How much is too much? That, I think, was the question on everybody’s minds when this second season of Made in Abyss began. Almost exactly five years ago, the first season delivered a masterfully told story of adventure and tragedy that succeeded on basically every level, and deservingly captured our anime of the year award. Half a decade on though, and one unremittingly grim movie later, I know that for me at least my relationship with Made in Abyss has changed considerably, and I was apprehensive as to how I’d deal with this arc, especially given all the dark mutterings about how painful and tragic it was.
It’s ironic then, that I ultimately think that the explicit material presented within The Golden City of the Scorching Sun is one of the most successfully executed, and least troublesome elements of the whole story. Though the horrifying suffering of Irumyuui, Vueko, and company is never less than excruciating, the show understands how to leverage that content to maximise the sense of hopelessness and tragedy, to stir our emotions and bring us into the world of the Abyss, to allow us to become deeply invested in the fiction. In that sense, Made In Abyss has not missed a beat. Instead, it’s in the more prosaic parts of the narrative in which cracks have begun to emerge.
Part of the problem with The Golden City of the Scorching Sun is that it’s a much less personal narrative than the series has been up to this point. In a way, that’s inevitable, and not even that unwelcome. There’s only so many times you can pit our main trio alone against unstoppable odds after all. A larger, more varied cast offers a chance to flesh out the world and introduce some variety to the on-screen interactions, and indeed it’s often successful at that. The problem is, the combination of the new, more urbane setting and a story that’s so rooted in events which happened far in the past renders our theoretical protagonists largely passengers in their own story. Truth be told, this is actually a story about Vueko, Wazukyan, Belaf, et al instead of Riko, Reg and Nanachi.
That’s not a problem in abstract, but in practice it feels like the intertwining of the narratives is not sufficiently smooth. Nanachi spends most of the show asleep, Riko is largely buffeted from event to event, devoid of agency, and Reg is frustratingly tied up in his personal history with Faputa. Between them they feel less like the catalyst for events and more like strangers who just happened to wander in and lean on the self-destruct button. I think Riko comes off the best, because her unquenchable optimism and spirit make for a fine foil with the darker, more cynical elements of the story, but it’s difficult to argue she’s consequential in a major way. Reg’s case is especially annoying, because in theory the beginning of revelations about his mysterious past should be a huge deal, but instead they’re mostly subsumed by the need to tie his story to Faputa’s, which we’ll come back to.
If the show is mostly about the new characters then, how do they fare? Again, it’s a combination of outstanding strengths and glaring weaknesses. I want to start with Wazukyan, because he’s about as close as a series comes to an overarching bad guy, although that’s an extreme simplification. Wazukyan works in this context because he’s such a marked contrast from what’s come before. Bondrewd was, at the end of the day, a classic megalomaniacal psychopath, someone who has subsumed everything to his own personal desires. But Wazukyan is something much more dangerous – he’s a visionary. He believes – he truly believes – in his mission, and that makes him scary as hell. When that zealotry and its accompanying absolute immorality are effectively placed alongside his cheerful, laid-back disposition, he makes for a truly chilling villain. That’s why he’s most powerful in the flashback sequences, where his almost casual turn to unspeakable atrocities is both unexpected and extremely jarring.
In the ‘present’ of the show however he’s much less effective, and it’s never really clear what he’s trying to accomplish through the back half of the story. His laid-back demeanour tips over into lackadaisical as he calmly watches the Village he sacrificed so much for be torn apart. What I found myself really craving from Wazukyan was context and motivation. He’s clearly driven, at any cost, to create this home for the outcast and unwanted, to forge his own Shangri-La down in the darkness of the Abyss. But why? What is it that drives him to such extreme ends? There’s nothing for us to grasp there to understand the character, leaving him a charismatic and compelling cypher, but a cypher nonetheless.
Vueko and Irumyuui by contrast are easier to understand – they’re Nanachi and Mitty again. Alright, that’s being rather flip, but the dynamic is similar – the despairing and remorseful sinner and the lost Lenore, the victim of the crime that brings such shame. I’m not pointing this out as a criticism, but rather as a good example of internal intertextuality, a repeating motif but on a larger scale this time. The relationship between the two is the strongest in the story – a mutual love and kinship that makes the subsequent nightmare that much more harrowing and painful.
I will say though that, external to the narrative, the depiction of Irumyuui in particular troubles me on some levels. The character is defined almost solely in terms of her femininity, from her initial inability to have children to her ultimate fate as a dead baby factory, and it’s deeply unnerving in a way that’s probably beyond what was intended. The relationship between pregnancy/motherhood and monstrousness is already an extremely troublesome trope with a chequered history, but I’m extra uncomfortable here, seeing as it’s being deployed by a male author who already has a bad record of brutalising his prepubescent characters for his own kicks. I’m not saying that it’s a deal breaker, and obviously a certain level of discomfort is the point of the whole exercise, but for me at least it’s an uncomfortable detour into some of the less than savoury external factors around the creation of the story.
Our final major new character (sorry Maa) is also the most important and most influential – it’s Faputa of course, the ‘Princess’ of the village. I’m going to just come out and say it – I think Faputa is a terrible character and a lot of the problems of this arc can be laid directly at her feet. The major issue is that she’s incredibly schizophrenic – the plot requires her to be an unending instrument of destruction, and angel of vengeance who exists only to destroy the village and punish the inhabitants. But the personal, er, ‘tendencies’ of the author also demand that she be a sickly sweet kawaii uguu childlike character who has a cute speech impediment and a poor understanding of Reg’s personal space. To be clear, I’m not saying that the first depiction doesn’t need some softer edges to humanise it and give it depth, but the massive contrast between the two portrayals is fatally jarring. The interminable pseudo-romance with Reg subplot adds very little to the experience and takes up far too much time, as well as providing the requisite tiresome dick jokes, and it all seems so damn trivial compared to the very serious and dark business which is going on around them.
Faputa’s odd characterisation is also responsible for some of the big issues that come up in the last couple of episodes, which mostly consist of her fighting wildlife, fighting Reg, fighting wildlife again, etc. At least here you can see what they were going for, and the idea of trying to persuade Faputa that her vengeance is not worth the lives of the innocent people in the village has some thematic meat to it. The problem is, we’ve had very little time devoted to that aspect of the story, and a huge amount of time focused on just how fucked up the stuff that happened to Irumyuui was. Personally, that meant my balance of sympathy was tilted way, way over to the ‘kill them all!’ side, and the story’s last-minute attempt to persuade me that shouldn’t be the case just came nowhere close to dissuading me from that view. On one level, I think that the show might understand that too, since Faputa does indeed ultimately ignore Reg’s appeal and kills them all. On the other hand, it means that a lot of the last couple of episodes ends up feeling like dead air, particularly the extended Faputa/Reg fights which look amazing but have no real narrative weight.
And yet…and yet…I still cried at this. When all was said and done, I was still weeping. The reason for that is that, even though its ability to execute on the ideas it has is less than perfect, Made in Abyss still realises that the most powerful weapon it has are its themes and emotions, and puts them front and centre when it really matters. In particular, I want to highlight Vueko’s final scene, in which she comes to appreciate just what Irumyuui meant to her, but importantly, also what she meant to Irumyuui. From that relationship sprung horror and grief on a barely imaginable scale, but that doesn’t diminish the truth of the joy and love that was there. Looking back from the end of the story, it’s abundantly clear that the titular Golden City never existed – it was a dream, an ideal, a metaphor for a place where those who were lost, hopeless, and outcast could call home. The Abyss perverted that dream, twisting it into a mocking dark mirror of itself, but it couldn’t kill it entirely. Even Wazukyan, as deranged as he was, still held that dream sacred, committed his atrocities in its name. What this final scene shows us is, even as others fell into darkness, that the journey into the Abyss brought out the best in Vueko, took her beyond the broken, useless, barely human puppet she thought she was, to expose her true values: love, loyalty, fidelity, self-sacrifice. It found the gold in her.
Made in Abyss has never been a perfect show. This time round, it’s arguably more imperfect than ever. What it still realises though, is that beyond the darkness and suffering that are such painful parts of its tale, the core of any story is the hope and joy between friends, and their determination to press on despite everything. It’s why, as uneasy as I was about The Golden City of the Scorching Sun, I still hope that this story will continue one day. Too much? Not yet, as it turns out.