Made in Abyss
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 9 of
Made in Abyss ?
Before I'd even had the chance to dig into the newest episode of Made in Abyss, I'd been hearing concerns about it being made out of a lot of anime original content. Given the protracted pacing that this season has been working with, I can see how that might have given some fans pause. Even though the final episode is going to be a one-hour special, that still doesn't leave much time left to spend with Riko and Reg on their journey. To brush off this episode as filler would be doing it a disservice, though. Not only is it one of the most exceptionally animated episodes of the show to date, it also serves as an important stepping stone in Riko's growth as a character.
The lesson Riko learns has been perfectly plain to everyone else in this story from the moment she and Reg began their descent; without her robotic friend, Riko would surely perish in the Abyss. Ozen's impromptu training-camp last week was an attempt to build up both of the kids' skills in an effort to keep Riko from getting eaten the minute she left the Inverted Forest. The White Whistle's advice to Reg about the use of his hand-cannon proves apt when he needs to rescue Riko from a vicious creature known as a madokajack, and he's forced to blow its head clean off even though he knows that will render him unconscious for at least two hours. Up in the first layers of the Abyss, this proved to be a minor inconvenience, but here the caverns are cramped and dark, filled with an endless number of predators. Riko is initially unfazed at being left to her own devices, but the rest of the episode serves as a welcome reminder of just how vulnerable a twelve-year-old girl is when she's surrounded by hordes of carnivorous monsters.
Though this episode is light on plot, it makes up for it through pure spectacle and a surprisingly affecting emotional core. Sure, this isn't the first time we've watched Riko and Reg escape near death in the Abyss, but the delightfully weird monster designs and vividly animated sequences of action help the whole affair feel fresh and exciting. We see Riko chased by demonic-looking lizards, nearly drowned in the stomach acid of a psychedelic balloon creature, and nearly get smothered in a mountain of deceitfully cute rodents. In many ways this is a mirror to Episode 4, where Riko and Reg first began their journey, though the tension and danger has been suitably cranked up a notch. Made in Abyss has never been coy about Riko's chances at survival, but this is one of the first times that it feels like she and Reg are truly in danger of being killed. Ozen made for an intimidating figure, but the moodiness and horror of her abode was largely theatrical – here, Riko's foolhardy confidence is clearly more dangerous to her than the flesh-eating monsters.
Despite this episode's focus on Riko's immediate struggle for survival, it still manages to play well against the season as a whole. The show has made clear that these seemingly standalone adventures aren't detours from the story, but the appeal of the story itself. The drama of Riko learning her dark origins is a key psychological counterpart to the more visceral dangers of being eaten or flayed alive, but they're two sides of the same coin. The ominous secrets of the Abyss drive our heroes further down, but those mysteries would feel toothless without these opportunities to see just how hard Riko and Reg have to fight every step of their journey.
It doesn't hurt that the show never loses sight of the emotional foundations that these jaunts deeper into hell are built upon. The final act of this episode highlights the strain of the Curse that Riko endures even when she's working her way up a small incline. Newly accompanying her bouts of nausea and vertigo are hallucinations of her friends and mentors, all trying to convince Riko to give into the fear and the pain once and for all. Riko is too smart to fall for their comforting lies, but the vision of her mother is too much to bear. The sequence of Riko and Lyza ascending back to Orth is quietly heartbreaking, especially when Lyza tells Riko that she doesn't have to worry about the effects of the curse anymore, with the implication being that death is the only way to escape the suffering that comes with being a Cave Raider. What Riko understands even in this delirium is that she and Reg will almost certainly never see their home again, and her return to her mechanical companion is as triumphant as anything Made in Abyss has produced so far. The soundtrack works its wonders to enrich the story and mood throughout the episode, which only bolsters my belief that Made in Abyss might have one of the best OSTs of all time.
In the end, Riko realizes just how necessary Reg is beyond just being key to her survival. They are bound to each other, as close to soulmates as you can get with a couple of preteens. They will be facing everything that awaits them over the next few episodes as a team; they will suffer together, and they will triumph together. That such a simple and obvious beat of character development can end up so affecting is evidence of how Made in Abyss makes difficult and nuanced storytelling look remarkably easy. So while a part of me is disappointed that we have yet another week to endure before diving headfirst into this season's final act, an even greater part of me couldn't care less. This show isn't just the clear highlight of a fairly disappointing summer season, it's one of the crown jewels of the entire year in anime so far. Even its weakest episodes have never been less than “really good”, and when Made in Abyss is firing on all cylinders like this week, it becomes something truly special. The only thing going against this show right now is the fact that it has to end.
Made in Abyss is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.
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