Review/discussion about: Made in Abyss
(As supplementary material for this review, please refer to my essay on this anime and its world-building techniques, “Made in Abyss and Building a World”.)
This past month, I have sunk a ton of time (perhaps too much time) into a video game that fans and critics alike hailed as GOTY last year: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Its sprawling map. Its sense of freedom. Its myriad of opportunities. Having now experienced (pretty much) the entirety of the game myself, it’s now easy to see why it captured the attention and the hearts of gamers from across the globe. And, while I do not consider this iteration the best in the franchise (my vote goes to either Link’s Awakening or Majora’s Mask), I likewise give the game the praise it undoubtedly earned.
Also last year, an anime by the title of Made in Abyss became the talk of the town, receiving those coveted AOTY awards from relevant outlets. It also strikes many other similarities with Breath of the Wild. Focus on a huge world, perilous obstacles, getting to the girl at the very end. Minus shield surfing and Great Fairies, the two pieces of media are practically the same.
All right, not quite. But at least this following statement is true: Made in Abyss also earned its praise without a shadow of a doubt.
For most anime enthusiasts, they have heard the words “made”, “in”, and “abyss” lined up and linked together many times over in everyday discussions and conversations by this point in time. For others still, this triplet has become synonymous with several different words as well: lauded, amazing, stellar, incredible, perfection. Whatever it may be called, Made in Abyss certainly strives for nothing short of a hole-in-one.
Before it commits to its first swing, the show sets its sights on a wonderful setup within its starting three episodes. In the first episode, most of the character introductions and an initial glimpse at this bizarre place take place. In the second episode, the show gives the audience a better understanding of what is and will be going on. And in the third episode, a goal is established, providing the (only) necessary direction for the journey to head towards.
And, somewhat paradoxically, it only goes up from there.
Within the remaining ten episodes, Made in Abyss creates a thrilling fantasy adventure worthy of the copious praise it has received. The fantastic world-building within stands chief among its successes. From the interesting flora and fauna to the unstated details that flesh out the gaps in-between, the anime has a clear command of how to build a lush, vibrant world. In doing so, the framework for the story takes shape, forming an extremely sturdy platform for it to stand upon.
Jumping off this point, the show likewise takes advantage of the premise and the ideas at play when it follows its rules and opts for craziness. A fair but deadly combo that grants the anime a set of stunning moments during its run. They leave the audience either wishing for the characters’ victory or picking their jaw up from off the floor after a ruthless happening. Such intense scenes not only define the strength of the story but also keep those who watch these events transpire in a state of captivation the whole way through.
More importantly, by sticking with such (contextual) fairness, these developments also aid the narrative on a thematic and more general writing front.
For starters, worthwhile themes act as guideposts. Origins and the desire of the self to know where it comes from. Inversion and the necessity of diving down to ascend above. Perseverance and living with tenacity while struggling against death. Drive and the sense of longing, will, passion, and curiosity people contend with on a regular basis. Be it certain narrated monologues or an in-the-face demonstration of a concept, these themes lace the story every which way, fueling more to think about outside of the action and the dramatic sequences.
As for the general level of writing, it remains consistent and strong no matter the layer in question. In fact, Made in Abyss leverages many common yet meaningful techniques that in turn layer the writing itself. Foreshadowing from both the straightforward and the clever sides map out the plot. Multiple puzzle pieces based on messages, disappearances, and memories slowly connect the bigger picture together while keeping the audience guessing. Repercussions for character actions. Callbacks to other in-universe items and offhand mentions.
While the storytelling does not reach legendary status, these inclusions benefit Made in Abyss regardless. Indeed, the setting alone provides the anime so much to work with. Each new layer presents a new biome that in turn contain new challenges, new people, and new occurrences, leading to a genuine feeling of inherent narrative progress as they slowly accomplish their goal.
So, do the three words that make up this title deserve the other words that have become so regularly attached to them over this past year? Well, the setup, the world-building, the intensity, the themes, and the writing would argue that it has scored no less than an albatross.
ART & ANIMATION
Made in Abyss continues its excellence in its visual presentation.
The high-rise shots of the cobbled city of Orth deserve recognition. However (and understandably), the anime sets most of its time aside to showcase the beauty and the chaos of the Abyss. Ruins and greenery near the first layer. Rockier outcrops pop up afterwards. A strange, windy forest, and a harsh, cloudy fault soon follow. Giant “goblets” filled with hot water fill up the next location.
These areas (and more) contrast in their weather, their terrain, and their atmosphere, but they find similarity with a scrumptious amount of finer details and the true sense that these areas teem with life all their own.
To this end, Made in Abyss also goes out of its way to give its various creatures a range of designs from the reminiscent to the weird. Neritantans and inbyos remind one of bunnies and monkeys (respectively) but crimson-splitjaws and amakagames invoke that fantasy feel which the show champions.
Better yet, creepier or scarier moments sometimes lead to painted versions of these monsters. The off-kilter style contrasts harshly with the regular direction of the visuals, but such a dichotomy improves the otherworldly vibes these encounters emanate, thereby bolstering the fantastical element to this story.
Much of the anime’s flair likewise proves fruitful, too. While lighting tends to don a green hue due to the oft grassy fields and shrubbery, certain scenes go beyond the norm: striking sunrises, colorful glows, shadowy skies. It also does not shy away from its more brutal sequences, depicting for the audience (whether they want it or not) a front-and-center view of the reality this unforgiving netherworld throws their way. And the actual animation remains in high spirits as Riko traverses caverns, Reg rappels down cliffs, and the two push ever onward (and downward) into the Abyss.
Their character designs cap off the visuals with even more strength. The simultaneously simple and involved looks capture their personalities and quirks while also harboring a lot of symbolism. Riko’s exploration gear and glasses coincide with her fierce curiosity. Reg’s metal helmet and red cape give him the superhero vibe to match his superhero actions. Nanachi’s nomadic garb and bunny appearance turn her into a lady of the land and a wise seer.
Ozen is also worthy of a shout-out. Her tall demeanor, creepy expressions, and black coloring paint her as quite the intimidating being. Yet her hunched posture when sitting and her contrasting white coloring form the moral ambiguity which drives her.
Altogether, the visuals for Made in Abyss speak for themselves.
“A human, a robot, and a bunny tumble into a crevasse…” reads like the setup to a lame standup routine that someone wrote down on a whim at the back of a bar on a lazy afternoon. It also describes the major players of this tale: Riko, Reg, and Nanachi. Thankfully, these characters are anything but the butt end (or relevantly bottom end) of a joke.
Riko is the brains of the operation, the purveyor of the strange and the unknown. Her large sense of leadership stems from the bravery she exudes despite her physical limitations. Curiosity fuels her, and she desires to learn about both the world around her and what became of her mother. As such, she pushes towards the end of the Abyss. All while cooking up some tasty grub when and where possible.
Reg is the brawn, the bodyguard who protects Riko with all his might. She found him by chance near the top of the Abyss, and, having no recollection of his former self, followed Riko and her friends at the orphanage. He lacks the same sense of determination as his glasses-wearing friend, but he remains unaffected by the Curse of the Abyss no matter the layer. Wishing to understand who he really is, he embarks with Riko on their quest to reach where no man, woman, or sentient being has gone (in the downward direction at any rate).
Riko and Reg clearly form the classic wit-and-power duo, the two complementing each other to make up for their respective weaknesses. A tried-and-true approach which creates for them a simple yet effective dynamic. Riko gives Reg courage and reason during their tumultuous trek, and Reg gives Riko the means to fight forward with grapple arms and incendiary attacks aplenty.
They need each other to progress, but they also need each other to survive. Not just in the wild but also on a psychological basis. The Abyss is unrelenting, and the only true entities within it that they can rely on are each other. Thus, their equivalent presences soothe their souls with safety in numbers and a priceless friend to rely on.
If Riko is the brains and Reg is the brawn, then Nanachi is the book, the guide who watches over them with a gentle (albeit furry) hand. Nanachi isn’t too fond of closeness, a byproduct of the loneliness she has experienced for much of her life. More importantly, she understands the lay of the land: describing monster behavior, creating medicines to heal wounds, revealing how the Curse of the Abyss actually works. As a denizen of these darker depths, she rounds out the cast with knowledge and expertise that the original two wish they had at their disposal.
Moreover, Nanachi is arguably the most interesting of the group. Her backstory drips with tragedy, and her empathetic connection with Reg introduces some character writing that Made in Abyss had mostly shied away from until her arrival. It’s unfortunate, then, that her inclusion occurs so late into the season, for she represents a strong addition to the cast. Not a third-wheel but rather another spoke for the frame to keep the original wheel turning that much smoother.
On a more general level, Riko, Reg, and Nanachi share many parallels. For starters, they’re not adults or teenagers but kids. An important distinction since choosing this route not only magnifies the dangers the Abyss spawns around every corner and upon every layer but also elevates the sense of wonderment and adventure that each next step carries with it.
These characters also revolve around two totally separate yet intricately linked ideas: life and death. They were each born in the Abyss, made within it. Riko literally by her mother; Reg by construction from the ground up; Nanachi by ditching her old life in hopes of a newer favorable one. They all “died” there, too, when considering the anatomical, philosophical trifecta of mind, body, and soul. Riko lost her soul for a brief period; Reg lost his mind to amnesia; Nanachi lost her body after transforming into a Hollow. Such wonderful parallels between the three main characters make for an intriguing setup that gives Made in Abyss yet another edge to admire.
Characterizations and meanings of this kind are no doubt neat, for they serve the anime well. Plus, the cast members themselves are a likable trio for sure. However, Riko, Reg, and Nanachi miss out on the lasting greatness that defines much of the rest of the show. Their personalities aren’t the most engaging. Their interpersonal connections hold back slightly on dimensionality. Their presence in this story doesn’t feel that memorable.
To clarify, Riko, Reg, and Nanachi are vital to Made in Abyss, so the show wouldn’t be the same without them. And the narrative (and all it entails) takes precedence over their involvement, so they received less attention than they would have otherwise. Still, without that necessary spark, it’s tough to claim that they exist at a top-tier level.
MUSIC & SOUND
Made in Abyss continues with its incredible run by channeling an awesome musical repertoire.
Above anything else, the original soundtrack can only be described as fantastic. Lively instrumentation. Uplifting arrangements. Crushing tunes. Tribal influences. Emotional vocals. The Abyss is a rewarding, indigenous, and scary place, and the OST that backs this anime captures these feelings and more with its impressive pieces.
While these musical tracks fly above the rest of the sound-related production, the signposts at the start and finish of every episode do not go unheard themselves. The opening track, titled “Deep in Abyss”, sees Riko and Reg trading off on the vocals, giving this singular song a duo and dual direction that keeps their camaraderie in mind. The piano melodies and varied pacing aid the flow of the song, too. It’s a bit more fantastical in feel with a twinge of dread mixed in for added flavor and relevant vibes.
As for the ending track, “Tabi no Hidarite, Saihate no Migite” takes on a much more whimsical and hopeful tone. Its playfulness contributes much to this feeling: dinky instrumentation, clapping hands, floatier vocals. Almost optimistic, the ED has a charm that contrasts well with the severity of the Abyss, thereby elevating the effectiveness of the piece.
Guttural monster noises notwithstanding, a handful of solid voice-acting performances likewise appear within Made in Abyss. Relative newcomer Miyu Tomia as Riko fills the air with excitement and emotion as she encounters each new layer. Mariya Ise as Reg, while having the least powerful performance of the three, pushes past fear with belief. And Shiori Izawa as Nanachi sounds oddly cute despite her nonchalant attitude and somewhat raspy delivery.
In short, the audio aspect of this anime almost never falters in its execution.
What an awesome show.
It’s one of those stories where I increasingly found myself wanting to see what would happen next. I would finish an episode and say to myself, “All right, just one more…”. It was enthralling and crazy and dramatic; I just couldn’t look away.
I was impressed with the anime to the point that I actually got tricked by Ozen. I thought for sure that they were settling on the mediocre route of setting her up as an obvious villain. Tooting my own horn here, but I am pretty spot-on when it comes to predicting how events will usually progress. So, when such a rare turn of events does happen, throwing me for a loop, I take it as a sign of a job well done on the show’s part.
As for the main trio of characters, I found myself liking them well-enough. Riko’s dive into the unknown is a trait that I could learn from, for I am surprisingly stubborn when it comes to change, and her fierce courage had me rooting for her success in her fearsome trek. Reg is a cool dude if only because he instantly befriended Riko and the others, helping with willingness and sincerity. Nanachi is my favorite of the bunch, though. She has several worthwhile moments tied to her introduction, behavior, and mini-arc over the course of just a few episodes that I found her to be the most intriguing within the crew.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t a big fan of Maruruk. His sappy personality treaded close to annoying territory, but his tearful farewell made him tough to dislike. And I feel as if the anime missed a huge chance in its finale montage by not showcasing what Riko, Reg, and Nanachi sent back in their balloon. Ending the season on a drawing (by Nanachi) of the three of them would have been so powerful as that lovely music fades out.
But I digress. Tons of other elements still added up to a very entertaining time for me. Building up the reveal of Lyza. Piecing together the mysterious bits at hand. Researching more about world-building as part of my supplemental essay. All told, even if I do not personally give it the honor of receiving AOTY (for 2017), this anime is excellent in my eyes, and I cannot wait to see the inevitable continuation in the near future.
Made in Abyss delivers a phenomenal experience. Its intriguing storytelling and likable cast of characters are supported by fantastic artistry and wonderful music. With a very high level of execution throughout, the project can breathe easy knowing that it rises up within this wild medium.
Story: Great, a thrilling fantasy tale rich in world-building techniques, thematic ideas, and writing chops, creating a narrative filled to the brim with intensity and intrigue from top to bottom and everywhere in-between
Art & Animation: Great, from the scenic shots to the interesting character designs, the visuals capture the beauty and the chaos of the Abyss and more without compromise
Characters: Good, Riko, Reg, and Nanachi are the brains, the brawn, and the book whose soul, mind, and body are tested throughout the first leg of this journey that they share together
Music & Sound: Great, a stellar OST, a strong OP-ED combo, and solid VA performances allow the audio design to shine in their own way
Enjoyment: Great, smaller gripes aside, the enthralling moments and other elements joined forces to bring about an entertaining time that refused to let go for thirteen episodes straight
Final Score: 9/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3