Angels of Death: The Clunky Existentialism of a Serial Killer

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Angels of Death anime.

There’s a number of provocative tropes attached to late-night and OVA-release anime. They’re over-generalizations, to be sure, but enough instances of these tropes were enough to leave impressions,  however unfair. To cite one example, back in the day, late-night and OVA-release anime had a gratuitous reputation for sexuality and violence. Some producers were willing to give creators chances on edgier ideas, and some creators obliged their edgier indulgences with fewer censorship fears. Even as graphic displays of milky and crimson fluids lack its former cultural weight because of newer genre and aesthetic trends, the older patterns still attract popular followings. Whether because spectacle remains exciting or nostalgia runs strong, contemporary anime still exploit the legacies left behind by these older tropes. To argue one example, the more recent Goblin Slayer is a fantasy-isekai anime that employs the spectacles and threats of yesteryear’s physical and sexual violence. Some newer anime, however, utilize these older tropes as springboards for different kinds of stories. For Angels of Death, it’s a horror setting that’s less about slasher scares and more about why life is unfair.

Mind you, life is probably unfair for many if not most conventional horror story protagonists, but the question of unfairness being posed Angels of Death is meant to be more existentialist than immediate. Angels of Death begins somewhat conventionally: a damsel named Rachel Gardner finds herself trapped in a labyrinthine enclosure, becomes frightened and distressed by her surroundings in a predictable fashion, and is later chased down by a murderer named Issac Foster. And then there’s an early twist. Our damsel regains her memories and rather abruptly pleads to her assailant to kill her, to kill her now (or at least soon), and in monotone, no less. We get to know the both of them, Rachel and Issac, and we come to see they have some tragic things in common. Being born in broken families, being raised in shitty conditions, these tragic circumstances produce a search in a reawakened Rachel for whom these descriptions of “broke” and “shit” describe to a tee: Why is my life shitty? Why does the world suck? Is there something behind my suffering? Does the fault originate from me, or is is there really no one else to blame? How do we live with ourselves? How can we? In its own clunky way, Angels of Death interrogates people’s desperation for a reason to the suffering and a escape from it. In Rachel and others, it interrogates their desire for a God.

Angels of Death isn’t exactly subtle or even elegant when discussing its themes, but the philosophical framework behind that discussion is obscure enough that I feel that a breakdown of it is useful to start things off.

What is God?

I’ve discussed what He is in a previous article about Land of the Lustrous, another show that possesses an existentialist bent to a lot of its narrative theming. To revisit it Him though…

….”God” is both a theological concept and a philosophical one. We can understand “God” as the Big Man of Christian theology, all-powerful and all-knowing.  We can also understand “God” as the source of ultimate  truth, in the philosophical sense.  The theological and philosophical understandings of “God” are related to each other, as the latter derives its underpinnings from a more mundane re-imagining of the former. For after all, is not the supposed Creator of all things also the ultimate source of Truth of which it is its creation? Does not the Creator make Truth, arbitrate Truth, is ultimately Himself Truth? Is it truly not right and proper then, if we want to live truly right and proper lives, that we orbit our every thought, orient our every action, around the Truth, toward our “God”? Christianity provides us another and more derisive term for this kind of “God”, though I will use it as it is understood more neutrally in academia and the everyday: “idol.”

When people admire, adore, devote, or idolize something or someone intensely enough, they may find ourselves orienting their lifestyles and identities toward meeting what they know or perceive are their demands and expectations. “God” can be seen as an extreme version of an idol, something or someone so important to them that their lives orbit around that God’s approval and favor. In this fanatical state of idol worship, people are more likely to commit dangerous and vicious acts if they know or perceive those acts as pleasing and protecting them.

Over the course of the anime, Rachel’s understanding of God changes as she is accosted by different revelations. Despite those revelations, Rachel commits drastic and violent things over the course of the show to please and protect her shifting object of Godly devotion. Rachel begins in the story as believing in the intangible Christian God, an unseen higher power, the Big Man upstairs. She thinks that she’s a sinner, and that God wants her to die to atone. She also thinks that she must be killed by someone else to atone properly, since she considers committing suicide to be a sin too. Issac makes a throwaway line about swearing to God that he’ll do it when they get out — and in that moment of despair and vulnerability, shortly after the memories of her sins flood back and inundate her — she makes a connection: Issac is an Angel of God.

Issac is an angel sent by God to redeem Rachel of her crimes, the person that will wash away her impurities with her spilt blood. Issac might not even know he’s an angel, but the ends are more important than the means here. Never mind that Issac is a crude and rude serial killer — someone who murders brutishly and messily and utters all manner of colorful comments and swears — God works in mysterious ways.  Rachel does everything Issac tells her to do. Rachel chooses him over a more elegant and genteel serial murderer, obviously infatuated with her and willing to offer her a painless exit. Rachel feels no sadness when Issac kills this other person so God-fully devoted to her. She does these things for Issac because she believes that it’s what her God wants.

Over the course of the story, Rachel and Issac get to know each other better. Issac is not the complete psychopath that he comes off as initially, and Rachel slowly breaks out of her stoicism and warms up to him. The more time they spend walking and talking and overcoming trials and challenges, the more they begin to care about each other’s safety and welfare. They have a moment where they assure to each other that they’re both people and not tools, and at some point, they start calling each other by handier nicknames: Ray and Zack. Midway in their journey, Ray is confronted with an assertion that her God doesn’t exist. But rather than give up on the idea of a God entirely, she invests Godhood into the one person she’s become closest to: Zack.

Why was Ray so insistent on wanting an idol to cling on, a God to latch on to, in the first place? Zack is not omnipotent, after all. He’s not omniscient. Why does anyone go to the trouble believing in a God at all? I don’t want to presuppose anyone having all the answers, but there is one reply that the show puts forward that it wants its audience to think about: because life is shitty, because life is hard. It can be hard to believe that life is shitty to people for no reason. You can argue that Ray’s set in her religious ways, but Ray wasn’t always so that religiously zealous. She became so after experiencing terrible trauma and inflicting the same unto others. Parents are supposed to be kind to their children, and vise-versa. Her parents were abusive toward Ray.  Families are supposed to be whole, not broken. Her parents always fought, and they blamed their woes on Ray. That’s already some harsh trauma for a child to process, and on one particular day, in her parents’ latest spat, her father murdered her mother. Ray was there to witness it.

Her father wanted no witnesses, and so Ray ended up killing him out of self-defense. At some point in this processing of trauma, Ray developed this idea to sew her parents’ corpses together in an attempt to make them become what she wanted of them, what they should have been like all along. Deep down, however, Ray likely understood that stitches wouldn’t fix her family. Any effort she’d give now wouldn’t fix her past life. Quite probably, she felt like she did a terrible thing to them, that her existence is itself a terrible thing. Quite likely, she internalized all her terrible parents’ abuse and blame, the terrible daughter who drove her mum and dad into early graves. Impressionable and self-loathing, Ray picked up a Bible. She found a God in it and became His believer. Her God confirmed the worst of what she already thought herself, and yet offered a sliver of comfort she been desperately seeking through an opportunity for atonement: Death, delivered by an Angel.

That her hard life is the the result of dumb luck is something that’s counter-intuitive and frightening for Ray to think about, so much so that she struggles with even the thought of persevering without one. The idea of God provides an order and logic to an otherwise callous and heartless universe that can lead to good outcomes if rightly and properly respected. Even if her psyche will only permit her a God who reinforces her sense of guilt, that God is literally better than nothing for her. She believes desperately that having a “God” is her last chance at being saved, and even as she doubts and is eventually disabused of her old God’s existence, she imposes her complex for a God and her hopes for salvation onto Zack. He becomes her new God.

And as her new God, Ray begins doing even worse things to protect and serve him. Zack ends up seriously wounded by the time they reach the chapel floor. Akin to the hellish levels of Dante’s Inferno, the structure that Ray and Zack are trapped in is a multi-level dungeon, each managed by a judging floormaster. Ray is told by floormaster priest named Gray that medical supplies for Zack’s wounds are located in the clinic floor below. Gray permits her to fetch them, providing he can monitor her movements. She descends downward, retracing her steps. She’s visited by the Priest’s voice at each floor’s beginning and end, telling her that the floormaster judges were once righteously pure people led, somehow, astray. She pays the suggestions in his comments no mind, single-minded on her objective. She’s haunted by the visages of people on the prison floor, grasping half-mindedly for attention and presumable mercy. She considers them little more than obstacles, and forces them aside with her firearm and a minigun. Gray confronts Ray, condemning her for her displays of callousness, accusing her for imposing her God complex on Zack out of selfishness.

Ray dehumanized the people along her journey as tools or obstacles in her quest for absolution, and according to Gray, she has treated Zack no differently. The cognitive dissonance of Ray’s desperation for a God and her affection towards Zack leaves her speechless and hysterical to Gray’s accusation. Gray judges her sinful in a subsequent witch trial, and condemns her to the stake to burn. Framing himself as conditional solipsist, he claims his authority to issue judgments from his own person.

In seeming blasphemy of his clerical station, he declares that no higher power exists in this universe. The only God that he believes in his himself. Morality revolves around his whimsy. While he later revises his stance in response to later observations, his willingness to switch positions without complication makes it seem that this entity that we call “God” is nothing more than a social construction. To claim otherwise is to be living in “bad faith,” according to Jean-Paul Satre, to be thrall to the “super-ego,” apropos of Sigmund Freud.

Shaken out of her belief in a higher power above, and desperately clinging to her faith in the person closest to her, she receives another shock when Zack decides to be straight to Ray: there’s no God in this world. God doesn’t exist, not objectively, not outside of us. Zack doesn’t consider himself a God either, and she shouldn’t be looking up to him as one anyway. He’s just a person, a person of many flaws and monstrous deeds, but still just a person. He can’t offer her the redemption that she seeks, not if he wants to be real with her, and he hates lies. He can only offer her death as an end, and not as the means she seeks. Only she has the capacity to come to terms with her issues. Zack can be there to support her and make her less lonely. And yet, only Ray has the power to move on or not. Everyone who’s claimed otherwise, who’s condemned her as sinful, are hypocrites who have no legitimacy to stand on. Hypocrisy is rife in every self-proclaimed judge: the Grave Keeper who kills those he makes plots and markers for; the Doctor who preys on his patients instead of helping them; the Prison Guard who exceeds the bounds of her guarding role by torturing them; and even the Priest, who blasphemies against the God whose frock and crucifix masks solipsism. Only Zack doesn’t judge her.

Zack’s background shares similarities with Ray’s, tragic ones. Born into into the “care” of abusive guardians, one of whom once immolated decided to immolate Zack for shits and giggles, he murdered them in their sleep. He develops a thrill for killing people up close and personal. Raised in the “care” of abusive parents, both of whom blamed her for all the family’s woes, Ray witnessed her mother stabbed to death by her father and then shot her father dead out of self-defense. She developed a habit of sewing broken things together to exert control over them. Like Ray, Zack’s early life was terribly unfair to him. Unlike Ray, he doesn’t rely on the judgement of others to become the new person he might want to be.

Well technically, Zack doesn’t want to become anyone other than who he is now: a serial killer. But unlike criminals who may attribute defects and atrocities they attribute all to an external party, Zack doesn’t excuse his behavior on life’s unfairness. He hates lies, and confesses freely to every murder he’s committed when he gets arrested by the police. Blood shed may explain how Zack came to have blood on his hands, but blood does not wash away blood. Zack takes responsibility for himself, for who he is.  Zack suggests to Ray something similar. Ray must take responsibility for herself, for who she wants to be. She wants to die, and she wants to stop feeling guilty. The only person who can do that for her is Ray: no external party, no God; cuts and stitches and all.

Oddly inspiring lesson from a serial killer’s mouth, but I suppose that’s one of the charms of stories re-visiting old tropes, genres, and properties — tired or shallow — to say something new. The prospective spectacle of slasher horror being the impetus for a discussion on existential horror wasn’t something I wasn’t expecting in Angels of Death. Unfortunately, people looking plainly for slasher scares found themselves disappointed in the show. Admittedly, I think that the direction in Angels of Death failed to produce anything in me resembling genuine unnerving fright. The production’s over the top and campy enough to be silly at times, and its dialogue and themes are delivered in clunky and unsubtle ways. But botched executions aside, the story has a lot of thought put into it, the kinds of thoughts that haunt and move me every day in the silence. Life can be unfair, so how do we cope with it? How should we respond to it?

Management: For more on the question of God in anime, this article on Land of the Lustrous is a good place to start.

3 thoughts on “Angels of Death: The Clunky Existentialism of a Serial Killer

  1. Oh, this is exactly the sort of analysis I was looking for with Angels of Death! I’ve been writing my own upcoming post on this same topic and it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one to have noticed the existentialism (though given the extreme ambiguity of the show, I’ve taken a more “Theater of the Absurd” angle).

    You mention Sartre and Freud, but Angels of Death goes so far as to paraphrase Nietzsche in episode 14: Rachel: “My God… is dead!” Zach: “Yeah, that’s right… [and] I killed him.”

    Pretty clunky, unsubtle stuff, like you said. I agree with you on the “botched executions” conclusion but was glad to have stumbled across the show regardless. How do I cope with the existential problems posed in Angels of Death? By distracting myself with anime, apparently…

    • Thanks for the comment. I’ve written a bunch about Nietzche already in other shows like Monogatari and basically anything Nisioisin, and I thought making the Nietzche reference in Angels of Death would be low-hanging fruit. “God is dead, and we have killed him!” has become a bit of a memey assertion nowadays (at least by me in the AniTwitter community I hang out in). That said, I missed the dialogue that you specifically quoted.

      If you’re interested, I’ve written about anime existentialism and Buddhism in other essays on this blog.

  2. Pingback: Embrace the Absurd: the coherent incoherence of Angels of Death’s existential allegory – Marshmellow Pastel

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