Mummies, Dutchmen, and Death, oh my! Leopardi on dying

One of the displays of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), U.S. National Library of Medicine

[“Verily I am in a cold sweat!” …or in modern English, aghhh, sick again! And for what? The fourth time this year already? I’d grumble if it didn’t make my throat vibrate… a hazard of working with children, I suppose. So I’ll try something low effort this week: an annotated chapter summary. I feel like death, so let’s write about it.]

So, I finally sat down to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi after spending too long picking out translations. For now, I’ve settled on the 1882 Edwardes English edition of the Operette Morali (Moral Essays) from Project Gutenberg because it’s free and online and I’m cheap and I’m lazy. They’re excellent! Despite the heavy subject matter in Leopardi’s pessimistic philosophy, the short dialogues in the Operette Morali make for some great light office reading since none of them go much beyond a couple thousand words each. But beyond the philosophy, they have some great gallows humor too, none more so than the dialogue between the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch and his “mummies” on the nature of death (of course, not like… literal mummies from Egypt or wherever, but preserved cadavers used in Ruysch’s anatomical investigations!).

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Embrace the Absurd: the coherent incoherence of Angels of Death’s existential allegory

[content warning: discussion of suicide in fiction]

I wish for another shinjuu…

[So, as usual, I know it’s a massive stretch to compare some silly anime to “serious” philosophy but today’s theme is the Absurd, which I’ll define with Camus’ lucid simplicity in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The absurd is born of [the] confrontation between the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world.” For the sake of brevity, I’ll try to avoid any more philosophical jargonizing or existentialist name-dropping beyond that Camus quote. But if he’s right and there’s no meaning in the world, why am I looking for it in anime? Because I’m bored, of course. Madness.]

Oh, how to review Angels of Death?

The last time I asked that sort of question, I was looking at RErideD: Derrida who Leaps Through Time, a time-travel adventure anime that has fast become one of my favorite “just laugh” disasterpieces. Even though Derrida relies on simple sci-fi cliches, it crams so many of them into its short twelve-episode run that they collectively stop making sense. It’s a failure of over-ambition, leading to a severe lack of focus in the narrative and even plenty of “out of time and money” production problems in the sound design and animation. But for all that, I love Derrida for everything it earnestly tried to be — but couldn’t. It’s a perfectly incoherent failure, a real comedic gem.

At first glance, I hoped that Angels of Death (Japanese: Satsuriku no Tenshi) would turn out the same way. After all, it has such a perfectly ironic premise! A young girl (Rachel) who wants to die teams up with a serial killer (Zach) who refuses to let her, all while they try to escape a prison tower that wants to kill them both? I’m not big on psychological horror, but sure, sign me up. And oh ho ho… what’s that trivia? The source material is an RPG Maker game? Now that’s a mark of quality. Maybe I’d found another rough diamond…

But eh, too bad. As I crawled into the second half of the series, I couldn’t bring myself to toss the thing aside into the “good-bad” garbage bin alongside my glorious, incoherent darling Derrida. Angels is certainly confusing, but in that self-aware, winking way that tells me there’s probably more going on. After all, no one just quotes Nietzsche by accident, but Angels comes close during some climactic dialogue: “My God… is dead!” “Yeah, that’s right… [and] I killed him!” I laughed out loud at the directness of the cliche, but unlike all of Derrida’s earnest, unintended nonsense, I suspect that Angels meant it.

Despite the unsubtlety of the line though, I’ve struggled to put together much of a coherent interpretation of the series as a whole. Angels of Death resists understanding; through a heavy reliance on unreliable narrator devices like memory loss, psychological breakdown, hallucinogenic gas and a fair share of deadpan comedy (Rachel’s mewling monotone…), it’s hard to ever trust anything on the screen. Though Angels has something to say, the series quickly becomes a jumble of self-contradiction that offers little to help the viewer tease out any thematic message, let alone do the basic task of distinguishing the real from the surreal.

With that said though, I’ve been trying to apply two pieces of advice I’ve given myself on this blog: 1) to stop worrying about realism in fiction and 2) to extend a little charity to confusing writing. So, I’ve issued myself a little challenge. Can I make Angels of Death coherent?

Spoiler alert: No, not really. But as I’ve maybe already suggested, I think that might be the point. A bit like a piece out of the Theater of the Absurd, all the incoherence in Angels of Death coalesces into something tangible: it’s an existential allegory, an attempt to capture the feeling of the Absurd itself.

…aaand I’ve already lost confidence in my argument. This exercise already feels absurd with a small ‘a’, doesn’t it?

[Before I start my own post, I’d also like to give a strong recommendation for this excellent one by zeroreq011. Seeing another serious analysis of Angels’ existential themes gave me the confidence to finish my own.]

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