Angel’s Egg (1985)

I’ve long been a champion of animation, if not here then on Stef’s Cave, where I have a history of expounding the supremacy of animation over live-action filmmaking. This is one of those films that proves that I am right. What live-action film is there that is like this in terms of strange brilliance, sense of adventure, and ambition? Only the Czechoslovakian rendition of Alice in Wonderland is comparable, but this is an even greater mystery. We have in our midst a film whose meaning can, no, must be deteremined by the viewer, as not even the film’s creator, the famed anime film director Mamoru Oshii, seemed to have any idea what the film was about.

Here’s what I can get out of the film. An unnamed girl is travelling a vast, decrepit gothic city searching for food and water, all while carrying a large egg, seemingly with an intent to look after it. She eventually crosses paths with a boy carrying a wooden cross, who accompanies her for the remainder of the film. Neither seem to have any clue of how the world got to the way it is, but while they’re together, they reflect on their amnesia and discuss the bizarre few things they recall seeing.

The film’s most obvious trait is that there is little if any dialogue. In fact, out of the film’s entire 71-minute runtime, there may as well only have been about a few minutes worth of dialogue. The rest of the film is tension building and ominous atmosphere, all seemingly without a linear plot. You would think that I would be repelled by such a prospect, but the director seems to have done a good job of creating a film that sucks you in despite the lack of a clear plot. It makes you wonder about the world the film explores, and you ask yourself how long it might have been around in the context of the film, wondering whether it has been around forever or is the product of someone’s imagination.

The characters, though they don’t talk much, still have you invested in them. You want to know if the girl will ever see the egg hatch, and you want to what the boy’s true intentions are. Some questions are answered, but the most obvious ones are left unanswered, adrift in a sea of religious symbolism. Speaking of which, Oshii left a number of surreal, evocative imagery throughout the film. Why is the soldier boy carrying a cross? Is he the messiah, or perhaps a false prophet? The boy recounted his own, fatalistic interpretation of Noah’s Ark, and later on the entire city is flooded. Is the film’s plot a surrealistic version of Noah’s Ark? It’s worth noting that Mamoru Oshii used to be a Christian, but lost his faith before the film was produced. This has been called Oshii’s most personal film, and by that token, is this perhaps a reflection of his lost faith? An allegory of belief?

Given the lack of a coherent plot and sparse dialogue, the film has been treated as a work of animated art rather than a conventional film, and that fits because the film is a triumph of animated art. The art style is distinct in its brilliance, with characters and illustrations by the one and only Yoshitaka Amano. The dark and dreary colours represent the ominous mood of the film, which is captured by a beautiful, spare music score. The film itself leaves a great deal of answered questions in its wake, and a shock ending, but it’s very much worth it as a piece of bold, avant-garde animation. If you insist on only watching anime films for your whole life, please make this one of them.

  • Score: 86%
  • Grade: A

Alice (1988)

I’ve been seeking out obscure films for a good long while now, and sometimes you find an obscure film that is so unbelievably bizarre that you have to compel yourself to watch it, and it was more spectacular that I was perhaps prepared for. This of course is the bizarre Czechoslovakian retelling of Alice in Wonderland, as written and directed by Jan Švankmajer. His vision of the story rejected the conventional fairytale style of previous adaptations, and instead offers an amoral, surreal adventure that defies logic at every turn, and it’s an artistic triumph.

The plot of this film loosely follows the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, following a bored Alice narrating herself in what appears to be a series of events that she has no idea how to navigate. She chases a taxidermically stuffed rabbit that suddenly comes to life, and finds herself working her way through Wonderland and its perils. Not many of the familiar characters can be found here, but the white rabbit, Mad Hatter, and the King and Queen of Hearts are here, recreated with what appear to be common household items. It’s also worth noting that the little girl who plays the role of Alice is also voice for all other characters in the film.

There’s only one actor in the whole film, but she manages to deliver a good performance as someone genuinely baffled by her surroundings, though surprisingly clever. The entire him is in Czech (sadly, without subtitles), but I didn’t care, because I didn’t watch this film for the acting. The plot is a very bizarre rendition of the familiar story of Alice, noticeably darker than fans of the old Disney adaptation might be used to, but it’s this unvarnished, sometimes nightmarish slant that makes it superior to all other adaptations if I must be frank.

Adding to this surrealistic twist is the film’s captivating use of stop motion animation, which fluidly creates the impression of a world that is removed from ours, one that comes to life and is ready to pounce on you at any moment. I should note that Švankmajer did not use miniature models to portray the special effects, which is rare and impressive considering the dearth of stop-motion feature films during the time the film was made. The film’s overall style of presentation and production design were also brilliant. The whole film reads like somebody took the book upon which every retelling Alice and Wonderland is based, ripped up the pages and turned it into a kind of abstract art.

And art is pretty much the best word to describe it. The Disney version of Alice was basically a familiar, but almost camp fairy tale that was saccharine to the point one could argue that it’s superficial. This version, however, says “to Hell with all that”, freeing Alice from the hypnotic spell of family-friendly sweetness, taking her to new realms without necessarily deviating heavily from the source material. In summation, it’s a classic of experimental fantasy, and I personally recommend it instead of any other version of Alice in Wonderland.

  • Score: 87%
  • Grade: A

2LDK (2003)

A few years ago I got the chance to see a film called Aragami. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, it was an experimental film which only involved two actors, each of whom fought each other to the death for over an hour, and it was an amazing film. I learned that Aragami was made as part of the Duel Project, a challenge issued to two directors by producer Shinya Kawai to see who could make the best film with only two principal actors in a single setting in the span of one week. This film is director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s response to that challenge, though while this was certainly an ambitious project, it wasn’t as good as Aragami was.

The film’s plot revolves around two actresses, Nozomi and Rana, who share an apartment in Tokyo. They have auditioned for the same role in a movie, and only one of them can land the role. As they wait through the night to find out which one of them got the part, they wind up tormenting each other until they reach breaking point, and then they battle each other to the death.

I liked the idea of the story, but my main issue was with the pacing and the lack of action in the plot. For the first quarter of the film the two characters do nothing but talk, though as the film progresses tensions rise until they reach boiling point. This slow boil approach isn’t too bad, but there are aspects of the film that don’t make sense. For instance, there are a few instances where one of the characters dies, and in the next scene comes back to life. That said, however, I think the conversation scenes were somewhat interesting, in that they flesh out the characters quite well.

The two actresses deliver a rather neat performance. The characters are still rather strange though, but they successfully convey a sort of aggressive rivalry between them, which eventually turns into a creepy relationship between the two, and they really let loose when they’ve reached the inevitable boiling point, and pointing their rage in unexpected directions. In find that their interactions more or less resemble the twisted, next logical step up from an old slapstick comedy show, though here it’s not supposed to be comedic, so it has a decidedly different effect

The atmosphere is fairly sober, or at least it gets this way overtime. The film certainly starts with a light tone that gets more and more grim until the end. More importantly, the fight choreography is convincingly raw, with the two main characters guided only by adrenalin. I was half expecting the two girls to hate each other as soon as they’re eyes locked together, and then they fought each other for an hour with knives or swords. The direction Tsutsumi went with wasn’t a bad one, though it does leave you wondering about a number of questions that remain unanswered. If the Duel Project was a challenge to see which of two directors could make the best film with limited conditions, I’d say Ryuhei Kitamura was definitely the winner.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C