even like that anyway. The point of a film like this isn't to arm ourselves with an interpretation — or the intepretation, as such a thing will grow predominant with anything this widely debated — and then watch the film and perform a fill-in-the-blanks exercise. That's not moviegoing, or even scholarship; as Dale Peck once said, "That's high school, and bad high school at that."
No film, especially not a film this complex and resonant, deserves to be reduced to a classroom exercise before it's even seen. Not because I think the scholarship is inferior to experience — Ruh's book is outstanding, and not just because of the Egg essay — but only because the experience should come first, then the scholarship.
On being baffled by the beauty
What is hardly up for debate is the film's artistry. You could scarcely find a better go-to guy for ambiguity in anime than Oshii, or a more consistent deliverer of dreamy melancholy than the character designer and art director, Yoshitaka Amano. Amano has provided designs for many popular works — Gatchaman, Vampire Hunter D and the Final Fantasy games are among them — but too much of the time his intricate and European-inflected work (Gustav Klimt comes to mind) loses a great deal of its finesse when translated into animation. Angel's Egg remains, even after more than twenty years, the best example of how Amano's design work can be animated and still remain demonstrably his. I still go back and forth as to why that's the case; one theory I keep coming back to is that there is so little action in the film, it amounts to a minimally animated motion comic.
Another major component of the film's design (and its mood, too), and one not discussed much in the literature on the film, is its music. Composer Yoshihiro Kanno's score may be one of the great unsung anime soundtracks of all time, as mournful and elegiac as the film it was made for, and while a CD edition has been released it's despicably expensive and difficult to find. From what I can tell, Kanno himself has had a career roughly analogous to Toru Takemitsu; he's a "serious" composer, but that hasn't stopped him from creating music for films and animated productions. (Aside from Angel's Egg he also did the music for the 1994 anime version of Kenji Miyazawa's Guskō Budori no Denki.)
Oshii is one of those directors who fascinates and infuriates me in about equal measure. His best work (Ghost in the Shell, Avalon, The Sky Crawlers, Angel's Egg itself) is part of any serious anime lover's education — and in the case of Avalon, which was live action, any serious filmgoer's education. But just because he's fascinated with something doesn't mean he's always able to communicate that fascination to the rest of us. Too often he seems to think the way to have a movie embody its theme is to just have the cast sit around and talk (and talk, and talk) about it. When that happens, the theme is no longer the subject in question, but conversation itself, and unless you're making My Dinner with Andre you're missing the point.
Angel's Egg works in big part because it keeps such verbal ponderousness to a minimum, and just shows us — and envelopes us, to boot — in what it wants to be about. The first time it's seen doesn't need to be about anything except sensing the emotional gravity Oshii has infused his material with. The interpretation is useful, but it can come later. You only have one chance to see anything for the first time, especially something this maverick.