This anime is extraordinarily brutal and I’m not completely sure why. 

I was left with lots of unusual questions when I finished S1 of this series. Most of these questions centered around the unusual combination of cutesy artwork, lively, happy characters, optimistic story, and horrific human suffering. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into as I watched through this series for the first time.

When I’m left with questions or uncertainty, it taints my view of a show. I presume there is a good answer for this strange combination of elements, but until I’m satisfied with the answer I find, this show loses a little in my estimation. If it weren’t for those questions, I’d say this was a masterpiece. It tries to get at some very human concerns, and does so in an interesting way. Just it leaves me wondering about it all!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 7

The more “chibi” the artwork is, the less seriously I take the characters. This is a personal hangup I will admit, but it impacts my view of characters. The opposite is not true, that I take more realistic artwork characters more seriously. But I stray. But the number one thing I will remember about the characters in this show is the chibi styling.

That said, I can move on to my objective review of the characters themselves!

They’re very simple, but very memorable. This is a good combination. The show doesn’t try to make a heavy, overbearing past for each character that urges them onward. Instead, their motives are simple and believable. 

Riko is the best example of this. While she is more complicated than most of the characters, her motive is entirely based around going to see her mother. You could say there’s more to it with her backstory of being born in the Abyss and therefore being drawn to it, but that’s more a story element than a character element, in my opinion. Her mom is accomplished and famous in their little world, and she wants to go find where she went.

What makes her memorable, you say? Mostly it’s the suffering she goes through, which I’ll get to in the Story section below. But also, she’s a really happy, optimistic person. In a world where once you go down you can’t easily go back up, all she focuses on are the positives of moving forward. Or in her case, further downward. Most of the characters are optimistic to varying degrees, but she’s exemplifies it among the characters.

Her optimistic character design certainly added to the growing list of questions in my head after a while, but the origin of that list of questions was Reg. The obvious question is “Where did he come from?” Then comes “How did he get there?” “Who sent him?” “Why?”

At this point we pretty much figure Riko’s mom had something to do with it. That gives us some idea of the “where” and “who,” but we’re still in the dark about the “how” and “why.” Immediately the list of questions grows again. Why can’t he remember anything before he set that Red Splitjaw’s hair on fire?

Oh yeah, then we get another big question: What is he? Riko calls him a robot, and he has lots of robot features. But the consensus is that he’s one of the greater “treasures” of the Abyss, made up of perhaps several different great treasures. I guess you could call that a “robot,” but given the glimpses we see of the extraordinary powers of the greatest treasures of the Abyss, that word doesn’t seem to do him justice. 

I am Reg.

So we don’t know a lot about him. He’s strong, he’s nearly indestructible, he’s “machine,” but he also has lots of humanness. He isn’t afflicted with the stereotypical android ignorance. By that I mean things like “What is humor?” “How do I react to this?” “Why are those two people putting their mouths together?” No, Reg doesn’t have any of those deficiencies. He seems as human as the rest of them. His body even behaves in a human way. He feels pain. He bleeds. Bleeds something, we don’t exactly know what. He reacts physically to stimulation, though we won’t go into that anymore. If you’ve seen the show you know how many times they mention a certain physiological aspect of his.

I do know he’s the most popular and recognizable character in this anime. He has an interesting design, with the notable red markings on his cheeks, signifying nothing apparently. I guess they give an indication of his mechanical nature. If you didn’t notice his metallic arms already, that is. Anyway, most people will look at this guy and say “Yeah that’s the robot from Made in Abyss.”

My favorite character is Nanachi. The loli-furball tone of voice is not new in anime, but it’s done very well here by Shiori Izawa. She does mostly supporting work, appearing in series such as Sword Art Online, the Certain Scientific series, Durarara!!, Log Horizon, Girls und Panzer, Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro, etc. Her hallmark for Nanachi is that memorable “maaaa” sound of social discomfort she makes when someone gets too clingy on her softness. An odd looking rabbit-like creature, everyone wants to touch her soft fur, prompting this familiar utterance. Anybody that’s watched this series knows that sound!

Well, she’s mostly my favorite. I shall never forget her troubles and her familiar sound. But if I had to pick a second favorite, it would be Ozen, the Immovable Sovereign. Sayaka Ohara is best known for her powerful voice as Erza Scarlet, one of my all-time favorite anime characters, so naturally I’m inclined to like this character and her voice performance. She’s big, strong, mysterious, imposing, immovable! She’s not complicated, and doesn’t have a lot of development, but she doesn’t need it. We know she’s a friend of Lyza, and this is saying a lot, since Ozen doesn’t seem to care much about friends and that sort of thing. We know they’ve been on lots of adventures together, and Ozen knows a lot about where Riko and Reg are headed. She embodies a lot of the early mystery we encounter surrounding the depths of the Abyss.

Early in the show, side characters come and go quickly. Riko has a handful of buddies at the orphanage who are out of the picture quickly after the first few episodes. As is Leader, a sympathetic but cold overseer figure at the orphanage. Another of Lyza’s acquaintances, Habolg, appears for a short time and plays a small role and then disappears into Riko and Reg’s wake. Ozen’s apprentice, Marulk, appears only during the MCs’ stay at the Seekers Camp. But I guess that’s just it. Most of the side characters reside in a particular location in and around the Abyss, and since the story is following the descent of Riko and Reg into the Abyss, we naturally depart from characters we’ve just met in short order.

So it limits development. But that’s okay. Perhaps this is the reason the anime chooses to avoid developing any of the characters significantly, even those we see throughout the show. Either way, the lack of development for side characters and the limited development for the main characters doesn’t bother me. It works well for this show and this interesting set of characters.

Artwork

Rating: 8

I must draw my first distinction between the TV series and the movie here. The drawings are good in both. But the animation, particularly the action sequences, are astonishing in the movie. I’m guessing this is a budgetary thing. I hate that this is often the case in anime, but unfortunately it seems inescapable. It’s a bummer for the TV series. But I can’t complain about the upgrade into this movie! It’s great quality, and lots of fun to watch, an unexpected surprise in a series where the artwork was otherwise characterized solely by its chibi style.

As this show progressed, this chibi styling contributed yet further to that list of questions in my head. So I start this show three years ago (around 2017) right when it’s first released, and I stop after one episode. And it was because of the artwork. I didn’t know the direction this series took until I heard about its popularity as time went by. I just felt like this was going to be a little girl’s adventure story, even if it felt slightly odd with some of the strange things mentioned in passing during the first episode. The diminutive height, the oversized ovular heads, the roundish eyes, and stubby fingers, combined with Riko’s energetic personality, all felt as if it was aimed at younger audiences.

This is one set of questions I really wish I had an answer to. Why did the manga author choose this style for a show that explores reality in a pretty harsh manner? It’s cute beyond doubt. People who are into chibi styles love this show. So why choose a cute art style for such a harsh show? I can speculate, but it is merely that. I imagine there is a reason beyond personal preference by the author. But as I’ve said, it leaves me with questions. The style doesn’t seem to match the tenor of the show.

This seeming mismatch does do one important thing: I can’t think of another anime where a chibi style is so prominently used in an adventure drama or dark fantasy. There probably are other similar instances, but I don’t know of them. So if nothing else, it makes this show somewhat unique.

It’s chibi in all but coloring. The coloring is distinct and “colorful,” but not very bright. This is the primary factor that tells you that this show isn’t necessarily just a fun and adventure ride for the main characters. Granted they are in a giant hole, and the only light they encounter is explained through this undefined “force field” thing, so you’d expect scenery to mostly be dim. But I imagine this is more intentional than circumstantial. It’s effective in dimming the mood of the series which would otherwise be very positive until suddenly it isn’t.

It’s good, but not great. I give it an 8 because of how impressive the action sequences are in the movie. I have the big stylistic question that hangs over my experience for this show, and it affects my view of the artwork. Confusing your viewer usually isn’t a recipe for success in anime or any other visual media, and this seeming mismatch causes just enough confusion in my subconscious that it’s distracting.

Story

Rating: 9

There’s lots of interesting things going on in this story. I’ll be as brief as I can about each.

The story centers around the Abyss, a giant chasm in the earth of mysterious origin that has captivated mankind’s interest for nearly 2000 years. So much so that an entire city, nay, an entire civilization, has sprung up around the outermost lip of the Abyss. Two big questions jump violently onto my ever-growing list at this point.

First, 2000 years? So this thing was discovered sometime around our modern day (I guess) and people have migrated around it in this manner and only know about 15,000 meters of it? We don’t even know if there is a bottom. The two millennia that’s passed serve to explain the sci-fi technology that we encounter here and there, most notably the “force field” that seems to aid in the introduction of light and air into the depths of the Abyss. We don’t know if that’s manmade or simply some phenomenon unique to the Abyss, but either way, its creation or discovery are a product of the many years of study and exploration here. So they know about or created this “force field” thing, but we don’t know if the thing has a bottom? So what they can’t get a message to the surface? How come they haven’t figured out a better way to get a message to the surface than a freaking balloon? Hell Nanachi gives Riko and Reg little communicators that allow them to talk when they’re separated. Why don’t they have a similar thing to communicate to the surface?

Second, we know nothing about the world outside the area of the Abyss. People obviously moved there in significant numbers 1900 years ago, and we have a sizable population there now, but this isn’t all the people left on planet Earth, is it? What’s happening in the rest of the world? It doesn’t matter to the story obviously, as we depart the surface within the first two episodes. But it’s overtly unexplained. I’d rather they said nothing about people moving to this area, and it just be that way, than know people moved here and who knows what happened where they came from. It’s an obvious question, whether it’s relevant or not.

Connected to this, these people don’t seem the least concerned about the outside world. Whatever’s been happening out there for the last 2000 years, the people here don’t seem interested. Nor does the outside world seem to offer anything to this little world. Whatever technological advances have occurred (or not) out there, little of it seems to have made its way here, where the people live not in squalor, but close enough. This environment is almost like a dystopian slum (Alita’s Iron City just slightly more country). We know there are slums, mentioned a couple of times when the characters are on the surface. It doesn’t seem like a very nice place, but people are “drawn” to it, and apparently don’t have any intention of returning to the rest of the world.

Ozen and the Cube.

I haven’t even mentioned the Abyss itself. Interestingly, as a sci-fi/fantasy element, its strangeness and possible inconsistencies don’t bother me. It’s a fascinating object, and its various layers are amazing just the way a new and strange world should be. We see lots of “other worlds” in anime (oh, is Made in Abyss isekai? Another question!) but few are as fascinating as the landscapes we’re presented with in the Abyss. It’s not the drawing so much as the creativity in the design. The upside-down forest, the giants’ goblets, the fault and it’s strange tunnels and such, it’s all quite spectacular. 

But the most interesting part of the Abyss is the curse. This show contains no “magic” per se, but does have superhuman abilities derived from greater treasures discovered in the Abyss. Yet you have this completely inexplicable Curse of the Abyss. You can descend in the Abyss to your heart’s content, and Riko and Reg do plenty of this. But you can’t ascend. Not without invoking the Curse.

When I first heard of the curse during the show, I immediately thought of decompression illness, something scuba divers experience if they ascend too quickly from their ocean dives. This is a byproduct of the pressures of the ocean water however, not something that’s generally experienced in air pressure. About the worst we get is our ears pop, or sometimes nosebleeds where an individual is more sensitive to such atmospheric changes. So initially, I thought this “Curse of the Abyss” would simply be some exaggerated version of this, inexplicable though it may be.

But I was very wrong. In decompression sickness, you have pretty much the same effects regardless of depth, and you have to ascend a fair distance too rapidly to experience it. It can be dangerous, but also is easily avoidable. In the Abyss, you could take a few slow steps up the stairs and you get hit with the effect. And it changes based on level. At 15,000 feet in the ocean, supposing you could dive there without artificial pressurization, you’d have the same symptoms that you’d have at 50 feet (I believe). At 50m in the Abyss, when you take a step up a ladder, you start to get dizzy. At 15,000m, when you take a step up a ladder, your body starts to morph into something else, something horrific and inhuman. This is not decompression sickness 2.0!

Is it an environmental factor or is it some meta-conscious effect? Is it magical or physical? Is it supernatural or natural? We don’t know. And we don’t have to know. It’s science-fiction at its finest. It’s fascinating, mysterious, inexplicable, and totally unreasonable. And it works perfectly. It’s the defining feature of this show, without which nothing would be the same. It’s the reason why the human race’s progress into the Abyss is so slow. Yes I think it’s unreasonable to create this world where somehow these people haven’t found a way to communicate at least, or at least found a sure way to overcome the effects fo the curse. But that’s separate from the curse itself.

Put all the interest factor of the curse itself aside, you have a devastating plot device imposed upon this story because of it. In an adventure story where most of the traveling is done vertically, our characters can only move in one of the available directions: down. They cannot move upward, not without extreme risk. Imagine a movie where the characters could only walk to the east, and never return to the west. Yeah yeah, on a spherical planet that’s ultimately not as big a deal, if you can travel all the way around the world that is…how many of you plan to do that just to get back home? But the Abyss is a vertical space. You go down, and there’s little hope of going back up. You can’t even climb a staircase. 

The Goblets of the Giants.

It’s a great twist on an adventure story. It literally is a cap on their traveling. There’s no going back alive. There’s only the descent. It’s a one-way ticket. It’s magnificent.

I have two more parts of the story to note. One is a quick one. The pace of this story is extremely fast! Riko meets Reg in episode one, and makes up her mind to leave her entire world behind and descend into the most dangerous place she knows in the second, and by the third episode they’ve passed the point of no return, where even pursuit would cease because of the risk from the curse. It slows a bit from there on, as Riko and Reg spend some time with Ozen and company, and then run into troubles in the fault and the giants’ goblets. But the early fast pace is remarkable, and the feeling carries through all the way to the end even though it does quite obviously slow a bit.

Now we come to my biggest question on my big list of questions. One that overshadows this series so heavily, so remarkably, that all the other questions seem pointless by comparison. Despite the feel of adventure, despite the chibi artwork, despite the interesting, energetic, and often very positive characters, there are many shocking moments of extreme brutality in this show. So much so, the entire show is colored by these scenes.

You don’t realize this is the case until you’re deep into the show. One of the reason I stopped watching this show, as I mentioned, was because it seemed targeted at young audiences. One thing that made me second-guess that assessment was the odd practice at Belchero Orphanage that Riko mentions within the first five minutes of the series: punishment at the orphanage takes the form of being strung up naked. What the freaking hell? I couldn’t make this make sense with my assessment of what I thought this show otherwise appeared to be.

If nothing else, I should’ve realized that, at the very least, this monstrous practice appearing in an otherwise peaceful environment was indicative of some deeper darkness lurking in this show. As I resumed the series and watched through, while I was aware of some of the fatalistic undercurrents that the Abyss represented, I nevertheless wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen in the fourth and fifth layer.

We were accustomed to seeing Riko and Reg getting into scrapes, particularly with the native creatures of the Abyss in the layers they traveled to. So it was no surprise when they encountered this dangerous porcupine dinosaur of a monster in the fourth layer, the Goblets of Giants. So far so good. Reg is equal to the task as usual, and they mostly find a way to thwart the beast. But this time, not completely. The creature manages to stab through Riko’s right hand with one of its poisonous spines. From there, all hell truly breaks loose.

Reg violent rips the spine out of Riko’s hand. For the first time in this series, we see a lot of blood and guts. Riko is in extreme pain, and she and Reg both know she’s been poisoned. It gets worse. Because the creature could pursue them if they jumped down to a lower “goblet,” Reg makes a quick decision to carry the wounded Riko up to a nearby higher goblet. They leave the beast behind, and Reg is finally able to administer aid to Riko. The Curse has done its work however. Riko’s condition is far worse than when she was stabbed with the spine. She’s hemorrhaging everywhere, including out her eyes as the legends of this layer foretold. Her eyes turn pinky-red and blood streams all over her face as she screams in pain. Her hand swells with the toxin. There’s not going to be any way to stop what’s happening to her.

No one expected this. But then no one ever does.

In strained speeches between cries of pain, Riko tells the emotionally overwhelmed Reg to cut off her hand. That seems like it makes the most sense. The poison is probably still localized there after Reg quickly placed tourniquets above Riko’s wrist. If she could survive the effects of the curse, Riko still wouldn’t survive the poison as long as it was in her body. She and Reg both know the hand has to go. With her last bit of consciousness, Riko tells Reg he’ll have to break the bone at the wrist to slice the hand off. As this horrific scene continues to unfold, Reg grits his teeth and ignores his tears and smashes Riko’s wrist. She screams in even more pain. We’re not done. The hand is still there. Reg takes Riko’s knife. Mercifully we’re only showed his initial slice. He doesn’t get to finish, as Nanachi shows up and helps bring this terrible scene to a close.

At this point your brain is reeling. Nothing like this had happened up to point in the show. The brutality of the world is sprayed all over this series. Your heart breaks between sorrow at their pain and sometimes rage at those who impose it. The hopelessness of their situation is instantaneously excruciating.

I could go into the evil workings of Bondrewd and his horrific experiments that result in the dehumanization of Mitty (and Nanachi to a lesser extent) and the other children like her, or his monstrous solution to nullifying the effects of the curse, but it would take a while and simply highlight the same point. I definitely think the point of all this is to highlight the Abyss as some kind of microcosm of human life. People lost in confusion in places they don’t understand any better than a child would understand a fantastical pit, living on what invisible hope they can while danger surrounds them on all sides, holding on to friends and love and life. And occasionally, inevitably, tragedy, the harshness of reality, strikes home. But this is a complicated web, and it would take a lot of time to unravel. I realize this element is crucial to this story however, and its centrality to everything cannot be overstated. And its handled extremely well. This show erupts into these heart-pounding moments of extreme emotion, and you can’t get it out of your mind. The contrast is stark and fantastically presented.

Between this and all the other clever parts of this story, it’s extremely engaging and forever memorable. To go by quickly, a lot of pieces are placed together, and they all fit very well somehow. It’s really well done.

Overall: 8

One thing that frustrates me about this anime is that the subsequent movie is essential to the plot as a whole. Often anime movies are tangential to the main plot threads of a series. In this case, the movie simply continues the journey of Riko and Reg plus Nanachi as they descend into the fifth layer and encounter the devilish Bondrewd. The monstrosity of the tale explodes. All of our information on Bondrewd comes from that movie. And if they continue the series with another TV series, they’ll begin as Riko and friends pass through to the sixth layer. So you have to see the movie to follow the series effectively.

Judging by what they did with the movies however, they might start a new season with the events of the movie. Three movies were released, two of which are just content from S1. I guess they were released to renew interest in the series in anticipation of the new content for the third movie. So a third season might start with events from that third movie. This would be frustrating to me, and probably to a lot of fans. Which is why I’m frustrated with how they handled the introduction of the movie.

I like contrast in any tale. Whether it’s movies, books, or anime, some of the best stories I’ve seen involve an unfolding plot where everything seems happy or peaceful, etc., and then suddenly everything drastically changes. Often this is handled poorly, and the result is a directionless feel in the final product. Made in Abyss pulls this off. There’s enough tension and uncertainty hinted at through all the positivity that even though you’re surprised when things get rough, you don’t feel like it’s way out of line. As awful as things become, I enjoyed this anime because of how well this contrast transition was handled.

The only quibble I have about this contrast element is that list of questions that it contributes greatly to. Primarily, I have little idea who the target audience is for this show. Most ratings I see imply adult audiences, and I can believe that! But the art style isn’t typical of seinen. I can’t imagine an adult picking this anime out of a list based on the visuals. And while this show is wildly popular, I wonder if that’s the result of the passage of time and the target audience slowly learning they are the target audience! 

Yes my list of questions mostly remains unanswered, which is one thing I will associate with this anime forever if those questions aren’t answered in subsequent seasons or movies. There’s always some danger in answering every plot question in a story. Often such situations are handled poorly, since all the twisting threads of storyline often give rise to contrived or convenient answers. If the authors handle this carefully, then the conclusion of this series could be better than the current set of storyline even. That’s my hope, not some trite resolution just for the sake of having resolution. 

This is a unique anime! I like it for that. A great adventure story. It’s an unusual mixture of anime elements that result in a mentally stimulating exposition. Granted some of that stimulation is confusion, but not all of it, so it works really well. I like it, and I hope we get to see the conclusion to Riko and Reg’s adventures, and I get some of my questions answered, sooner than later!

4 Comments »

  1. I agree with your mismatch comment about the visuals. I’m like 100% sure that it’s authors preference. I guess it does add contrast and make it feel more “fantasy-like” but I’m not really sure if it was worth the disconnect I felt a bit at the start. Though I thought the backgrounds looked super beautiful just throughout.

    Like

    • The ongoing debate between the expected stereotypical and the surprisingly different goes on! Both can be good. I like the attempt to be unusual and different here, just it causes confusion while watching! Hey we’re discussing it so they made us look at least.

      Like

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