If you have not watched this film yet, watch it first.
An enigmatic animation which leaves much to wonder, this film is set up magnificently from beginning to end. From the unique art style of Yoshitaka Amano to the soundtrack by Kano Yoshihiro, this film already grabs your attention by the sheer force of its aesthetic composition. One cannot miss the drab colors, the emptiness of the world, the melancholic and tired faces of the two main characters, the grandiose semi-Gothic architecture and choir music, and the clashing aesthetics of a futuristic past. The enigmatic religious symbolism of certain designs, and the sparse dialogue begs one to draw upon everything in the film to attempt to make sense of it. This film is at heart existential, it is about us as individuals as well as the grand meaning of our place in the world and the world itself.
Because the film is so thematic, I won’t be dealing with it in the order of how things appear, but by theme; thus, this shall be chronologically disordered and assumes you have watched the film already. I am, for the most part, drawing upon philosophical ideas of Hegel, Heidegger, and Buddhism for interpretative purposes.
A World Without Memory:
Who Are You?
Right after the closeup of the bird gestating inside the egg, we are transitioned, via a direct cut with a gust of wind and the sound of a bird taking off in quick flight unseen, to one of the main characters: the man. The scene is one with a red sky on what seems like a stage, behind him gigantic gears. The stage of life. The floor is tiled with black and white squares, and a gigantic machine that seems like an antenna communication device tower behind him. In Buddhism, Samsara is but a dream, an ephemeral appearance, a mere play of reality. All the action, all the actors, all that is experienced is ultimately a mere appearance. All that we seek, any object of desire, is merely a version of a silly game of chasing shadows and attempting to catch them. The world is but a stage of plays, and he is but the first on it—the first act—of many to come. The theme of dream and reality, appearance and truth, reoccurs many times over the film.
From this stage, he watches the mechanical eye descend from the sky into the water before him. He has summoned it. Perhaps he knows not why, but nonetheless the wheel of karma has been made to turn by whatever action he took, for he is the only being capable of acting on the communication machine—it is he who has called it. He stands unfazed by its appearance as if he fully expects it, though he knows not what it is. His eyes are half open, as if in a weary daze and in the middle of falling asleep or waking up, though it is not clear which. The eyes are important, for this facial expression of weariness coming onto us or leaving us—this limbo of the mind between waking and sleeping, dream and reality—suggests deep metaphysical questions concerning not just who and what we are, but the nature of all things.
This giant mechanical eye, half-open like the man’s eyes, arrives with loud steam whistles to not only announce its coming, but as if to wake the world. The eye is the source of the gaze of consciousness, of penetrating insight—of wisdom. It is the eye of God, for it alone sees what the man does not, what he cannot, and it alone has looked down from up above to see the entirety of the stage of the world. The eye, remember, is half-open. God itself is not fully awake or asleep, its own gaze straddling the realm of waking and dreaming. Does God itself know what it has created? Is God itself a player in the stage as much as we? I think the answer must be taken to be the affirmative if we are to seriously consider the Buddhist theme. God, too, is trapped in Samsara.
God’s eye is a structure like a city, a small planet of its own. From within the eye, we see an ensemble of legions of statues, looking as if dressed in Greek god-like futuristic garb, looking out from the windows of the eye into the world, their hands folded up to their chests as if in prayer, some looking inward and others looking outward. Of whom or what are these statues? I shall deal with this later. For now, it is interesting that God’s eye is a city as a constructed world within the world. This can be taken to represent God’s nature and reality as a social construction—that is, God is the product of human society. If this is so, God as an Other being to us cannot be of any help in the quest to comprehend the world. To grab onto God is merely to grab onto our own shadow in the hope of not falling into the abyss of being.
The question is then asked in the girls voice, as if directed towards the man: “Who… Who are you?” A deep question—as a matter of fact one of the prime questions of Buddhism. I think it is no great leap to see the question and the lack of history to this world as one inherently inquiring into this precise question from a Buddhist sense. Who are you really? Upon this question hinges the entire problematic nature of life and being itself. Upon its answer hinges our own psychological unity and will to live, for when an answer fails to arise at all, we find ourselves broken as if our very biological mechanism has been jammed. Perhaps the question is one from a mind which misunderstands itself, or perhaps it is ill posed. Nonetheless, this question is posed, and there must be an answer, even if it rejects the question itself.
The girl asks the man the question four times: first at the beginning—when she is about to awake—then after she initially meets him and he gives her back her egg, once more before she falls asleep on her bed, and last after he has broken her egg and is walking out of the city. For the first and last, she is not present on-screen to ask, nor is it apparent that he hears the question. These two are perhaps directed not at him, but at us the viewer, as if the film is asking us to engage in its story’s journey and be enveloped in the question just as are both characters. The second time she asks him, he ignores it and does not answer, but for the third, he responds with the question seemingly aimed at her. I say seemingly because it is clear that he asks with the certainty that she does not really hear him and could answer if she did. He, and he alone, is caught up in the question of who he and she are. The girl, unlike the man, has no such question for herself, for she knows who she is even if she does not remember who she was: she is simply the mother to her egg.
Who, then, are the two main characters, the girl and the man? We never find out a name, a past, a history. Neither knows who they were, but only the man asks who they are. How long has she been there? She knows not. From where is he? He knows not. Who are they? They, I think, are no one in particular. It does not matter who they are, for they essentially have never been anyone. Their identity is merely their being in the world—their activity. They are whatever the stage of the world has dictated they are, for they are nothing but actors on this stage. The play of the world is directed by no one and none know the aim towards which all action is carried out, and it matters not. What importance is history without memory? What does it matter if the girl and man know nothing of their history? What history could there be on the empty stage of existence? The stage is but the ground upon which history is played out, yet it need not have a history itself, for history has no history itself.
Upon the girl’s waking in the Ark, the next act begins. She and the man are and simply begin to act, not conscious of where they are going or to what ultimate end they act towards. She wakes, takes her egg, and wanders in search of food, taking round glass flasks to fill with water—beyond the egg and mere surviving she shows no interested purpose. He enters the city and wanders, but for what he knows not.
Prayer and Statues
The film begins with a short scene of two hands, pale as death, clutched together as if in prayer or cupping something in them. The perspective is first-person, as if these are our own hands at which we are looking. They then release, engage in a mirrored, inverted interplay of motion apart from each other, and the right hand seems to attempt to grasp the left hand for a moment, but the left hand recedes out of sight into the darkness. We are then left with only the right hand; the fingers flex a few times as if being inspected or seen for the first time. The hand rotates about the wrist in an impossible full rotation and quickly ages and wrinkles. The fingers close into a fist in a broken and unnatural movement, and we hear sounds as if something is cracking and crushed. Then the scene fades to black. These hands are our hands, and these sounds are the cracking and crushing of our bones under the weight of aging. In this film, we are to look at our life just as we look at these hands, as if for the first time to notice and wonder about it like we had not yet done so.
The hands clutched in prayer appear again with the statues in God’s eye. For what is it that they pray? To answer this, we must must consider the story of the Ark and the flood the man tells later on. These are the people of Noah’s Ark, awaiting the return of the bird they released to see if there was yet ground to be found in the world. This ground of which they await for news is no physical ground; they are awaiting the metaphysical ground of reason and being, since they lack reason for their being and acting.
They are frozen eternally in their last moment, one of resigned hopelessness. They died inactive, already no longer living, for they had given up or lost memory and the vitality of life. They have forgotten who they were, where they came from, where they are going, and are frozen in despair for not knowing what they are or what they should be acting towards. In true and absolute despair, we are reduced to inaction; all hope is lost—all will fails us. They pray, but they pray to no one, and they pray for no thing, for they know not to what or for what they should pray. They can only hope for deliverance from this inactivity, but without life, they cannot even have this hope as their impetus. Life is the e-motive principle they lack; without it, there is no hope for change from this frozen despair. It must be stated that this is no emotional despair, but ontological despair. It is the very state of their being which is their despair, though in frozen eternity, they no longer know it. Our two main characters also suffer this despair, but do not succumb to it because they are still living.
The theme of the Ark takes multiple forms in the film, and God’s eye is the Ark of the unchangeable and eternal (cf. § 208 in The Phenomenology of Spirit). God takes the souls of all who die into itself. But where does it go?
The Tree and the Bird
We encounter the egg, the bird within, very early in the film. We are compelled by visuals alone to feel apprehension towards it. Clearly it plays a major role in the story, but just what does the bird represent? The unnamed man, when he follows the girl home and sees the relief sculpture of the tree, comments that he remembers such a tree from a time so long ago he does not remember.
“Under a sky where the clouds made sounds as they moved. The black horizon swelled, and from it grew a huge tree. It sucked the life from the ground, and its pulsing branches reached up… as if to grasp something. The giant bird sleeping within an egg.”
The sound-making clouds seem to reference a futuristic world of flying cars or cities, which fits with the grim futuristic setting. It is, in truth, an inconsequential bit, for it adds nothing to the comprehension of the mystery of the world. The tree, however, is quite important. With its connection to the bird’s egg and to what seems like a dying world which it is killing, it is no leap to consider that this is Yggdrasil the Tree of Life of many a myth. The tree, the egg, and the bird are connected as symbols of life as such. The egg is in a way the seed of the tree—its purpose and original source as the reproductive bud of the fruit. Because of this intimate connection as a cycle of life, the tree, the bird, and the egg are in truth one as a process and metaphor. All represent the same concept—life—in different manifestations. The man and the girl themselves are life, and thus they too are subsumed into its universal meaning as particular forms of it. The girl in particular is individual life raised to universal life in various manifested forms in the film. This shall be dealt with later.
We are made to think that the bird itself is the Angel of Death when the girl shows the man the remains on the wall after the story of the tree is told. It is clear, however, that there is perspective at play, not only because the man sees it as the Angel of Death, and the girl does not, but because they neither actually knew or know what is in the egg she holds, nor what the tree or bird are—it is clear they are jumping to conclusion in desperation of finding ground for the meaning of who they are and what their world is. As death, the bird represents the immanent contradiction in the principle of life itself, a necessary part of life as a whole and, in the form of inorganic nature, the ground of life as such. Whether it is plant life which feeds on the lifeless soil and sun or the animal which feeds on plant or other animal being, death is necessary for the maintenance of life. The tree sucks life from the soil, enriched and fertilized by the organic remains of dead life. The more life that dies, the richer the ground; the stronger the tree, the more fruit it bears. Life feeds and grows on itself—a strange contradiction. The more life expands itself, the more things and ways it finds to consume itself and thus live even more. Going beyond the immediate concept of death, however, the bird does not simply represent death, but likewise is a symbol of life as the Phoenix which through death returns to life evermore. It is tempting to fall into the trap of one-sidedness of what the bird truly is along with the girl and the man, but the truth is that the bird is all of these things. It is one side in specific moments, yet it is all sides in every moment as well.
There is another aspect to the bird which comes in the story of the flood later on. The theme of the bird repeats and continues beyond the tree and the egg. Here, the bird is humanity as such, what it can be yet does not realize it already is. The bird is the ultimate truth of humanity—the truth that the lack of ground for it to land is also its greatest blessing; it is divine existence. The bird flies out, groundless, though seeking ground. As mentioned prior, this ground is in truth only metaphorically physical, that is metaphysical. Here, the philosopher Georg Hegel is most elucidating. Existentially—as spiritual animals, i.e. animals with the powers capacity to think—we have always been free, flying without knowing it. Whatever ground we think we discover, the truth is that such ground is nothing but what we already constructed. This has two layers of metaphysical meaning: the ground of being as such is itself, and the ground of thought as such is itself (I will deal with this side of being later). We are and we think about our being. However, thinking alone is where the problem of ground arises. Thinking is itself groundless and finds no ultimate ground for itself in anything other than itself, for its nature is an ever-shifting world of concepts which when examined in isolation are found to be vacuous and incomprehensible. This groundlessness of thinking is also being’s ground and salvation, if it could only see the truth. The bird represents the most radical anti-foundationalism for reality and ourselves: it is freedom, for it is shackled by no ground external to it and is itself its own ground. I shall expand a different connection to ground later.
Going deeper into metaphysical grounds, one finds that to be living is to be in a constant state of dying, for only through the negation of what is—of life as being—can new things arise. Only through the death of being is becoming as change and movement possible.
Returning to the bird and life as such, in the story’s world empty of life there are only our two characters left, but no Angel of Death to cull their lives. In themselves, they are deathless, timeless, not truly alive, and we see it in their half-open eyes. They move because they are compelled to by their nature, but they do not act with purpose known to them. The egg with the bird within it appears as the first and only principle of purposeful action in the film. They are both aware that something important is in it, and both act purposefully around this end. Death and life is what makes their lives meaningful. It must be noted, and this is vital, that the girl’s egg is not the egg of the Angel of Death. In reality, the girl does not know what awaits in the egg, but after the man’s story, she leaps at the myth as the explanation of her egg. The man, with a foggy memory, does not quite remember what the size of the bird’s egg really was, and he makes the logical jump along with the girl to connect her egg with it. Both, of course, interpret it differently. She interprets it as the bird which can freely live and fly beyond—the Angel of Life, the opposite of the man’s view of the egg. One may say an unfortunate end follows from this otherwise innocent mistake of connecting the myth to the egg, but is that so? Perspective comes from life experience and attitudes both natural and tempered by environment, so it is inevitable that two people will not truly view the same object the same way. The man is a warrior, and he knows only and expects only the worst, while the girl is a child, which is optimistic.
For the girl, the bird’s egg is a positive thing; for the man, there is an apprehension towards it. To the man, death awaits in that egg, but for the girl, what awaits is a child born to fly free. These two views do not necessarily contradict. For some, death is the release from our existential pain, our loss of will to live, and the final freedom of the soul from the shackles of the body. For others, it is the end of all possibility of action—the ultimate binding slavery in a tight coffin wrapped with unbreakable chains. The man is clearly bothered by his lack of memory, his aimlessness, yet despite not knowing what death itself could be like, he feels in himself the fear that it would be the end of him entirely. He feels the dread of knowing that the end is at hand at any moment, for the egg may hatch at any time since neither he nor the girl know how long they have existed or how much longer they may exist. The girl, however, seems to have no qualms about this existence without memory. She lives, she acts, and she waits for the egg to hatch without knowing just what to expect, but she does not fear it. The difference between the young and the old perspective is blatant. The young live in the moment even when their eye is towards the future, enthralled by life and feeling, not considering that they will ever die or worrying what it shall be like. They act without thinking, unaware of possible consequences; thus the girl cares for the egg, waiting for it to hatch without pondering the possibility that it may not end well. In her motherly character, she does not fear the possibility that birth will kill her.
In another manner, however, this egg itself is her life. After the connection of the bird to the Angel of Death, the man and girl have a short talk concerning the egg. The girl happily hugs it and mentions that she hears its breathing—the man answers that it is only her own breathing she hears. Here we see the clash of views again: he is a hardened cynic who has lost view of enchanted life and its beauty, while she still has the will to dream and believe in life. That what she perceives in the egg is just a projection, however, nicely points out that the egg is her own egg—her own life—and when it hatches it will be her own end. As a life, her immanent end shall be to die a death according to her own nature as a mother; she must care for that egg until it is ready to hatch. However, despite trusting the man to stay with her and to not harm her egg, he cracks it open while she sleeps. What are we to think of this? To trust others with our egg is to trust them to not harm our lives—ourselves or those we love. Must we trust others, or is it perhaps possible to live without ever having to do so? For humans, I think, this is not truly a question insofar as we can and shall be human. We must trust others with our lives, and we want to do so as much as we can. Life for biological life’s sake, or for simply our own finite sake, is an empty existence for us; we crave for companionship and community. What point is there in living the life of a lonely caveman when there is the possibility of joining in community with another? I shall comment on how the man and girl deal with trust and what this means later on.
The girl and man do not have memory of who they are, yet they are human and despite having no aims, find some comfort with each other’s company. Life may be meaningless, yet at least we can hope that we are not alone. We are doomed because of this, not just to the blind caprice of nature, but to the caprice of other humans. Worse, we are doomed to the effects of the ignorance of the inaccessible minds of others along with the impossible calculation of what effects our actions unleash in the world. The man did not seem to break the egg out of malice, but his action had unseen consequences, ones he may not ever be aware of having caused.
Compared to the young girl, the man, who is much older, worries more about the past, in comprehending it, and in the encroaching absolute horizon of death which draws closer with every passing minute. For the old, the egg of the Angel of Death has been there their entire lives, and once it hatches, their time will be up. The tree, the egg, and death are not just the metaphysical truth of life as such, but our own individual life. The more we have lived, the stronger we have become, yet the less vitality there is left to keep us going. Naturally, many eggs appear upon that tree—many possible deaths to which we may succumb or avoid through our existence, but nonetheless one egg will hatch one day no matter what we do. Many animals, despite not having a comprehension of it as a concept, feel their natural death coming, and humans are no less aware. The man, though he does not know what the bird is or will do to him and the girl, nonetheless fears it as he feels it as the ultimate Other, the absolute negation which he cannot comprehend or control. He wants to know, and he still wants to achieve something—though he knows not what—but he is not ready for this ultimate end.
There is, as we already know, no bird inside to be seen when she wakes up and finds out what happened, only the pieces of shell with cracks radiating from it on the ground showing the man’s excessive force in crushing the egg. Indeed, she is the bird that was waiting to hatch in the egg. The man, foolishly believing he was perhaps saving her from something terrible, only has accelerated its coming. The egg itself is life, and when it cracks, regardless of why it has cracked, it has succumbed to death. The girl, horrified at her broken egg, the only reason for which she has lived as far as we know, runs out of her home, now curiously taken over by the Tree of Life, covered in its roots and vines. We see that the egg she had was not empty, for there is one egg on the tree’s branches—it was born of the death of her child. One life has died to in turn feed and give strength to another.
She falls to her death in the deep waters of a ravine as she is running. The man is shown walking away with his back to her on the other side of the ravine before she falls, as if she had run after him to ask why he had done it. While falling she first shows surprise, but as she sees her own reflection in the water near as her own end, she literally sees her future death, for the reflection she sees is of herself as a woman. As she continues to fall, her face returns to her normal dazed look; she closes her eyes and accepts the kiss of death as she enters the water by kissing her own reflection. It is very interesting that, at this moment, the point of view is from what first appeared to be her reflection on the surface of the water. Her reflection is shown to have real existence, and it is the little girl who becomes the appearance destroyed by the impact in the water. As she is submerged, it is unmistakable that she is indeed an adult woman. She makes one final gesture: running a hand over her stomach where she kept her egg, caressing upwards over her breasts, and finally reaching for her throat and letting the last of her air in a gasp of agony. There is a double meaning here: one concerning the cycle of life, which I shall touch on later, and the other concerning her despair and anguish. She drowns in her vast tears of anguish at the death of her child. The bubbles of her last breath pop out of the water as many eggs, and her death has reinvigorated the tree enough to produce more eggs than before. One life has died both a natural and an unnatural death, consumed by something external to it as well as simply playing out its own immanent principle through reproduction, and this death has invigorated life as a whole. Thanks to the woman’s death, even more souls have been given the gift of life, awaiting their turn for the hatching of their respective eggs. Of interesting note is that as the film transitions—the view from her death to the Tree of Life—we see a visual representation of what the man described: the swelling black horizon and the great tree appear as black shadows in the water. This, along with the other themes of cyclical process, hint at foreshadowing something metaphysical.
Water and the Story of The Flood
After seeing the Angel of Death’s fossilized corpse, the man recalls and tells an altered version of the Biblical story of the flood and Noah’s Ark. In the story, the world was flooded, and only Noah and those with him on the Ark were left. They sent out a bird to see if it found something and returned, but it did not. The people in the Ark waited for the bird and over time forgot they had released it and why they had done so. They even forgot there was a bird and a world sunken in the waters below them. They had waited so long that even the animals inside the Ark had turned to stone. They forgot where they had come from, how long it had been, and where they were going—just as our two main characters have.
Here, it seems, the water themes are wrapped up nicely as connected to this story. The story takes place on a dark, rainy day; the water seems to be endless; the world seems to be lifeless; and it has been so long that none remember who they were or why they are. The clouds bar the possibility of a god’s eye view from above, and those below the clouds are just as clueless about what is going on. Water is often equated with life as a necessary component, yet it is a contradiction inasmuch as it is also related to death and solitude when there is too much.
The city is a city of water. The entire structure is designed around water and sea life themes. In some scenes in the city, we see what should be straight beams or poles appear distorted as if in a frozen moment of what things look like when viewed through flowing water in a glass. It is as if the city is already submerged and the flood that is feared to return already a long past that never receded, but remained and has become merely the norm of perception. As the man and girl walk through the city after they meet over the egg the first time, we see the remains of shipwrecks in the city, covered in the fishing lines of the city’s fishermen. From where did these broken ship parts come? When the night comes, the rain intensifies, and water starts rising to cover the city to the rooftops; it is perhaps the case that this flood happens every night. The flood, the death of the vast majority of life on the earth, is but an everyday occurrence in their world—it is not simply something that happened once long ago; it continues to happen in the present. The flood is not something left in the past; it is a condition of existence: mass extinction, the death of the vast majority of life, is an immanent possibility and eventual actuality to the world which makes life possible at all. It is a reiteration of the metaphysics of life represented by the tree, egg, and the bird—however, it is not merely this. The flood does not only exist as immanent to life, but it is even broader in meaning.
Water is also connected to the girl via her death and womanhood. She dies after crashing, or breaking, through the surface of the water. The term “breaking water” refers to one of the moments right before childbirth when the membrane which holds the amniotic fluid surrounding the child in the womb ruptures and this leaks out. At the beginning of the film, we see the girl have a vision of herself submerged under the pond from which she takes water to drink. This is a premonition of her death—a death of drowning in painful sorrow in childbirth.
The Fish and Fishermen: The Life of Desire
In the city, we see the only other beings in the world besides the man and the girl: the fishermen. They first appear as if they were statues next to a fountain in the city, holding onto what seem like harpoons and fishing poles. Later on, however, we find out they are not just statues, but it is clear that they are likewise not truly alive. The fishermen, in their existence straddling between lifelessness and mechanical activity, are close relatives to the statues on God’s Ark and the man and girl as well. They have the shape of the living, but not their substantial flesh. They move like the living, but their movement is mechanically engaged. They are neither human nor beast; they are lower on the existential order than both. They are what one may call one-dimensional men—mechanical men driven by the engine fueled by desire, with the sole aim of acquiring what Jacques Lacan called the objet petit a, or unattainable object of desire.
The fishermen only move when the fish appear. What appear, however, are only the shadows of fish. The shadows are of coelacanths, a fish which itself is considered to be an intermediate transitional species changing from one kind of life to another; they are also a living fossil, for they were considered extinct only to have been discovered to still exist to this day. The fish are the object of the fishermen’s desire and are what bring the otherwise statuesque fishermen to motion. The fishermen are machine-like in their reaction to the fish and do not stop trying to catch them, unaware of either the destruction they cause or that their object is impossible to catch. The fish are not simply a desire, but symbolize desire as such. Despite their ephemeral nature, the fishermen chase the fish just as foolish humans chase desire after desire in hopes of satisfaction. Desire’s satisfaction, the object of desire, itself is nothing but a shadow we chase, ungraspable due to its illusory existence. The fishermen themselves are coelacanths—they straddle existence between dead stone and machine; they are living fossils, dead beings that should not exist, yet persist in living long after their life had left them, and they too are mere shadows with no essential being. They can be taken to be the actors on the stage of life who are wholly submerged in the play, unable to make the leap of being to go above base being, and thus incapable of truly existing. They are groundless, but failing to make themselves the ground from which to leap.
It is undeniable that the myth of the Ark is one of the major themes of the film. First we have the Ark where the girl lives, second the Ark that is the world itself in the midst of an unknown space, third is the Ark of God, and fourth is the girl as the Ark of the egg of life.
The Ark in which the girl lives appears to be the direct Ark of the man’s story: the one which carried Noah, his people, and the animals. Inside we see the remains of dead animals; however, these are no animals the likes of which we would expect considering the Biblical myth, nor is the ark as such constructed as or of what we would expect. Inside are strewn the fossilized bones of dinosaurs and mythical dragons. Not only are they found at the bottom of the Ark, but we see that they constitute the structure of the Ark itself. The walls are stone walls with what are either skeletal remains in the stone itself or carved into them and pillars are shaped like bones or made of them. The whole of the Ark is not just filled with the physical reminders of death; it seems to have been built of these dead remains themselves. Ironically, the Ark, that which carries life in it to be saved, is one gigantic reminder—a memento mori—that death is the ground of life and its inevitable, immanent end.
The world Ark is a metaphor which surely must have come to mind when Christians first learned that that we lived on an immense sphere that roamed in the empty heavens of space, carrying all of life within it. It shows the clear signs of purposeful design, crafted by an unknown maker for the sake of keeping us safe and alive in the endless sea of space. In the film, however, this Ark does not float out in space, but the world Ark is stuck flipped upside down on ground where water is soon to overtake it in another flood. Whatever happened to the world Ark, it must have been a storm of destructive power on a level unimaginable to us—the certainty is that it failed, and if such an Ark failed, all the worse for the small Ark that was built on it awaiting the rising sea. Who is to say that this world Ark is itself not atop another Ark which itself succumbed to the rising waters of solitude and despair? The great point is existential: We all have always, and will always, be adrift and alone at sea with no ground to be found but the ground we have constructed. There is no Ark, physical or mental, we can build which can house us forever; each will succumb to the storms of life which shall shake us to the core of our being and drown us if we do not find a way to build a new Ark before the waters rise.
Next, there is the Ark of God—the eye-shaped city which carries the souls of all who die. Within are countless statues of those who died on Noah’s Ark waiting for the sign of ground to come, who waited so long that they forgot what they sent out or what they wanted to know in the first place. They stand timelessly frozen, changeless and eternal, as how they were in their last moment of contemplation. All of them are frozen in prayer with no emotion on their faces until the end. When the girl dies, her life becoming a sacrifice to the Tree of Life; it both is and is not the end for her. We see her one last time at the center of God’s Ark. She is a statue just as the others, and she is once again a girl and not a woman—God has captured the image of her innocent soul and its intention; he has kept her according to her soul—but unlike them, she smiles contently as she holds an egg. Though the others are frozen in forlorn prayer for the renewal of life, she alone is happy and holds life in her hands.1 Though she died, she does not regret the event, for despite the despair and agony, she died a mother’s death by giving birth to new life. Does the Ark of God, however, matter in the end? Of what good is eternity if it is devoid of change—of life? Is it not, in truth, just a fiction for the hopeful satisfaction of those on the world Ark? A fanciful construction of humanity to try to assure itself of eternal life by trying to grab onto existence with anything, even if as a mere image of stone? In truth, there can be no meaning for an existence as a frozen moment of contentful bliss or anything else. The great irony of eternity and infinity is that they are equally the immediate moment which passes away. Timelessness is both the absence of time and its undeniable presence; it is the gap between a moment, yet in fact there is no such gap between time, for the meaning of timelessness is precisely that it is not time. It is pure indeterminate indifference which, from its standpoint, is equally all-consuming as it is all-excluding; an eternity which is forever a moment that has dissolved just as it comes to be. Those in God’s Ark seem to be doomed to timelessness in frozen suspension, but timelessness itself must inevitably return to time. Life once arose from lifelessness. Thus, a new life must be possible to those on the Ark insofar as they truly have died. The girl holds in her hand the egg of life in God’s Ark, but because only those who died are in the Ark; the Angel of Death only exists and has power in the world Ark. If the egg may yet hatch in the Ark of God, it cannot be an angel of death, but must on the contrary be an angel of life.2
The last Ark is the girl,3 yet despite being last in our discovery, she is also logically the first insofar as she is a source of life for humanity as such. How is she an Ark? She is the Ark of the embryonic life that is coming-to-be in her. As a female, she is the vessel which carries new life in her womb. The egg cannot move on its own, cannot live on its own, for it needs her nurturing warmth. She carries it along with her inside her dress, next to her stomach and looks as if pregnant, keeping it away from the cold rain and rising waters. Women in general are Arks of life, carrying the eggs of life waiting to bloom in their wombs with the consummation of the act of reproduction. I shall expand on the feminine in a broader sense later.
Now I’d like to get directly philosophical for a moment. The question of being and our questions about it are strong in the film. There is an fascinating philosopher who is deeply interested by these questions: Martin Heidegger. On the question of “What is Metaphysics?” Heidegger begins with a question concerning the ground of being: why is there something rather than nothing? Here, he notes, there is a sudden leap of being above itself. There is, in the question, a sudden diremption of being from itself. From where—that is, from what ground—does being leap? It leaps from being. How does it leap? In the very question. In the question of being in general, one is caught in this very question, for one is. The question itself is. To ask why there is being is likewise to ask why there is a question, and to further ask why there is one asking the question. The ground is ourselves, and the leap is likewise ourselves as our activity. Interestingly, Heidegger says that the Greek philosophers had asked the question of being, but that after Aristotle, the question was forgotten. In the story of the Ark told by the man, a bird is sent out to find ground and come back, but it never returned. The bird, freely flying, is furthermore the questioning thinking of humanity; the ground it sought is the ground of humanity’s being, and what was forgotten was the thinking and the question it sought to answer.
In the film, the movement between the world Ark and God’s Ark is akin to such a leap of being—in fact the transition between them, for the girl is literally a leap she is forced to make out of necessity of her nature as questioner. She runs after the man to ask him why he did it. Why he destroyed her purpose for being. Why he has done something that nearly reduces her to nothing, and in this act, she is led by circumstances to actually leap beyond the barrier of her own life by accident. She is forced to leap into the abyss of the ravine, an abyss of sorrow and pain, and this leap is a leap in many ways. She is forced to leap from childhood into adulthood, from life to death, from finitude to infinity, from time to eternity—the world Ark to God’s Ark.4
The Masculine and Feminine
The theme of masculinity and its difference to femininity is clear in the characters—first as male and female, second as hardened warrior and innocent child, third in the character attributes and attitudes of their respective psychologies.
The man portrays the typical attributes given to males: he is interested in the reason for things; he is Stoically unemotional; he guards himself by weapon and information—he asks questions and gets answers, but he never answers questions he does not want to; he feels the need for certainty to keep control; he is careful and apprehensive towards others; he does not trust the unknown and is conservatively destructive towards it if he believes it is possibly a threat.
We see the most common stereotype of masculinity, destructive power, in his character as a warrior and in his first encounter with the girl riding through the city on the back of a parade of tanks. We see his controlling character in the second encounter when he takes the egg while she is distracted and waits for her to panic and come upon him in his chosen place and moment. Further, we see this mixed with his rational character in his pointed questions—rough and straight to the point he wants to know—and his silence at the questions the girl asks him. After he follows her and she gives in and lets him accompany her, she offers him water from one of her many flasks around the city. Instead of respectfully accepting a drink even if he was not thirsty, he rejects her offer and one sees she feels hurt by this rejection of what she thought was an act of friendly communion. His stoicism only breaks once in the film, and that is when he faces what he and the girl believe to be the corpse of the bird, the Angel of Death. In the face of death, even the coldest man, insofar as he has reason left, is shaken to his core. His face displays fearful awe.
He does not trust the bird incubating in the egg, and against the girl’s trust and wishes, after much deliberation, he takes decisive action and breaks the egg with immense force out of fear. One may say that his leaving in the middle of the night afterward is likewise a stereotype of the man who is willing to do a deed but not stick around for the results of his action. He is a coward who wants security in the certainty and answers to his questions, but he does not want to grant others the same courtesy. He leaves the girl with no explanation, no possibility of closure for her deep despair over what he has done, for he is unable to face her. We as the viewer know it was not the bird’s egg, and we must wonder if he realized his mistake after breaking it. But, considering the aimlessness which he comments about his being, his insecurity about who he is, why he is there, and his inability to explain why he fears the bird, can we even say he himself really knows why he did it? Is the man really rational when he cannot find reason in himself which could question his act, judge it as moral or not, and thus stop his act fueled by a gut feeling? If he had any morality, would he not then also know what he should do with his life?
Against the character of the man is the girl’s. She is young and innocently ignorant; more easily trusting; playfully curious; caring and nurturing; emotional; reserved about herself, yet she is direct to deny instead of evading with silence; lastly, she is frail. Most of her character is shown in her relation to the egg as if she were its true mother. Her open reservation is clear in her direct answers to the man rather than avoiding by ignoring them. Beyond gender differences, there is the unbridgeable natural difference of sex. She is female, and she alone can carry out the act of reproducing the species by safeguarding and nurturing new life in her womb. There is one moment, as she and the man wander the city, where she walks before him and appears older and to make a flirting gesture towards the man. It seems to be a rather odd scene, but perhaps we may take it as a moment of the man’s imagination succumbing to sexual fantasy.
There is also a Biblical metaphorical aspect to her: she is a virgin mother, and we notice that she is holy in that even in darkness she radiates light from herself upon her surroundings. As far as she is concerned, like any good mother, her child is as much an extension continuous with her being as it is her reason for being. With the death of her egg, despite not being the egg of the Angel of Death, her life is finished, for her purpose is gone. In her death, by falling into the abyss and drowning, she metaphorically dies giving birth, sacrificing herself for the future of humanity. Her egg, her sole child, mirrors the eggs of the Tree of Life which suck the life of the very world into which they are born. The tree’s vine-like roots and branches are like blood vessels and the umbilical cord which connects the embryo to the mother, in what some materialist nihilists would call a parasitic relation. Here we see the importance of perspective. To the man, the bird eggs are sucking the world dry of life and killing it; they are connected to the world through the tree’s pulsing branches transporting life from the world into them, thus he hates and fears them. It is the hatred of the father towards its child for the sin of being born and killing his beloved wife.
The man can make no such sacrifice, nor know such sorrow, for he has no egg to hatch nor trust of what may be in it. He is, in the end, not a friend of life because it threatens him with the unknown. He is merely an agent of forceful reason, but lacking reason in himself, he equally finds the world devoid of it and does not know what to do with himself or the world.
Finally, God’s Ark is itself another symbol of the egg and life. The red sky represents the view from within the womb with light penetrating through the walls of flesh, just as our hands look such a red with a flashlight behind them. The world is not yet born at the beginning of the film; it requires the power of life given by God. God’s Ark descends and submerges itself into the sea—the amniotic fluid of the womb—as the fertilized egg, and from it the world as such is born. The theme of virgin birth is repeated, for God’s Ark as egg is fertilized by no male sperm, but is already imbued with its full process of life by the grace of God alone.
Reality and Dreaming:
Illusion, Reality, & Eternal Recurrence
The theme of existence as a dream, as an illusion that is not real, is explicitly dealt with by the man in his comments on his memory of the tree and the bird.
“Perhaps it was a dream. Maybe you and I and the fish exist only in the memory of a person who is gone. Maybe no one really exists and it is only raining outside. Maybe the bird never existed at all.”
Now, what is illusion as such? An illusion is something that appears to be a real object, but which in being examined with careful and close scrutiny is shown to not be what it appeared. Many things count as illusions, and in the context of this film, it stands out as all such things. We find illusion in the concept of substance, in that the Arks make us wonder what the world actually rests upon—on what ground our being is erected and finds support. We find illusion with the self, in the question of who the two main characters are. We know what they are by what they do, but we are never privy to any history of who they were, nor are we aware of an identity as designation. We find illusion in history—in the question of just what the origin of the world is or if it even has an origin. Is the beginning a stage play or is it all a dream? We find illusion in perception with the metaphors of water and its distortion of objects as well as its empty reflections. Finally, we find illusion in our very thoughts: are our questions concerning all these things even meaningful if the deductions and inductions of thought are themselves creating an illusion of something underlying our perceptions? Are we, so to say, casting shadows without knowing they are ours?
The world in which the man and girl exist is obviously crafted in an unreal fashion, for it is a film; thus, it is not difficult to point out what would bolster such a belief. The question, of course, is for us to contemplate about ourselves and our world. Could it not be that there is truth in the extremes presented in the film, metaphorical as they are? Does not the meaning within the film’s world, abstracted from the images into ideas, not carry over to ours?
We see, for example, illusion’s actuality in the fence poles which are shaped as if distorted by their view through the surface of water. Once more, water—a medium between us and truth—comes into the picture. Does not the concept of a medium as such—one that is inescapable in our interaction with the world of phenomena, insofar as we accept such a claim—not force us to consider the possibility that we may be deluded as to the nature of reality by the distortion from such a mediated experience of perception? Are we not perhaps stuck in a dream, unable to tell truth for illusion because we are in a dazed state between waking and sleeping just as the man and girl seem to be most of the time? How can we be sure? Part of the aim of Buddhism and mysticism in general is to make us question the truth of our normal experience and come to grips with not just a questioning of this, but a proper questioning that will leave no doubt that things are not what they immediately appear; in fact, the truth is that their essence is beyond our power to comprehend with thought. Reality is a vast emptiness, and so are we. However, this is not a pessimistic worldview like Western nihilism, which takes life to be worthless.
Along the theme of illusion, the waters of the flood conceal the ground beneath the murky waters; they distort our perception of the objects viewed through it; they create comforting illusions in mechanically reflecting existence above them; and finally they isolate life in Arks separated by distances so vast they cannot see or contact each other even if they are there. The concept of reflection is interesting: with water, it is associated with illusion, yet with mind, it is often associated with introspective truth-seeking. Water provides a mirror which can reflect consciousness—the subject—to itself and engage it in free thought to some degree. However, is such internal conscious reflection itself not an illusion? In Buddhist notions, as well as other mystical lines of practice, cognitive reflection—thought and thinking—is itself no different than water’s reflection. It is a mere illusion and false knowledge with no more substance than the emptiness of the world out there. The surface reflections upon the water are in principle no different from the shadows of the fish. We see shadows and deduce that something real casts them, and likewise, we notice impermanent appearances and deduce essences underlying them, yet we may be deeply mistaken in these deductions. Reflection, water, and illusion appear united in the scene of the girl’s moments prior to her death, the moment in which she looks at a reflection of herself as an older woman. The reflection can be taken as illusion, an empty possibility of imagination which is no longer possible. That said, if the world as a whole is illusion, what meaning does illusion have for illusory beings? If the illusion is all, then the illusion is reality. The reflection is no falsehood on its own level of existence.
Finally, to end on a usually more interesting metaphysical theme, there is the notion of recurrence. The Ark, the egg, the bird, the tree, the battle with the fish, the flood, the flasks of water, et cetera all recur. Is the reality of the film caught in a literal and metaphorical spiral of recurrence? All the themes in the film tie to cyclical processes. Can it be said there is any real progress made in such a world? The film, I think, heavily implies there is not and cannot be any progress in the world as such, not even in God’s Ark. Yet…what of the birds? The birds incubating in the eggs of the Tree of Life are implied to be a new and superior kind of living being, one that can fly beyond the world Ark and find new ground as it needs, yet never feeling need to commit to any single ground. Perhaps the birds can realize that they themselves are the only ground of which they need to be sure. That said, does this really contradict the cyclical fate of such a world of recurrence? Is freedom possible in such a world of fate?
Here, I think the film is decidedly one-sided in its answer: the world is fated to its cycles and there is nothing that can or ever will be done to change it. The Arks must and will be built, the floods must and will come, life must run its course, et cetera. The world and the individuals that populate it must and will play out their own immanently dictated fates. Fate appears explicitly in the first scene of the girl’s vision of submersion in the pool of water, and later in her reflection as she falls to her death in the abyss. Could anything in their world have been otherwise? With what kind of fate are we dealing? If such fate is real, it is not an empirical fate, but an immanent categorial fate which they face. Whatever content the story has, its form is necessitated and unavoidable: every Ark must sink, and every life must end. Whatever happens in the details does not matter. The story is always the same.
1.Thanks to @C0NTTREN for this insight.