The GLORIO crew tried to finish Made in Abyss but instead it finished them
We regularly condemn or mock shows for being “dark” and “edgy”, featuring gore, violence, and suffering, often because it’s perceived as cool or mature for a piece of media to have these things. I’ve put a bit thought into why I never really thought of Made in Abyss in this way, despite it having all of those hallmarks in addition to a cutesy art style that brings to mind famous swerves/switcheroos like Madoka Magica or Narutaru. I’m not coming to any mind-blowing or hidden conclusions here, but there are a few tricks to Abyss that I think allow it to stride up to that line without quite going past it.
First, the characters are established quite well. In the first five minutes of the first episode, we learn the following about Riko:
- she’s extremely enthusiastic about the Abyss and being a Delver, occasionally to extremes
- she’s a skilled Delver – though she’s surprised by finding a skeleton, she isn’t mentally phased
- she’s willing to make dangerous snap decisions if necessary, blowing her whistle to lure the monster away from Nat
- she’s physically weak, being an actual child. Reg has to save her from the monster.
Then, as we learn about Reg, he’s Riko’s opposite in basically every way. He’s absurdly powerful, but knows very little – not even his own memories – and he lacks mental fortitude. But Riko likes him and he’s cute, so we like him, and in fact these all allow him to complement her as the other main character. The entire first half of the show establishes the idea that if either one were gone, their journey would immediately come to an end. Neither Riko nor Reg is capable enough alone. Which naturally begs the question: when is something going to happen, and how bad is it going to be when it does? When disaster finally strikes, it is intense and heartbreaking without necessarily being shocking; we subconsciously knew this was going to happen one way or another, but we still freak out when it does.
That moment still wouldn’t work without the careful build-up of the Abyss itself. Anime tends to have a quirk where abstract concepts get quantified into numbers or ranks (seen with big hit franchises like Fate or SAO); the idea of the layers of the Abyss takes a bit from this to concretely establish its danger. If it was just “it’s more dangerous the deeper you go”, that’s easy to understand but not particularly memorable. Instead, we directly see the effects of each layer, clearly delineated between them for the most part. It’s more visceral to directly see Riko vomiting or hallucinating as they pass each layer, and it creates a sense of dread of what comes next as they move deeper.
Even before they begin their journey, Riko’s entire world revolves around the Abyss. It’s dangerous, yet alluring; mysterious, but a core part of everyday life. Orth’s written language is based around characters inscribed on artifacts from the Abyss. Their folk heroes are those who dive deeper than anyone else. The ashes of their dead are scattered into the pit. Ozen says the Abyss is revered as a God, but perhaps it’s more akin to a force of nature. The Abyss doesn’t favor its believers, doesn’t discriminate. It’s as deadly and unknowable to Riko and Reg as it is to everyone else, and taking time to establish this makes it feel earned when that danger inevitably descends upon our heroes.
But the most important part of the puzzle – the part that ties together everything about Made in Abyss and makes it something special – is its unrelenting optimism. No matter what happens, our heroes manage to come out the other side. When Riko’s origin is revealed, it’s not some dark secret; Lyza calls it a miracle, a chance for Riko to enjoy the life she might have never had. When she wakes up to her injuries, it’s not a handicap; it’s proof of her bond with Reg, proof that she’s still capable of traversing the Abyss. Nanachi’s gone through more than practically anyone else in the show, but the finale brings closure, new friends, and the promise of more adventure. Of course, when I just list examples like this, it sounds kind of clinical and not like the emotional whirlwind it actually was…
Just, in my experience, people seem to think that the more cynical a show is, the more legitimate it is. You see talk about stuff being good because it’s “cool” or “badass” or whatever other fucking buzzword that describes sex and violence and torment. But what I want is to move past those things; to succeed, grow, overcome. We don’t always get that, but Made in Abyss has it. It’s one of those rare shows that’ll stab you in the gut and then sew you right back up, because maybe what you really needed was a reminder. A reminder that no matter the depths of our suffering, we can still come out the other side and see what kind of adventure awaits us next.
When the Made in Abyss adaptation was first announced, I looked at the cutesy art, shelved it into a back corner of my brain, and moved on with my life. It wasn’t until I connected the dots and realized it was the same manga being spoken of in frenzied tones on a certain imageboard with out-of-context pages being posted, showcasing its beautiful art and haunting tragedy, that I realized that this was something I would need to see for myself. It’s a testament to the quality of the anime that after watching just the first three episodes, I couldn’t resist the temptation anymore and read all of the available chapters of the manga. Even after that, I still watched every episode of the anime with the same enraptured anticipation as I did before.
Made in Abyss is a triumph in both its spectacle and small moments in equal measure. The tragic pathos that drives our characters is just as well rendered as their unyielding optimism and the gargantuan abyss that entreats them to delve deeper every week. The small character moments are great. The big character moments are great too. The only moment Made in Abyss ever falters is the Ozen fight, which outright failed on nearly every level to depict the magnitude of the moment the manga so effectively crafts. Other than that, it’s truly impressive how Made in Abyss was able to juggle so many plates without ever spilling one of them. It would be easy for someone to say that the show’s biggest appeal is its gory shock value, but it would be such a disservice to the nuance of its emotional highs and lows to focus solely on its grimmest moments. For me, this all culminates in the time from Nanachi’s backstory reveal until the conclusion of the anime. It’s a moment that I had decided for myself would be the Made in Abyss anime’s final definitive proving ground. A story as absurdly tragic as hers could easily end up falling flat in animated form, and when the anime managed to depict it in all its repulsive glory and anguished climax, I knew in my heart that the Made in Abyss adaptation was perhaps one of the best I’d ever watched. Almost.
I think Zigg and Iro have already done an exemplary job of piling on the praise, so I’ll instead talk about the elephant in the room; Bondrewd. It’s very obvious that the anime ended prematurely. Bondrewd remains an unmet adversary for our heroes and beyond him, the rest of the abyss still waits. I think generally, Made in Abyss‘ pacing was very good, and it’s more a tragedy of circumstance than execution here. Bondrewd’s arc would require a decent number of episodes devoted to itself, yet there currently aren’t even enough chapters of the manga to justify a full second season. So we’re caught in an odd place now. Rushing Bondrewd’s arc would have hurt the product as a whole, but not reaching that point leaves the Made in Abyss anime in a weird somewhat unsatisfying limbo. The addition of Nanachi makes for a good bookend, but as someone who’s read the manga, it’s a shame we couldn’t have more. Not that we all came along for the ride for big flashy fights, but the Bondrewd arc is the one time Made in Abyss lets loose and it is a furious whirlwind to witness and I can only hope that a Made in Abyss movie or OVA is in the works to address it.
Overall, despite that bothering note, Made in Abyss was the highlight of this season. Rare is the work that can reach such emotional lows and depict such shocking things while still maintaining that balance with a beautifully inspiring optimism. The abyss itself is a contradictory assortment of light and dark. It’s something Made in Abyss itself manages so deftly. I hope this isn’t the end of its time on the animated screen. It still has good stories that remain to be told, it would be a tragedy in and of itself to let it end here.
Gee and Iro have said most of the important things about the show, so it just remains for me to say that I was chiefly drawn to Abyss for the richness of its setting and fiction, and while those were indeed fantastic and fascinating it’s amazing how many other levels the show excelled on. Made In Abyss is that rarest of things, a show which is great at almost everything it tries, and which has no true weaknesses.It’s got fascinating worldbuilding, great character work, a nice snappy pace, gorgeous art, tremendous music and a dense, multilayered script. It flits between slice-of-life, action, horror, and adventure with practiced ease, and the tonal gear changes never feel jarring or incongruous. OK, it’s got an overbearing fondness for toilet humour, but when it’s not making dumb wiener gags it can even be surprisingly funny.
What I appreciate most of all about Made In Abyss though is its emotional honesty. In an era where it’s not very cool to put your heart on your sleeve, and most anime attempts to jerk your tears so hard they’re on cables, Abyss was a beautiful example of what you can do with skilled writing, top notch production and organic, sustained character development. While it’s both sweet and brutal, this doesn’t mean that it’s a schizophrenic beast snapping from one to the other, as so many pieces of fiction tend to be. Rather, Abyss immersed us in its world and then refused to turn away from moments both beautiful and horrifying, wrapping our story deep within its own world. It reminds me a lot of ERASED, our 2016 anime of the year, in the sense that while it features moments of unspeakable darkness and horror, they’re ultimately used to demonstrate the redeeming power of love, friendship and loyalty. That’s why so much of the ‘cute but dark and edgy!’ prose that floated around Abyss sold it so short. By showing a world in which both incredible evil and extraordinary good are possible, and showing us the power and pain of both, it does what all of the greatest art does – holds a mirror up to our real world. That’s what gave Made In Abyss such power, and it’s what makes me desperately hope this journey isn’t over and that we’ll see those lovable kids again.