Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Made in Abyss
The city of Orth encircles the mouth of a gigantic pit known as the Abyss. As the last undiscovered frontier in the world, it is a major draw for explorers known as cave raiders, but mysterious forces at work within the Abyss often prevent even the best spelunkers from returning from its depths. Riko is a twelve-year-old orphan training to be a cave raider like her mother Lyza, who was one of the greatest ever known. On one of her raids, Riko discovers Reg, a humanoid robot, and takes him back to the orphanage with her. Soon after, evidence of her mother's loss deep within the Abyss surface, and Riko becomes determined to go down herself and find her – no matter what the cost.
At this point, the anime adaptation of Akihito Tsukushi's fantasy manga is better known to English-speakers, since its release predates that of the source manga. For the curious, this first volume covers the anime's first three episodes, and it's absolutely worth reading even if you're already familiar with the story. Tsukushi's tale of a young girl trying to find the mother she barely remembers and a boy who wants to understand his strange body and role in the world is dreamlike in both art and execution, imbued with the sense of a dream that could become a nightmare very easily.
The dual protagonists of the series are Riko and Reg. Riko is an imaginative twelve-year-old who often acts before she thinks and makes up wild stories. On the surface, this simply appears to be her personality, but as the book goes on, we can see that it's also a reaction to her life's circumstances – her mother Lyza was one of the greatest White Whistles, the highest possible rank for cave raiders from the city of Orth. Lyza vanished into the Abyss when Riko was only two years old, leaving her with vague memories that have been embellished by what she's heard and read about her mother. Thus Riko makes up stories and thrives on chaos of her own making because she's so desperate to live up to the legend of the mother she lost and will always be associated with. In a very believable way, Riko thinks that if she stands out in the same way Lyza did, her mother will come back for her. Given that the orphanage she lives in only barely provides affection (it's more focused on training orphans to be cave raiders), her emotional needs have to be met somehow.
The entrance of Reg does help her with that in a surprising way. Reg appears to be a robot boy, found by Riko in the Abyss and smuggled into the orphanage. There are some things about him that blatantly contradict his robotic nature, however, from the presence of genitals and a belly button to an apparently functional digestive system that can be supplemented with electricity if no food is available. All of this suggests that Reg is a cyborg rather than a robot; perhaps he was modified in order to survive ascending from the Abyss. In any event, Reg doesn't remember anything about himself, which puts him in a similar emotional position to Riko. He feels lost and adrift, leading him to suspect that answers may lie in the depths beneath Orth. This allows the two of them to form a bond that stands apart from their relationships with other children or adults.
It's ultimately this bond that allows the story to take its first major steps forward, as the end of this volume portends. It's also likely to form the emotional backbone of the plot, as their journey of discovery may reveal more similarities between them than they know. It's a very heavy premise, and Tsukushi doesn't obscure that; however, there are some lighter moments thrown in to help balance the tone. Unfortunately, many of these moments tread close to a few taste boundaries and won't work for all readers; the image of Riko being strung up naked for punishment seems both painful and needlessly sexual, and her exploration of Reg's body while he was unconscious includes sticking a ruler up his behind to “probe” him.
The art for the manga is another potential bone of contention, albeit for totally different reasons. The cartoony people on much more realistic backgrounds make for an interesting visual style, and Tsukushi really uses it well, managing not only to convey the terror of the monsters but the allure of the Abyss itself. The issue comes more from the near total lack of white space in the artwork – pages are uniformly gray and look as if they were originally done in color but then simply printed in grayscale. White is only rarely used for special emphasis, which works well, but otherwise the grayness is tiring on the eyes and makes it difficult to see the details, which is definitely a problem. It certainly does slow your reading down so you can fully take in the story, but reading manga shouldn't give you eyestrain or a headache, and this manga at times risks both.
Made in Abyss, despite its cute characters and classic adventure plotline, is not an easy story to swallow. This volume lays the emotional groundwork for Riko and Reg as they set off on a very personal quest, and it's easy to see how things are only going to get harder on them from here. But it's also the start of a fascinating story that should deliver plenty of emotion. Whether you're already a fan of the anime version or not, Made in Abyss' manga is a journey worth undertaking.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Effective emotional impact and character building, great details in the art and setting
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