Few things terrify and excite us more than the unknown. Our curiosity to understand the deepest and darkest corners of existence helped us wander out of our caves and bask in the primordial sun. We’v trekked across continents, sailed great waves in search of new land, and built rocket ships to explore the cosmos – for power and resources, yes, but also because they was there. The dangers are great, but there’s something that compels us to go anyway. There is no real refusal of the call to adventure.
Made in Abyss is a 2017 fantasy anime about a girl, a boy, and a great underground cavern known only as The Abyss. The girl, Riko, wants to go to the bottom of the Abyss because she believes her long lost mother is there, waiting for her. The boy, a robot named Reg, has lost his memory, and believes the Abyss will reveal the secret of who – and what – he truly is.
In this world, the Abyss is the final frontier. It stretches down thousands of miles across seven layers, and no one has ever come up from the bottom. There are untold riches there, relics of an ancient advanced civilization. The scenery is otherworldly, taking clear influence from Miyazaki classics like Nausicca Valley of the Wind. The creatures have ghastly names like the Corpse-Weaver and the Crimson Splitjaw. And there is a curse that activates when you ascend, which amplifies from severe nausea to loss of humanity and death.
Riko and Reg are a precocious duo. Riko has read book after book on the Abyss, and she’s a good enough cook to make fish stew look appetizing. Reg has grappling hook arms and a blaster cannon that can obliterate pretty much everything in its path – although it knocks him out for two hours after. But they’re just kids. They’re naive. Impulsive. A little dumb. They have no idea what horrors await them. And there is a sadness that hangs over all of this. Most adventure stories have a return home as part of the journey, but the nature of the Abyss makes it so Riko can never go back.
And yet, there’s something eerily beautiful about the Abyss and it’s many layers. It has a calm serenity to it, that you would expect from spending a long time in nature. The backgrounds look like Impressionist paintings, full of life and color. The soundtrack, by Australian composer Kevin Penkin (he did Tower of God and Rising of the Shield Hero), has a hypnotic, ethereal quality. The spacey synths, lush strings, and dense percussion create a world of sound and color, begging you to see more.
And those that Riko and Reg meet on their journey are just as fascinating. Ozen, a world-class cave raider who used to know Riko’s mother, lives on the line between good and evil and life and death. And then there’s Nanachi, an adorably sarcastic genderless bunny. They become hugely important towards the end of the first season, and without spoiling too much, their scenes definitely made me cry the hardest.
I’ve tried to avoid talking about the story too much. Partly because I don’t want to spoil anything for new viewers, but partly because the story is almost incidental in a show like this. The character motivations are relatable, but nothing we haven’t seen a million times before. And there is some socio-political stuff going on too, but honestly, who cares? What makes Made in Abyss great is the atmosphere. It’s the mix of calmness, wonder, and terror, like walking through an ancient forest late at night. You know it’s dangerous, but you can’t help but wonder what’s on the other side.
Made in Abyss has only one real flaw, but sadly it can be a deal breaker for people. Part of Riko and Reg’s relationship dynamic is that they are just starting to hit puberty and getting curious about their sexuality, and the anime will sometimes get creepy and gross about this. I get that sometimes people get curious about that stuff at a young age, but they go way too far with it IMO. I really dislike this aspect of anime culture and I don’t understand why people defend it online. That said, I made a whole post last year about how I feel about problematic media. With stuff like this, you have to take the good with the bad. Just because there is objectionable content doesn’t mean the whole thing is terrible, but I understand if it would be too much for some people and they might not want to watch the show because of it. You do you.
There’s so much to unpack with Made in Abyss. It is a beautiful, messy, epic, flawed, innovative masterpiece of an anime. I’ve watched it twice and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of its immense depths. There are many anime you could compare it to, but it’s really in a world all its own. The series only covers the first four layers as of this writing, but there is a movie coming out soon which will continue right where the story left off. I can’t wait to watch it and see what else this harrowing adventure has in store for Reg, Riko, and Nanachi. Even if I don’t think I’m ready for it.
I’ve posted before about how I dislike the sexualization of young children in anime. At the beginning, there’s a thing about how kids would be punished by hanging them up naked in the lunchroom or somesuch to humiliate them. I see no reason for this except to satisfy some guys’ need for kink. It served no purpose for the plot and almost turned me off the anime. I’m glad it didn’t.
But the rest rather makes sense. I didn’t see a lot of it. It is puberty and it would be unnatural for a couple of early adolescents NOT to have some sexuality in their thoughts and behaviors. Especially when they are alone together for long periods of time under extreme stress. Do you remember the skinny dipping scene? That was so perfect and innocent and felt so true.
Except for that “punishment” that was talked about but never shown, nothing – IMHO – in the series or the new movie got creepy or gross. But that’s just my opinion and YMMV.
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