Made in Abyss
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Made in Abyss ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Made in Abyss ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Made in Abyss ?
One of the hardest things to do when creating fiction is imbue the world of your story with a sense of genuine mystery. This is not the same thing as simply filling a setting and plot with a bunch of unanswered questions and puzzles to solve; I'm referring to the intangible quality that comes with venturing into a fully realized world, with years of history and conflict and culture bursting from every unexplored corner. It's easy to fill a script with unknown variables and sudden twists, but it's much harder to craft a story that exudes a sense of strangeness that doesn't just pique the curiosity of its audience but demands their undivided attention. We're only a few episodes into Made in Abyss, and already it's clear that this show is going to be something special in that regard. This anime isn't just about explorers, but it invites its viewers to take part in that exploration and revel in all of the mystery, wonder, and fear that follows.
Despite some of the misgivings I hold regarding this show's source material, Made in Abyss is far and away the most captivating and engaging series I've seen this season. While the second and third episodes aren't as visually dynamic or cinematic as the show's stunning premiere, the series has managed to maintain a sense of melancholic wonder that doesn't show any signs of letting up. Simply put, the world of Made in Abyss is one of the most confidently realized settings I've encountered in an anime, from the meticulously detailed city of Orth to the terrifying beauty of the Abyss itself. From what I can tell, Made in Abyss is the first original work from author and artist Akihito Tsukushi, but the level of care and detail he's taken into putting together such a fully realized place is nothing short of masterful. Director Masayuki Kojima and the crew at Kinema Citrus are cutting no corners translating Tsukishi's dark fairytale aesthetic to the realm of animation, and the result is something truly special.
What's more, the worldbuilding, art, and storytelling are working together to give us a vision that feels cohesive, which means that every detail we get comes across as purposeful and necessary. The single biggest sin a series like this could commit is drowning the audience in exposition before getting to any of the good stuff, but despite the fact that we're only just getting into the Abyss by the end of the third episode, there isn't a single moment of needless infodumping or dry plot recounting to be found. Everything we need to know about this world, the city of Orth, and the Abyss itself is communicated either through naturalistic conversation or the visuals alone.
The Resurrection Ceremony at the heart of episode two is a perfect example of this. In this one sequence of events, we're told everything we need to know to set the plot in motion. Through the children's play in the beginning, we have a visually interesting explanation of the different rankings of Cave Raiders while also learning more about why this world values exploring the Abyss so strongly. Pairing it with Riko's personal discovery of her mother's possible death also gives us the emotional impetus for Riko and Reg's journey into the depths of the Abyss. There is a certain amount of confidence and skill necessary to tell a story in such a way that develops characters, expands on lore, and maintains the momentum of the plot without missing a beat, and Made in Abyss has it in spades.
It also helps that the series' control of its tone and atmosphere is so damned skillful. It should come as no surprise that the show is taking an inevitable journey into darker, more disturbing territory, because Made in Abyss is so good at foreshadowing its own intentions, even in these relatively bright opening chapters. The individual beats of darkness are wisely treated by the characters as no big deal, just the realities of living and working in the Abyss. There are countless skeletons found, eternally contorted into poses of prayer, not to mention the various monsters and otherworldly entities occupying the Abyss' lower levels, or the bouts of sickness and madness that consume anyone who tries to return from the deepest layers of the pit. It isn't just the Abyss that has been corrupted, and some of the most fascinating flashes of sinister intent occur right in Riko and Reg's own home at the orphanage in Orth. Riko's room is an old execution chamber after all, and even if you ignore the oddly graphic punishments forced on children who take any relics for themselves, it's harder to ignore the many mentions of attacks by foreign raiders and the implicitly suicidal nature of the work given to the most skilled spelunkers, such as Riko's mother Lyza. What all of these little moments point to is a greater shadow that doesn't just infect the Abyss, but everyone that comes into contact with it.
There's a striking moment near the end of episode three, where Nat explains that he comes from the part of town where illegal raiders built their sprawling skeletal shanties over the edge of the Abyss and have come to live in wretched and poisonous squalor, but to him and everyone else in Orth, this is just the way of things. It's a tired cliché to say that a show looks so good that you could make any single frame of it a painting to hang up in a gallery somewhere, but that does feel true of Made in Abyss. The stark shadows and otherworldly angles of the decrepit shanty town hanging over the Abyss isn't just a haunting and beautiful image; it has a clear message to send. Something is fundamentally broken in this world, and Riko and Reg have only just begun their descent.
I haven't read much of the manga beyond the chapter episode three ends on, so these reviews will remain spoiler-free for future developments. All the same, nobody should really be surprised by what these children might end up discovering down there in the dark. After all, one of the most famous stories ever written is about an explorer being guided down the layers of an infinite abyss, and the terrors he found in that Inferno shaped the Western world's idea of Hell for centuries to come. Riko is this story's Dante, Reg is her Virgil, and together they've set off to find out what really hides in the shadows at the center of the world.
Made in Abyss is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.
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