originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/646005...
Oh yes, we’re doing this one.
Made in Abyss is, in my book, one of the strongest and most memorable anime of the past few years - a place it achieves in my head by virtue of being genuinely unsettling in a way that is just not matched by other horror anime.
This is a claim which, if you take a glance at its chibi drawing style, or even the first few episodes, may come as a surprise: it’s a show that recognises the importance of anticipation, of a slow build to attach you to the characters before it traumatises the shit out of them. And then just keeps raising the bar; if the last few episodes of the series are harrowing, Dawn of the Deep Soul takes it to levels that make even the edgiest anime fans I know pause a bit.
I want to say this upfront because you should know what you’re getting into! But let’s set the scene.
Made in Abyss began life as a manga by Akihito Tsukushi, and there is precious little information available about this guy in English! I did find a brief collection of Japanese-language videos on ANN, which is not especially revealing (perhaps the most notable thing being that he owns a childsize clothier’s dummy which he uses for drawing reference) but does mention some of his influences: the climbing manga The Summit of the Gods by Jiro Tanaguchi, and Miyazaki’s The Journey of Shuna (a kind of proto-Nausicaa, with very recognisable character designs).
Other than Made in Abyss, the only credit I can find for him is the one-shot manga From Star Strings/Star Strings Yori. This is a brief melancholy, fairytale-like piece about a girl alone on an alien world, recognisably stylistically similar to Made in Abyss, and with a similar arc of a girl suffering all kinds of hardships as she pushes herself into a strange, hostile place in pursuit of a connection she’s constantly denied… but the girl continues to press on and adapt to her harsh surroundings even as her world is cut down to the bare life of eating, sleeping, and tending her wounds. It stands out for its gorgeously textured pencil drawings, rich with grey tones… though honestly who hurt this guy? I can’t honestly be sure what I get out of his stuff emotionally is what he is putting in, but in any case, I find it connects in a way less sentimental grimdark sometimes doesn’t…
MiA proved tremendously popular in manga form, and in 2017 received an extremely impressive anime adaptation by Kinema Citrus. Though it’s a young studio, Citrus’s staff are veterans of Bones and Production I.G., and it’s not surprising they’ve made a lot of very impressive works - for me the notable one is Revue Starlight, which is a delightfully Ikuhara-esque about girls having emotionally-charged sword duels to stand at the front of a the Takarazuka Revue…
In charge of adapting Abyss was Masayuki Kojima, another director who got established at Madhouse (again! hell of a fucking studio) with series like the gritty seinen psychological murder drama Monster, and the wild, frenetic late-Gainax collab Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (which has been described to me as having a similar energy to Haré+Guu).
Kojima was joined by a lot of very talented animators who brought a lot of vital character-acting charm to Abyss, but one to single out is the monster designer, Kou Yoshinari, who’s responsible for defining the movements of the uniquely weird beasts that populate the Abyss. Once again, kVin’s here to do my homework for me:
Kou “Aninari” Yoshinari might very well be the most unique animator in the industry. It’s not just that his style is unconventional, but rather the he approaches the craft in fundamentally different ways that sometimes confuse even his peers. When he appears as a guest he basically exists outside the regular production line, painting and applying effects to his own sequences as he pleases. In this case though, Aninari is in charge of the show’s bizarre monsters as their designer, and that gives him plenty of room to experiment with nightmarish creatures.
(I couldn’t find a good gif of the creatures, but here’s Mitty. Cute, right? 😏)
The results are apparently somewhat controversial, but to me Aninari’s creatures are one of my favourite aspects of the show: the unconventional bauplans, yonic shapes etc. really bring home the alien nature of the Abyss, while still feeling pretty convincingly naturalistic on a spec-bio front. And their strangeness helps to accentuate the irony that the adult humans are always far more horrifying when you get to know them.
So what is this series actually about? Made in Abyss is set in a society tightly focused on an enormous vertical hole called (shock) the Abyss, which extends kilometres into the ground, becoming more dangerous the further you descend - with each ‘layer’ presenting a more severe curse for those who attempt to return. The exact mechanics are loosely sketched at first, but we get the picture that, for all but a few exceptional individuals, the lowest levels of the abyss are a point of no return.
In this situation, we follow a girl named Riko who lives in a kind of training orphanage in the town surrounding the abyss - a ‘Red Whistle’ in the hierarchy of the Cave Raiders who descend to pull out artefacts for the dead technological civilisation. Her mother is a ‘White Whistle’, the highest tier of Cave Raider, but she has been absent for most of Riko’s life.
The pattern is disturbed by two strange events: first, she discovers an amnesiac robot boy named Reg on one of her expeditions, who possesses long extending arms and a terrifyingly powerful (if difficult to use) weapon in his hands; second, she receives a missive that her mother has disappeared somewhere in the depths of the Abyss. This sets the stage for a long journey into the unknown; Riko is too young to face the rigours of the abyss alone, but deeply informed about its secrets, while Reg is too ignorant of the world and lacks Riko’s motivation.
For people who know the manga, it sounds like Kojima has toned down some of the more gratuitous scenes of gore and fluids (and gave the ones that remain a proper buildup and impact), and broadly emphasised the emotional core of the series. The result is an adaptation that may stand well above its source; certainly it’s full of fantastic art direction and character/effects animation that really help sell what may at first be a difficult premise. There’s definitely still a certain current of toilet humour - “robot boy has boner but doesn’t really get it” is a recurring joke - but this is a fairly small element of the mix, and manages to work better than you expect with its broad themes of humans being living organisms who fit into food webs like any other creature.
Like many anime series such as Madoka, Made in Abyss re-cut the original single-cour series into two films with some minor new scenes, then created a third fully-original film to follow it. This inevitably truncates some of the slow, tense build of the series - though not by too much, if you cut out the OPs/EDs only about half an hour of material has been cut. Still, given how tight our schedule is, that half an hour may make a big difference, so I’m going to show the compilation films tonight…
…and then we’re going to dive into the third film, Dawn of the Deep Soul. Which has the dubious virtue of being one of the most harrowing, challenging anime films I’ve ever seen, up there with the likes of Barefoot Gen (though at least unlike Gen, it doesn’t have that extra punch of ‘all of this actually happened’). It does this not through gory visual effects, but a narrative that delivers emotional punch after punch, as the kids desperately confront a outwardly kindly yet mercilessly utilitarian cult leader with a penchant for ‘even by anime standards’ fucked up human experiments.
The result… well, if you are prepared for a film that pulls out all the stops and goes well beyond the bounds of “good taste” in pursuit of sheer emotional intensity, it lands hard. Think of a Yoko Taro game, or End of Evangelion; we’re in that kind of territory, though with a few more years of iteration.
(Which is also to say if you want to check out after film 2, I totally get it. The original run alone presents a pretty satisfying arc.)
In filmmaking terms, Dawn of the Deep Soul (深き魂の黎明 fukashi tamashii no reimei) manages to create another step up from even the high standard of the original series, with some incredibly choreographed, high-concept action setpieces (for which I understand I should thank Shuu Sugita and Satoshi Sakai for key animating some of the most striking sequences). But almost as gripping is a sequence involving an act as simple as walking up a staircase, which is not as simple a matter as it may sound in the Abyss. Or when they reveal the nature of a certain, seemingly minor character design element…
Bondrewd deserves a nod as well. “Bad dad” evil scientists are a common villain archetype in anime, but he is less of a distant, Gendo Ikari style figure than the embodiment of a terrible contradiction: always gentle and kindly even in the most absurdly cruel circumstances. He is the kind of villain who, to give a mild spoiler, will congratulate the kids who have managed to pump his body full of deadly parasites for their ingenuity; he will be charming and affectionate as he leads one of his orphans to the operating room, oblivious to any contradiction. He really gets under your skin (and not just literally with his scalpel ha ha) by being always-untouchable, always safe within his own narratives. And that’s not to speak of his adopted daughter and her arc. There are few villains I’ve been keener to see go down…
Perhaps part of the film’s intensity is the fact that, unlike the series, it progresses through the beats of its corresponding manga arc at a relatively breakneck pace, but this creates such a sense of overwhelming escalation that I find it hard to fault. But it is a film that, the first time I watched it, I had to pause after one line just to stare into space and feel like, “wow guys, that’s a bit much, wow.”
What I’m saying is, you don’t get films like this very often. Which is probably a mercy. At the same time, I’m a sucker for well-executed, emotionally harrowing grimdark nonsense. I fully accept that this won’t be to everyone’s taste, that for some people ‘fucked-up’ is less alluring and more a hard no. Please rest assured we’ll chase this up with something light and silly next week, but I still feel a need to share it…
Tonight, then, starting pretty much on the dot at 7pm UK time (I’ll put out the ping a little early), we’re going to be marathoning the three existing films of Made in Abyss, namely:
- Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn
- Made in Abyss: Wandering Twilight
- Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul
If this all sounds like the kind of fucked-up thing you might want to enjoy with friends, then please join me at twitch.tv/canmom… it’s sure to be an experience, I can promise you that!