Made in Abyss
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 13 of
Made in Abyss ?
In the beginning we meet Bondrewd, the Lord of Dawn, who comes to the children as if he really is some sort of deity. His mechanical frame is spread wide in welcoming acceptance, and his obscured visage and voice offer a salvation from the dirty slums the orphans have resigned themselves to. His white whistle, carved into two gnarled hands clasped tightly together, seems almost like a parody of prayer, but the children surely don't see that. For wretched souls like Nanachi, Bondrewd offers a chance at a new life, a rebirth that begins miles below them, in the sacred shadows of the Abyss.
Nanachi is a dirty and haggard child, but they're also still recognizably human, just like their newfound companion, a spunky and charming young girl named Mitty. She has a thirst for adventure, and Nanachi has become a self-made expert on the ancient glyphs and puzzles of the Abyss. As they descend along with the rest of Bondrewd's crowd of child recruits, the two fantasize of what they can accomplish for their adoptive father when they team up to hunt for relics down below. For a pair of kids who were starving in the street only yesterday, Bondrewd is giving them an opportunity to literally live out their dreams.
Of course, we know what happens to Nanachi and Mitty, even if we haven't yet quite learned how yet. In Made in Abyss' double-length finale, we get to see what transformed Nanachi into a Hollow and what robbed Mitty of her humanity entirely. Unsurprisingly, it's the stuff of nightmares. Bondrewd's facility already reeked of dehumanizing sterility, but the minute Nanachi finds Mitty trapped in the White Whistle's horrifying “elevator”, it becomes clear just how cold and calculating the man really is. Made in Abyss' terrible power for evoking empathy is at its most potent as we descend with the two children, even more so because we know what's going to happen before they do.
Episode 10 used its visceral and keenly directed depiction of physical suffering to unbearable effect, but this finale is an equally harrowing emotional gut-punch. Slowly and painfully, we watch as all of the pieces of Nanachi's life fall together, and their dire request to Reg suddenly makes much more sense. Nanachi is trying to end Mitty's life because it was Mitty's final request, and Nanachi knows that Reg's power is the only thing capable of finally ending Mitty's miserable existence. This pathetic, mewling mass of flesh is capable only of experiencing pain and fear ad infinitum, since her soul is still trapped inside despite the trauma, so when the tension of the episode builds to Nanachi surrounding their friend with a pile of stuffed toys and a wellspring of pent-up tears, Reg and Nanachi's pain becomes the audience's pain too.
In other words, Made in Abyss finally reduced me to a blubbering mess of ugly tears and barely comprehensible exclamations this week. I had been warned for weeks that the season's ending would emotionally destroy me, and I still wasn't quite prepared for it.
The second half of the finale deals with Riko finally waking and returning to the world, serving as both a conclusion and a transition, showing us how far our characters have come while teasing how much of a journey still lies ahead below them. After being put through such a psychological wringer, seeing Riko and Reg be cute together again is the most appropriate remedy possible, especially now that Nanachi gets to play off both of our heroes and officially turn our duo of protagonists into a trio. Seeing Nanachi playfully rib Reg and gleefully devour Riko's cooking teases an incredibly promising character dynamic, justifying Nanachi's presence in the OP and ED despite only officially appearing in three of the series' thirteen episodes.
This final sequence is important because it highlights what separates Made in Abyss from any of the other stories that delight and revel in characters suffering. Yes, Made in Abyss has gone out of its way to traumatize both its cast and its viewers, but that trauma has always been intrinsically tied to sense of transformative healing. Riko, Reg, and Nanachi have all been irreparably scarred by their experiences in the Abyss, but they've also been imbued with a life-changing sense of purpose and direction. The episode's hot-spring diversion could have easily been an opportunity for cheap fanservice (and it certainly doesn't waste the opportunity to fit in one last awkward joke about Reg's penis), but instead it reinforces the theme of how even a place as filled with death and tragedy as the Abyss can provide respite and rejuvenation for the soul. The fish teeming in the pool consume Riko's dead flesh and help her to heal, just as the fungus on her arm has eaten away at her dying tissue and given her a second chance as an explorer. As Riko, Reg, and Nanachi finish their preparations and leave on the next leg of their journey, the key image is not one of descent but ascent. The gang's first message back to the world above is proof that they are alive, and they have learned things worth sharing with their friends at the top. Even though a monster like Bondrewd is waiting for them down there, optimism wins out over nihilism every time.
Made in Abyss hasn't been a perfect show, but it's as close to perfect as any anime I've seen in the last few years. Outside of my well-worn complaints over the treatment of Reg and Riko's bodies, I will admit that I still have problems with some of its decisions regarding pacing and the focus on characters left behind on the surface, though admittedly a second season could prove them to be relevant. Made in Abyss is greater than the sum of its already impressive parts though, and any minor issues I have with it are overshadowed by the sheer power of what it managed to accomplish in one season.
As a critic, I always do my best to judge a show by asking myself what that show intended to accomplish, and whether it succeeded in living up to its own goals. I can confidently say that this season of Made in Abyss accomplished everything it set out to do on its own terms. Somehow, Masayuki Kojima and the rest of the crew at Kinema Citrus have managed to tell a complete and satisfying story despite being forced to end on a clear cliffhanger. The show has accomplished some of the most thoughtful and effective worldbuilding and characterization I have ever seen. Akihito Tsukushi's original manga is engrossing on its own, but this adaptation is arguably the definitive version of the story with what it brings to the story through its gorgeous audiovisual aesthetic.
Even if we never get a second season of Made in Abyss (which would be criminal), getting even this much adapted is its own kind of minor miracle. Its animation is strikingly gorgeous, it has one of the best anime soundtracks I've ever heard, and it has created a cast of characters and a world that feel worthy of admiration and respect. If my reactions to the show have seemed hyperbolic over the past thirteen weeks, it's only because I can't remember the last time I encountered an anime that affected me so much, or so thoroughly managed to break my heart. To me, Made in Abyss is an absolute masterpiece.
Made in Abyss is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.
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