A review of Made in Abyss (S1)

That anime roulette concept already bore fruit again, didn’t it? Just like Yuru Camp, Made in Abyss pulled me right in — an especially apt metaphor this time too. I’ve already finished the first season and am close to catching up to the now-airing second.

Unlike Yuru Camp, however, Made in Abyss was not always an easy show to watch. That’s actually a compliment, even if it doesn’t sound like one — it’s just to say that despite appearances, this is absolutely not anime for kids or for the especially faint-hearted. (I wonder how many parents made the mistake of looking at these cutesy looking characters going on a grand adventure and sticking their small children in front of it for hours… there’s some trauma for you.)

Maybe nobody actually needs this notice, since Made in Abyss is extremely well known. This 13-episode first season aired in 2017, an adaptation of a popular action/adventure manga. It’s since gotten a lot of acclaim from audiences and maybe even from whatever professional critics pay attention to anime outside of Ghibli movies, and presumably also from those weirdo obsessives in the middle like me who write about these subjects out of pure love.

Before getting into the story and characters and all that, I may as well just say right now that I think Made in Abyss deserves all that acclaim. Though it hasn’t gone without some criticism and controversy as well, which I’ll address too as usual.

The story opens with two children, Riko and one of her friends, Nat, exploring a wilderness up against a steep cliff face. A massive fish-dragon thing knocks out Nat and corners Riko, but before it can eat her, a laser beam blasts it seemingly from nowhere and annihilates it. Riko tracks down the source of the beam: a passed-out boy with robotic limbs and a Mega Man-style cannon inserted into an orb in one of his hands.

Riko and Nat drag this robot boy back to their home at an orphanage in Orth, a city surrounding the terrifying and mysterious Abyss. Riko and her friends, being explorers in training, are duty-bound to turn in all unusual findings or “relics” from the Abyss, which this robot certainly counts as, but Riko isn’t type to follow rules. She instead keeps her robot boy in her room and attempts to revive him by recharging him with electricity.

After getting a nasty shock, the robot wakes up and wonders aloud about who the hell all these kids are, where he is, and moreover who he is, because his memory is entirely gone. Before Riko and co. have a chance to explain the situation, however, their teacher/advisor shows up to find out why the orphanage’s power just blew the hell out — apparently Riko is the main suspect when such things happen thanks to the shit she’s tried before. Robot boy does some quick thinking, using a pair of extendable arms to hide in the rafters and avoid detection. Once the danger of discovery has passed, he takes Riko out the window and down to the field below where she shows him his new home, at least for the moment.

Riko and Reg, two of our three central characters getting ready for their big adventure. I’m sure it will all go well!

Since his memory’s been more or less erased, Riko gives her new friend a name: Reg, the name of a dog she used to have (which Reg is not too happy about, but he takes the name all the same.) As that name choice suggests, Riko wants to keep Reg around, but since she can’t feasibly keep hiding him through normal means, she and her friends decide to hide him in plain sight. Reg presents himself to their instructor, who seems to accept his “I’m an orphan who happens to have robotic limbs for some reason” story and puts him in Riko’s class.

But of course Riko isn’t planning to stick around in Orth. Years ago, her mother, the famous expert explorer Lyza the Annihilator, disappeared into the depths of the Abyss from which few people if any at all can return safely. Riko believes Lyza to still be alive, however, and when she’s shown a set of drawings and notes sent up the Abyss from her mother, she finds a note in an ancient language that translates to “At the Netherworld’s bottom, I’ll be waiting.”

Believing this is her mother’s message to her, Riko decides to secretly descend to the deepest part of the Abyss. Normally such a journey would mean certain death for a kid like her, but Reg’s incredibly long robotic arm extensions and his fighting ability and general sturdiness make her plan at least feasible. Saying goodbye to her old friends at the orphanage, perhaps forever, she and Reg descend into whatever waits for them below.

Before getting into the heavy material/spoiler zone, I should address the aesthetics, because Made in Abyss has a hell of a lot of style and atmosphere. The Abyss is an entire world in itself, divided into layers with different climates, plants, and inhabitants. Most of these layers look otherworldly, a sharp contrast with the surface and the city of Orth Riko and Reg have left behind. The environments are impressive — they feel like they could be real places despite how alien they look. Sort of like a Roger Dean-painted album cover, which a lot of scenes in the Abyss resemble.

The cute chibi art style our main characters are drawn in also contrasts sharply with the monstrous looks of many of the creatures in the Abyss. We get a hint of the danger these animals pose, especially to the young recruit “Red Whistle” explorers, in the first episode. However, flying carnivorous fish-dragons aren’t anywhere close to the most dangerous creature waiting for Riko and Reg as they descend.

The music deserves some mention as well. It’s not always the case with anime that I notice the soundtrack all that much, maybe aside from opening/ending themes, but Made in Abyss is one of those series with even memorable background songs and pieces. My favorites are the atmospheric tracks that fit beautifully with the environments of the Abyss, though “beautiful” in this context is often more on the “awe-inspiring/terrifying” side than the pleasant one. And the ending “Tabi no Hidarite, Saihate no Migite” is nicely done, and sung by the three main characters’ voice actors in-character which I always enjoy. (The ending sequence also gets my personal award for Most Deceptively Upbeat OP/ED, just beating out the Asobi Asobase OP.)

Since that sequence is a bit spoilery in a way, this is a good place to put the massive spoiler warning. Red and bold this time because of a few sort of twists and a few emotionally heavy big plot points revealed near the end of this season, and of course I’ll bring up a few of these major points below, so fair warning if you haven’t seen the show. Or read the manga, but I haven’t done that myself, so no manga-specific spoilers in this post anyway.

Now’s the time to turn back if you don’t have the stomach for some true horror. Just pretend it’s a fantastic version of Yuru Camp and don’t watch past this point.

I mentioned the heavy plot, but at least this first season of Made in Abyss feels much more character-driven than plot-driven. The plot itself isn’t the most complex anyway at this point: Riko’s mom is maybe at the bottom of the Abyss waiting for her, so Riko goes into the Abyss to find her, taking her robotic boy companion along with her. The rest of the season after the third episode almost entirely document their journey down and the hazards, enemies, and friends they meet along the way.

But the characters make this story worth following. After watching the first episode I got the feeling Riko might get under my skin a bit, but she never did despite her whole “I’m going to run ahead blindly on occasion and put myself in danger” attitude. That can be irritating, but Riko’s attitude is pretty understandable — she’s raised from the start to be curious about the Abyss with her famous explorer mother, and this explains her desire to follow in Lyza’s footsteps and to possibly meet her after years of being effectively orphaned.

Riko being likable makes this show all the harder to watch in a way

It helps that Reg is with her as well, and not just because he’s both her companion and her bodyguard/escort on their trip. Reg balances out some of Riko’s more impulsive/insane tendencies with his level head and good sense. He isn’t necessarily mentally stronger than Riko, however — he can get emotional and lose control at times, and just as he tempers Riko’s wilder aspects, Riko helps Reg maintain his strength and fortitude when times are desperate, and even when she’s in mortal danger and under immense stress and pain. As a result, she can’t totally rely on Reg to protect her at all times, particularly since every time he fires his laser he passes out for two hours. The pair have to work together, and luckily they’re both fast friends and very compatible, complementing each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

And near the end of the season, this pair becomes a trio with the inclusion of Nanachi, that fluffy rabbit-looking kid who lives deep in the fourth layer of the Abyss, where the strain on explorers starts to become oppressive. Nanachi enters the story at the time when Riko and Reg need them most, when Riko is poisoned and near death from the effects of the Curse of the Abyss. Even though these two are total strangers, Nanachi takes them in and provides for them, using their healing knowledge to save Riko’s life and help her recuperate. This rabbit child is extremely resourceful and has a world-weary sadness unusual for that age, but for good reason considering their backstory.*

World-weary and a little bitter, but fluffy

All three of these kids are endearing in their own ways, which makes it all the harder to see them suffering. And damn does Made in Abyss like to put its heroes through some suffering. This brings me back to my warning at the top of this post — if you’ve heard anyone refer to this series as full of trauma and sadness, I’m about to get into why and how along with a look into a couple of the more common and interesting criticisms I’ve seen of how the story and characters are handled.

We get some hints of how dark this story might get from the outset. Our heroes’ trek into the Abyss is already incredibly dangerous from the moment they begin. As a beginner Red Whistle explorer, Riko is only officially allowed to explore around the topmost first layer not far from Orth itself, a region that already has human-eating dragonesque creatures flying around as we see in the first episode. While she has a wealth of knowledge about the Abyss and all its layers from her studies in Orth, Riko has never actually seen beyond this first layer, so her descent with Reg into the second is already uncharted territory for her.

Moreover, turning back isn’t an option, partly because Riko is determined to make it to the bottom of the Abyss, but also because of the aforementioned strain on explorers that increases with depth. This strain is both physical and mental, causing headaches, dizziness, and nausea in milder forms and progressing to delirium and more dramatic and even life-threatening symptoms. Strangely, this “Curse” as it’s called only takes effect when an explorer tries to ascend while in the Abyss — descending is easy by comparison, though there are still increasingly dangerous predators to deal with that will gladly hunt kids like Riko and Reg.

Yeah not exactly a happy fun adventure, is it

The first hint that their journey is getting serious comes in the second layer, when the pair manage to gain entry into the “seeker camp”, an outpost controlled by the old warrior and explorer Ozen the Immovable. Ozen helped Riko’s mother rescue the girl when she was a baby, born as she was deep in the Abyss, but despite this connection she initially comes off as cold and perhaps even cruel towards Riko.

The presence of her apprentice Marulk, a child about Riko and Reg’s age who immediately bonds with them, is a comfort to them, but the next day Ozen confronts Riko and Reg with the reality of life in the Abyss and with some of the hard facts about Riko’s birth (my favorite from Ozen’s flashbacks: her reaction to Lyza’s wisp of a new husband, Riko’s father who sadly does not survive the trip out of the Abyss after her birth.) Ozen then attacks Riko and Reg and very nearly gets Riko killed, sending Reg into a rage and leading to a fight in which both almost end up dead a few times over before Marulk gets help from the camp to stop it.

This confrontation turns out to have been planned by Ozen as a test. Episodes six through eight do a great job of establishing her as a White Whistle warped by life in the Abyss to the point that she’s lost a lot of her humanity. Yet she still has some human feeling. Before they can continue their journey, Ozen forces Riko and Reg to spend several days surviving outside the camp on their wits alone, and when they return battered but alive she realizes that they at least have a chance of making the trek down to the bottom and then gives them support and her blessing. Ozen might be warped, but she’s kind in her own extremely hard and realistic way.

Ozen also mentions other White Whistles living in the Abyss who Riko and Reg might encounter and the dangers they represent, with special emphasis on a guy named Bondrewd. Our heroes don’t come face-to-face with him in this season, but Bondrewd turns out to be a true villain in contrast with Ozen’s “fake villain” act. His story is tied up with that of Nanachi and their close friend Mitty, originally two orphans from Orth who, like Riko and Reg, took an opportunity to descend into the Abyss. In this case, the two were part of a program led by the seemingly kind and caring Bondrewd to bring orphans into the Abyss and to give them a chance at getting some kind of experience down there.

Unfortunately, we know where this is probably headed, because it’s immediately obvious in Nanachi’s memory that something is wrong. Nanachi and Mitty at the time were both normal humans, and the pair today are anything but. Nanachi refers to both of them as Hollows, deformed former humans who are in danger of being captured and/or killed by explorers, forcing both to hide in the fourth layer of the Abyss. And of course it was this seemingly nice guy Bondrewd who did this to them — his “save the orphans” program turned out to be a cover for his horrible human experimentation program. Bondrewd uses these children to test the effects of the extreme strain of the Curse deep in the Abyss with terrible results.

He does pull out a justification for what he’s doing, but probably not enough of one to be murdering orphans.

As a result of these experiments, all Bondrewd’s orphan recruits with the exception of Nanachi completely lose their humanity and turn into fleshy, melted monstrosities, with Nanachi somehow only losing their physical form and turning into a rabbit-human hybrid, a “fluffy stuffed toy” as they put it to Reg early on.

Mitty’s fate by contrast is unbelievably horrific, turned into a living lump of flesh without higher brain function. This horror is compounded by the fact that thanks to some aspect of Bondrewd’s experiment on the two of them, Mitty apparently can’t die and has to live on in her degraded form, as Nanachi points out likely forever. Unless Reg uses his Incinerator on her — when Nanachi sees him using his hand cannon in battle, they realize this weapon that breaks down its target into subatomic particles is perhaps their only chance to put Mitty out of her misery. When Reg finally agrees to Nanachi’s request and kills Mitty, it’s a partly sad scene, but really more of a happy one since it means she’s been released from her suffering.

There’s a criticism I’ve seen attached to all the above horror: is it too much? The criticism here has to do with how the story plays with the watcher’s emotions, taking a peppy, likeable, and entirely innocent character in Mitty and having the maniacal Bondrewd turn her into an undying monstrosity. The effect is extreme, especially when you’re dealing with child characters. And the same argument might be made to a lesser extent about what Riko is put through starting in episode 10, when she’s forced to endure an almost fatal poisoning on top of the effects of the Curse when Reg has to ascend to a higher point in the fourth layer to bring her to safety.

I won’t post screenshots here but it’s rough, and this one fits anyway. Death is all around our heroes and they know it.

The interesting question here is whether the story is being emotionally manipulative with all this “cute kids made to suffer horrifically” stuff. Despite how extreme it can get, I don’t think Made in Abyss goes too far, at least in this first season. The immense danger of the trip is set up from the very first episode, and Ozen plays an important role in snapping Riko into reality about what the Abyss is really like early on in their journey. Even though Ozen turns out to be a friend and a support to Riko and Reg, she’s absolutely a hard realist who seems perfectly ready to let both of them die if she had concluded that they couldn’t handle their task.

The same is even true for Mitty and Nanachi’s story. Though Bondrewd naturally comes off as evil and perhaps outright insane, his actions sadly don’t feel unrealistic considering how often the powerless are taken advantage of by those with authority and influence. As a White Whistle, Bondrewd commands massive respect among all of society up on Orth, to the point that the orphans he collects willingly go with him down to the Abyss, even volunteering for the trip and without any clue of what’s in store for them.

The newly transformed Nanachi witnessing pure horror, kept by Bondrewd as an assistant before escaping the facility with Mitty.

The world that Riko, Reg, and Nanachi live in might be beautiful, but it’s also hard and unforgiving. This harsh aspect of the world is built up in a natural way from the beginning of Made in Abyss, so while seeing Riko bleeding from her eyes from the Curse and the horrific human experimentation carried out near the end of the season is terrible, it doesn’t come from nowhere and doesn’t really feel like it’s inserted just for shock value. And it’s not all pure misery, or at least not yet — the season even ends on a positive note, with Riko and Reg sending a note by balloon up to their friends in Orth as they prepare to continue their journey with Nanachi coming along.

The other, more common criticism I’ve seen of Made in Abyss is that it has an unseemly fixation on certain bodily functions and fluids. To put it bluntly, there’s a lot of talk about blood, vomit, piss, and bloody piss (not an exaggeration, that does come up once), and some more generally about nudity and private parts (that last mainly having to do with Reg and him and other characters wondering what a robot needs with those particular parts.)

Aside from plenty of blood and some Curse-related vomiting, we don’t actually see any of this stuff, which is good — most likely this series wouldn’t be hosted on HIDIVE or any other streaming service if that were the case. But some people feel uncomfortable with all this material all the same.

Honestly, snot is bad enough

Considering the fact that most of these characters are just kids, I totally understand that feeling, and there were times I wondered whether this stuff was really necessary. A few times it does feel like the author threw something in just for the hell of it, or maybe for comedic effect (Nanachi telling Reg that Riko has to have medicine injected through the back end, for example.) However, for the most part, I felt the story more or less justified all its talk about bloody piss and so on. While Reg seems to be immune from the Curse of the Abyss, it’s a constant threat to Riko, with symptoms attacking her any time she makes even a slight ascent. Together with the regular physical strain of traveling in this wilderness, the emphasis on the terrible physical effects of the Curse feels pretty natural.

Riko and most of the other characters in this series also have a matter-of-fact attitude towards life and the harsh world they live in. Early on, Nat talks frankly about having to eat rotten and toxic food as an orphan in the poor part of town before he was accepted as an explorer in training, and Nanachi had a similar background before their descent into the Abyss. Riko especially isn’t fazed by anything, a trait she seems to have gotten from her mother — as long as she’s making new discoveries, she doesn’t give a damn. Funny enough, it’s the physically far tougher Reg who has the weak stomach and who gets visibly embarrassed over nudity and the like.

Reg might be a robot, but he acts like and basically identifies as a human. I expect this point will come up later in the series when we learn more about his origins.

For these reasons, I think most of these instances can be either overlooked or accepted as a natural part of the story. Though I should note that I’ve seen far harsher criticisms of the manga and its author Akihito Tsukushi on this point, suggesting that the anime might be toning down some of the weirder aspects of the source material. I can’t say that for sure, anyway, since again I haven’t read the manga. I just dug around on Goodreads last week.

Not that I agree with every review I’ve read on Goodreads. There are some real up-their-own-ass types on that site, so it’s vital to use your own judgment as usual. I don’t even expect anyone to necessarily agree with my opinions here. I just say whatever I feel like on this bullshit blog because it’s the one thing in my life I have any control over at all. A trip down the Abyss doesn’t seem so bad at this point, really.

It’s not all bad, though I don’t know about this water

See, I can’t even go one post without some depression now. That’s life for you. As for this first season of Made in Abyss, I liked it a lot — it was thoughtfully put together, telling a gripping story with interesting characters in a both beautiful and terrifying fantasy world. That said, I get why the more extreme aspects of the series might put some viewers off.

I’m not put off, though. I’ll be moving on to the now-airing second season, but I’ve heard I have to watch the third film Dawn of the Deep Soul first. Apparently the first two filmsĀ Journey’s Dawn andĀ Wandering Twilight together are just another version of these 13 episodes, so maybe you can get by with watching those instead of the first season if you’re pressed for time, but it’s not necessary to watch both. In any case, you can maybe expect a post about Dawn of the Deep Soul at some point if I have anything to say about it (which considering how damn long this post turned out, I probably will.) Until next time.

 

* Nanachi’s gender is undetermined/never expressed, hence the use of the singular they that I’m honestly still not used to. Still feels awkward to use in writing after constantly having “don’t use singular they” drilled into my head in school, but to hell with that — English doesn’t give us a better option, so that’s what we’ve got. Thanks for fucking nothing, English.