What does it mean to truly arise from the tomb, from everything the tomb implies? That is, death not only (only!) of the body, but of certainties, of hopes, big and small, of innocence, virtue and long-sustained efforts, of wisdom, of connections, of memories, of meaning, of the past and the future, of the entire world, of the universe? The ultimate obturation, the ultimate dissolution into nothingness? And, whatever it means, can anyone truly believe in such a thing?
If there is something in which anime excels, is in creating atmospheric, personal worlds that are vibrant and recognizable, worlds of the mind and the heart of the lonely, the tempted, the one in love, the fascinated, the fearful, the hurt, the hopeful, the hopeless. As a 15 or 16-year-old, long before discovering Beneath the Tangles and anime, I, too, tried to write an atmospheric fantasy novel. It was about lost schoolchildren surviving and trying to find each other in a Neogothic urban landscape full of ominous symbols and ancient evils that somehow reflected their own misdeeds at class. I went on for three years and 224 pages, but in the end (as the protagonist of my favorite Ghibli movie), I was not fully satisfied. I just didn’t have the skills, and the second and third arcs were a mess. Every few years, I return to it and try to solve problems of rhythm, consistency, characterization, and so. Recently, I did so again. This time I discovered some things about the novel (and me) that I didn’t really know.
The truth is, I was afraid. This was the world of someone who was afraid.
Of all the anime films I have watched, my favorite is the mysterious and similarly atmospheric Angel’s Egg, a 1985 71-minute film by Mamoru Oshii of Ghost in the Shell fame. It is said to be his most personal film, “the purest distillation of both Oshii’s visual mythology and his formal style,”, and as such, “a sort of Rosetta Stone for interpreting his work.” Be that as it may, it evoked an instant feeling of recognition in me. The city of ruins and shadows, the dark wonder, the deep caves like the inside of an ancient, unknown creature or machine, the fossilized statues, the feeling of the unspeakably old, the abandoned everyday objects, the silent, dangerous streets. The city full of symbols seen “through a glass, darkly.” And something else, too. “I really liked the Bible as a little boy. While a student, I planned to enter a seminary at one point, but didn’t. Even now, though, I still read the Bible sometimes,” says Oshii in this 1996 interview. The primal, Christian, Biblical undercurrents I had tried to explore were there.
Even since I was a kid, I would likewise search for God everywhere, and for me, everything good, powerful and deep in life and stories was (and still is) mysteriously connected with God, the God of the Bible and the Church. After all, by His own word, He is the greatest adventure, the return home, the treasure of all treasures, the source of endless miracles, the gate to the invisible world, the purest good, the deepest truth, true love, eternal life. The true Grail, the deepest, eternal connection between any given people. “Are you a Christian, or do you just like the Bible for its philosophy?” asks the 1996 interviewer, Carl Gustav Horn. “For its philosophy,” Oshii responds. Something has clearly changed from the days in which seminary seemed like a possibility.
On the other hand, I’m a Christian. I hope I always will be. And yet, it seems that we wandered, and maybe still wander, through similar interior worlds. And, at times, pretty sinister and threatening worlds. Why?
Also from childhood, I recognize that my ordinary world, present day, present time, has something which is not from God. It has existential death, noise, chaos, banality, corruption of the good things, the evidence of opportunities and realities now lost forever. Meaninglessness, sometimes reigning, or feinging meaning. Loneliness. Discontinuities, obturated paths, existential threats. Monsters from the inside in league with those of the outside. A battle, a constant tension between the good things seen and remembered and the hopelessness, banal or monstrous. And, as more things die or are lost, as more signs of hope are defiled, the more promises are left unfulfilled, it just doesn’t look like a hopeful kind of story. It feels increasingly like living in an occupied land, a cursed timeline.
Anime has shown us the horrific moment in which the world is revealed to be deadly many times. Far before the Titans, Mikasa Ackerman discovered that the world had always been as hungry and cruel as them. The Elrics saw the horrifying triumph of death against their miraculous power. Honda Tohru came to feel in her flesh why the Cat was truly feared and rejected. Gon met the Chimera Ants. Reki, Tomoya Okazaki, Shu, Subaru Natsuki, Satoru Fujinuma, Emma, Homura, Utena, Emiya, Shinji, Ahiru—you name it. Despite our efforts, our world is, in a very real way, the kingdom of death, an increasingly big tomb. Under that shadow, we (and they) fight.
So what? Do the Christian notions just not fit in this complex, deconstructed reality? Or… do they, after all? Because there is something powerful, even haunting about them. They remain there over time, however one may escape them. It is so in Angel’s Egg, too. According to this, somewhere in the forgotten corners of the Internet, there must be an article called Dead Souls: The Abandoned City of God in Mamoru Oshii’s The Angel’s Egg, by that 1996 interviewer, Carl Gustav Horn. I haven’t found it as for now [update: Twwk found it for me!], but that title makes sense to me. When a tree is very old, and yet still lives, sometimes the limbs are strangely twisted. This is a story about a threatening, tomb-like world in which enigmatic Christian elements, sin, damnation, redemption, angels, crosses, deluges, praying statues, even the egg of Easter, still wander, half-forgotten but active. The prodigal son went to a faraway country. Israel, scattered, was exiled in Babylon. We are the abandoned city of God, darkened, confused souls in which veiled signs of hope and meaning are still present.
The film’s attitude towards such signs is ambivalent. At the beginning of the story, a powerful, silent, white-haired warrior with a weapon that resembles a cross watches a giant sphere, maybe an airship, descending from the sky, with a rose window shaped like an eye and an army of metallic statues in a prayerful position. The music tells us that something solemn, mysterious, terrifying perhaps, is happening as he silently observes. The skies are red, the shapes of the machines and constructions are vaguely biological, with something of Kandinsky. The warrior watches the sphere ascend, then continues his wandering. Then, a white-haired maiden, a child, who takes care of an unhatched egg, appears. We see her walking for long, uncut scenes in the threatening environment, in silence, getting water, exploring, coming back to her refuge. When the silent child and the silent warrior find each other, he slowly wins her trust, and then they become companions against the darkness of the city. This is Advent and Apocalypse imagery. But then, Oshii begins to play with his symbols.
Darkened demi-cathedrals, sinister statues, daily scenes deformed and a distorted, Gaudí-esque lens, shadows trapped in mechanical cycles, children and warriors traveling through the dark city, always under the unseen, watchful eye, were also the scenery of my novel. In my case, not because I had lost my faith, but because the world around me had. Spain is a paradoxical country in which it is common to educate the children in the Catholic faith, and then stopping living it, practicing it, or even thinking about it. At school, my whole class lost the faith at twelve, suddenly and at once, without warning or explanation. I felt like being a reverse Harry Potter. For the most part, they also lost the belief of an objective justice, and even in truth. Even many of the sons and daughters of devout families as mine were affected. I was not, but terrified I was.
At the time, I was dealing with the discovery of the wonders of the world, and of my own shortcomings and sins. The implications of what I myself often did, when tempted, and of what the people around me did and believed now, were meaninglessness, confusion and eternal death. A banal cosmos without a heart, without solid truth, like a dream or a nightmare, destined to die at dawn with the Deluge, or maybe wander mid-Deluge through the deadly, indifferent space. There is a poem by Yeats, “The second coming,” in which instead of the return of the Savior, we are left with an unspecified monster. An idiotic world without any hope that was not illusory, yet populated by the ghosts of betrayed meaning, the signs of God, true love and transcendent hope. A Lain-esque world. A Madoka-esque world. A The Promised Neverland world. Or an Angel’s Egg world. Or maybe it could be even worse?
Yes, it could. Christianity is sometimes accused of being a wish fulfillment fantasy for those unable to cope with nothingness. But in fact, to cope with a living God in our fallen world may be even harder. Let me explain—the thought that many of the people I knew had and that it could somehow happen to me or to the people close to me, that I could lose Christ, the meaning of the world, the beating heart, the Logos which unites with its powerful love all that is good, beautiful and true, and that so many of the people I knew were lost in such a world and didn’t think it was so bad, was horrifying. But the most horrifying part was this: It was not as if it would stop being true if I stopped believing it. God would still be there. Only, I would be betraying Him.
I had to deal with the thought that sin, grace, temptation, the plan of salvation, true communion, the devil, would still be working in them, unrecognized and despised by the loved one. Infinite, pure, life-giving, personal love denied, time after time, and if the salvation was not achieved, denied forever. Freely chosen nothingness, because according to the Gospel, you won’t find something as true dissolution into nothingness in the real world. By nature, humans are created to live forever. So the dissolution, the second death, would be a continued experience of decadence and suffering which never stops. There is no horizon of nothingness one can bravely (or otherwise) face, no option to define your own story from the beginning to the conclusion. It never ends.
Christ suffered the passion, the ultimate sacrifice, and now wanders, unseen, fighting to grant the salvation He has paid such an high price for. And as He is rejected again and again, opportunities die, one after another, while everything grows old. The loved child continues walking into the abyss in the midst of his or her ordinary world under the loving gaze of the Father. And so the streets of my city became dangerous, full of self-chosen nothingness, and I wanted to write about that danger.
Much like the girl or the warrior, I explored and fought, intent on preserving in me the seed of hope and redemption, with the stubborn hope that even if I were to leave Christ, He would not leave me, for as long as there was the slightest chance of saving me, just because He doesn’t want anybody of His precious family to die. He would love me forever, even beyond death. And, after the greatest proof, a true, factual, bodily resurrection would occur. What is now a seed, an egg, a dream, seen “through a glass, darkly,” would become a reality, face to face. Because Christ did arise from the tomb, and is alive right now, as you and I are alive.
But what if He did not? Would Christianity lose all value? Yes.
“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If our hope in Christ is for this life alone, we are to be pitied more than all men.” Those were the words of St. Paul, a man willing to let himself be beheaded for Christ. Dostoyevski famously wrote in one of his personal letters: “If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.” I strongly disagree with that sentiment. That is not the Christian bet. Following Christ, building the Ark, demands everything, even if it promises everything and even more. But, if I am wrong, I will have given everything I had for nothing. I know that.
There is only one long conversation in the silent Angel’s Egg. The white-haired warrior quotes the book of Genesis to the girl, the story of the Deluge. That is, of a world where, returning to Yeats, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” When the evil of the world was so widespread, when the obturation was so great that there was nothing left for God but putting an end to it, He commanded Noah to build an ark.
In it, his family and, symbolically, all the creatures of the Creation, would be preserved from the flood, and be the seed of a new world and new peoples. There was a path now. What Christ gave me against fear and chaos, on the other hand, was the increasingly warming light of His presence, an ever-growing understanding of the world around me, founded upon rock, the promise of communion, of true connection, and the hope of His plan of salvation. One in which my classmates were included, and in which I was to cooperate all my life, trusting God and letting Him act in me, in communion with others, that is, in the Church, fighting for all humanity and all creation. But only if it is true. Factually, not just metaphorically. We may receive signs, proofs, arguments, but when the time comes, unconditional, personal trust, faith, is the only way to truly love, to truly live again. Nothing less is required to let Christ have access to our souls, restore what is broken and save us and others.
Now, a few words about the ending. The Senses of Cinema article I quoted before says that Oshii’s endings are “poised tentatively on the precipice between hope and despair”. The film has a twist on the Noah story. When the waters came down, Noah freed a dove and it reached dry land. But in this case, the bird appears to have died. May the egg that the girl protects be the solution? The warrior steals it and opens it, but there is nothing inside. Lost in despair, the girl falls into the water. And then… And then, what?
A first explanation is the one I found in this comment. It is critical of Christianity. Acknowledging that it is “difficult to determine whether the cross-bearing warrior saves the girl from or condemns her to the diluvial darkness,” it goes on to say that “The girl (…) is destroyed by her encounter with the cross-bearing warrior, who believes that comforting illusions (the Buddhist concept of Upaya, or “Houben” in Japanese, is very relevant here; a pertinent Japanese idiom is “Uso mo Houben,” meaning, “lies can be an excellent expediency”) have no salvific power: in his literalist soldier’s mind, revelation is the only escape from a fallen world.” That much is true. Our Lord’s claim to be the Truth means that, if we accept Him, we cannot have the comfort of lies, be it about ourselves, about reality or about the world, little by little. And this would be certainly unbearable, if not because we know that God loves us, and will be there for us. And that with Him, nothing good will be lost. The true world is in the Ark.
So far, so good. But the comment does on to say that in this capsized world, “the Ark, symbol of mercy and salvation, becomes a vacant and ideologically petrifying trap.” Well, does it? According to Senses of Cinema, later characters of Oshii will be transformed by “their awakening into rootlessness,” a Gnostic sort of self-definition and transcendence with the help of technology. But the girl is not. In despair, the hollow egg destroyed, she falls into the water. And there, going down into the darkness, she finds what seems to be an adult, brighter version of herself.
In the final scene, the enigmatic sphere appears once again before the warrior, but this time, among the praying statues there is one of the girl holding the egg she took care of on Earth. Then, the image zooms out: We see that we truly are in the Ark. The last theme, “Different God,” starts, mysterious, solemn and…hopeful? So maybe, just maybe, the true Angel’s Egg has hatched. Maybe, just maybe, Noah’s dove has found a new, truer land. Maybe the warrior won this battle, even so. And maybe the tomb, the statue, is the broken shell which reminds us of the other side of the precipice. That of angels. This is the case with the tombs, the bodies, of those who die in Christ. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”.
May we fight the good fight and meet again, bodily, in the land of the living.