Quotorium Reviews: Made in Abyss

And so the Year of Anime continues! I just finished watching Made in Abyss and I’m blown away and a little freaked out by all that it managed to get into 13 episodes. As such, there’s a lot I want to say about the 2018 anime of the year. This anime has so much to it I just couldn’t help sprinkling some analysis in there. So without further ado, let’s dive on in! Or perhaps…climb down?

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Riko encounters many fantastical but deadly creatures in the Abyss.

Made in Abyss follows two children; Riko, a girl training to be a cave raider, and Reg, a boy-like robot, on a journey to the bottom of the Abyss, an open pit with beautiful horrors inside. The pair intend to find Riko’s long lost mother, who was a famous adventurer and cave raider supposedly now living at the bottom of the Abyss. Descending into the Abyss results in traumatic changes to a person’s body if they ever try to climb up again, so Riko and Reg’s journey is understood to continue until they reach the bottom.

Character and Roles

Usually in writing a review I try to talk about characters a little bit more, but in the case of Made in Abyss, the characters aren’t really crucial to how the anime functions. The opening blurb is enough to establish what Reg and Riko do as they go into the Abyss. The only notable thing is perhaps Reg’s super-powered robotic arm and general immunity to more human ailments that allows him to explore without consequence. Where the real worth of our characters lies is in how they tie into the overall structure of Made in Abyss.

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Reg and Riko are vessels of exploration for the audience as they go down the Abyss.

Despite the smaller role of the characters in the overall appeal of Made in Abyss, it’s unquestionable that Riko and Reg are crucial to the viewer’s experience of the Abyss. The characters are tied to the Abyss through their very identities, and so their coming-of-age plot line matches up perfectly with their journey downward. Likewise, the knowledge they gain while descending supports their character growth. As much as Riko’s quest for her mother and Reg’s quest for his identity are important to their characters, it isn’t so much about each individual but rather how they play into the larger ecosystem of the Abyss.

Worldbuilding and Atmospheric Bits

The minute I started Made in Abyss my breath had already been taken away. The world of the Abyss mixed together believable logic with whimsical designs that reminded me a lot of Ghibli movies. The creature design was also top notch, similar to concept artwork that rarely shows up in a finished product. Fantasy and imagination are both at play, but what brings Made in Abyss to a believable level is its emphasis on mortality. Not only can creatures die and reproduce, they can suffer and cause harm to others. This extends to the humans too, since the town of Orth is integrated into the Abyss by association, and its presence is an everyday part of life there. I find developments like this really clever for how they tie the world and its inhabitants together.

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The village of Orth has adapted to the conditions of the Abyss, grounding fantasy with reality and building a life around it.

As if the narrative wasn’t already good, Made in Abyss has an incredible score to add to its worldbuilding magic. In fact, all of the music for the anime pushed me through not only writing this review and several other projects for this blog, but more professional projects as well. The OST was composed by Kevin Penkin and uses whimsical, haunting and folkloric sounds to create a very distinct style that I just fell in love with. In particular, the insert song ‘The Underground River’ floored me when I heard it in Episode 1. I was really impressed with the variety in the OST since it created a very clear image for the world of Made in Abyss.

Narrative and Setting

As I’ve hinted at in the other sections, Made in Abyss is literally built for its narrative. The plot of descending an unknown pit and encountering more horrific things overtime works perfectly with the usual, linear progression of a story, and every part of the anime contributes to this structure. The Abyss itself grows deadlier and more unknown as Reg and Riko descend, they encounter more and more dangerous cave raiders, the tolls on their bodies become more intense, their resolve grows, and their emotions are tested. Not only that, but the Abyss is split into layers, clearly marking chapters in the pair’s journey. The consequences of ascending from any of these layers range from irritating to fatal, and this marks just how far away from their starting point we are in the anime.

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The map of the Abyss that appears at the end of every episode also serves as a road map for the narrative, marking how far down the viewers are and how far gone the characters are.

Made in Abyss is an incomplete series. However, the Abyss is designed in such a way that the general plot line is easily understood. It isn’t always predictable, and the story still delivers in shocking ways, make no mistake! What I think makes Made in Abyss work so well is how it operates within a really predictable structure because every part of it is visible. We can see that exploring the Abyss will have certain consequences, and we can see that the characters will run into these consequences based on how the Abyss is designed. But in a refreshing way, this creates the opportunity for a creative use of structure, similar to how the notebook in Death Note will continue to create stakes with the same set of rules.

If any of this peaks your interest, I’d highly recommend reading Atelier Emily, who did a really impressive breakdown of how storytelling works in Made in Abyss, along with all of the other posts on the anime related to it!

Graphic Content in Made in Abyss

Perhaps the most notorious part of Made in Abyss is its use of graphic content. I knew from the beginning that this show portrayed some pretty awful things in its deceptively cutesy style and that I would inevitably talk about it in a review, but I wasn’t sure how all of it would play out onscreen. Cut to Episode 10, and I’m completely taken aback. I can definitively say that Made in Abyss has been the only anime that I have watched where I felt legitimately ill while watching it. Riko and Reg’s journey down the Abyss invited all sorts of whimsical eldritch horrors that were subsequently paired with a burning realism with how exploring those sorts of environments would actually play out. This juxtaposition is at the centre of how Made in Abyss can execute its gore and body horror so well.

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Riko is impaled with a poisonous spike by one of the creatures of the Abyss.

The anime was very attentive to how bodies would react in different environments. A lot of what makes Made in Abyss so freaky is the depiction of body horror by way of just showing regular bodily functions that don’t often appear onscreen, or in more extreme cases, by showing the horror of ceasing to be recognizable as a human. In short, the anime was so effective because it targeted that feeling of existential dread that we’re not comfortable with facing directly. While the show used a cute style of animation, and in theory should separate us from those uncomfortable feelings, it flipped the effect by placing such an unassuming style under fire by its environment.

So What?

I feel so late to the party, but Made in Abyss was definitely worth my while! I highly recommend watching this show –so long as you’re alright with body horror…and disturbing themes. While this anime isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart it is incredibly beautiful in how it handles these scarier topics that most fantasy will gloss over. Every part of this anime is haunting and I dread what is yet to come for Reg and Riko as they continue down the Abyss. But because of how effective Made in Abyss is with its storytelling, I have confidence in it too.

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Ozen the Immovable terrifies and comforts Reg and Riko as they descend the Abyss.

I’m surprised at how much I had to say with this one, but it’s honestly just such a dense show despite its short run time! I’d love to analyze more, but that’s about all I’m comfortable with saying for now –at least in a review. Made in Abyss is truly deserving of its hype and critical acclaim, and my thoughts definitely fall in with the vast majority of others praising it for its clever use of animation to deliver a compelling story. I look forward seeing to whatever else Made in Abyss has in store, even if that means minimizing my screen and watching through my fingers.

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