Review: Made in Abyss – Episode 1: The City of the Great Pit

Review

Kinema Citrus is a relatively young studio, and Made in Abyss is their most recent creation. Based on the manga of the same name by Akihito Tsukushi, Made in Abyss is directed by Masayuki Kojima (best known for his work on the psychological cult classic, Monster). It follows the adventure of Riko, a young and inexperienced explorer who dreams of eventually becoming ranked among the elite explorers in the city of Orth. To do this, she must earn her way up from the lowly Red Whistle class of explorers to the legendary White Whistles, just like her mother. The only thing standing in her way is an immense, bottomless pit known as the Abyss, filled with dangers and mysteries of epic proportions. Nobody knows if there is an end to the pit, and many explorers have been swallowed by its depths, including Riko’s mom.
But one day, while exploring near the surface of the Abyss for Relics of high value, Riko is saved from a monster by a young robot boy who came from the Abyss itself. With no memories of who he is, the robot (whom Riko calls Reg, after a dog she once had) and Riko start becoming friends. More importantly, they begin to consider that perhaps there’s something bigger going on beneath the deeper levels of the Abyss than anybody has ever imagined.
Made in Abyss has a solid first episode. It suffers from the same exposition-heavy introductions as most anime, but that’s more a fault of the medium than the series. At any rate, the episode manages to get viewers up to speed in a hurry. Despite the minimum screen time, characters manage to share authentic interactions, particularly among the main cast–all of whom seem thinly personified for now, though the seeds of growth and foreshadowing are already put in motion.
What this pilot does best is setting the series’ tone. The plot and characters might take only a couple steps forward, but the establishment of this series as a foreboding, yet ultimately optimistic fantasy-scape, akin to many JRPG’s prior to the turn of the millennium, is intense and immediate.
I haven’t seen a setting so suddenly distinct from its contemporaries since Attack on Titan. I have no idea what exists outside of the island which surrounds the pit into the Abyss, and at this point I don’t really care, because the culture of Orth and the Abyss itself are alluring enough. This congested and ramshackle city, which exists in the pinched space between a ring of mountains and the mouth of the Abyss, is full of interesting concepts. For example: buildings are built upwards more than outwards to compensate for lack of space.  Because of this, school classrooms have desks built into the walls, with rope ladders to allow students to climb up to their designated seating. The main characters are all orphans who are put to work excavating the uppermost regions of the Abyss for valuable trade items (and when I say uppermost, I mean it doesn’t even classify as one of the official “layers” of the pit, of which there are several). The rankings of explorers, and how they are tied to whistles of different colors, makes for an easy protagonist aspiration and a cool, aesthetic classification system.
But what really sells the story early on is neither the concept nor the cast, but rather the overall execution. The plot could be half as good as it is in this first episode, and I’d still be willing to invest more time into this series on principle of how it is constructed.

The musical score brought back some vibes from the original Hunter x Hunter soundtrack (not the 2011 version). I was not listening to the music too closely, as my attention was wholly absorbed by everything else, but I never found it silly or jarring. The only song I remember clearly plays during a montage at the beginning of the episode, which inspires a pulse of rustic nostalgia and an interest in the simple but curious lives of these child characters.
The character design is cutesy, without being moe. It’s identifiable almost immediately, nestling into the viewer’s head with its quirky but not overly strange style. The animation itself is gorgeous, with superb camera direction and particle effects on display. My only qualm on this front is the frame rate of a certain creature portrayed in the distance, as it seems to be running at a far, far lower rate than necessary. There’s also a short musical montage (as mentioned above) which silences the voices, telling the narrative through raw character interactions. It reminds me of more than one Studio Ghibli montage, and has the same uplifting and fun effect.
But more than the character designs or the animation, the true artistic power of this series comes from its saliva-inducing background paintings. They are just… resplendent. My skill as a writer falls short of being able to describe them. They really make you long to be part of the adventure.
What Made in Abyss really drives home is the anticipation of exploration. There are small secrets hiding in every corner of this anime, with even more coming to the surface as both the viewer and the characters approach the obvious and inevitable mother of all mysteries–the titular Abyss itself.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: The protagonist finds a skeleton in a praying posture. We do not know who or what they were praying to, or why. There’s a “curse” of the Abyss, but it does not seem spiritual as much as pseudo-scientific in description and function.
Violence: Mild blood. The protagonist electrifies a robot to wake him up, without considering it might hurt him. She does this only after admitting to trying many other things, including burning him and punching through him with a drill–all of which are done off-screen.  A character of authority threatens another with the notion of “stringing you up naked” as a punishment. (It’s left up to the viewer’s imagination whether she’s truly serious about the threat or not.)
Language/Crude Humor: None in my translation.
Sexual Content: There’s sexuality, but it’s not perverse. The protagonist is a detail-oriented, curious mind, and when she finds a male robot unconscious, she has him stripped down (off-screen) so she can check how similar he is to humans. She mentions his genitals by name, but does not do so crassly, opting instead for a more matter-of-fact tone for the entire interaction.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Other Negative Themes: There are many ominous, dark undertones surrounding the mythical nature of the Abyss, most of which suggest dangerous or tragic results for people who go in without preparation. The orphanage that the main characters live at and attend for school is strict, utilitarian, and might actually encourage child labor (it’s a bit too early to be certain). The protagonist’s room at said orphanage is a retired torture chamber–a punishment for her constantly misbehaving. This is treated comically, but it’s a little unsettling that there’s a torture chamber at all, and that adult supervision would see fit to have her live there… especially considering it can’t be too “retired” with all of the devices still occupying half the room.
Positive Content: This series perfectly encapsulates the pure emotions and imaginings of a child going on an adventure. The protagonist is optimistic and curious without being a klutz, a man known as Leader (proper noun) goes out of his way to help the youth (even if he seems not to care), and the first fruits of camaraderie spring up as the main party help each other learn and explore.

The Bottom Line

 

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Cooper D Barham

Aspiring author, marriage and family therapist, and active behavioral health technician, Cooper fills his world with God, music, videogames, anime/manga, drawing, reading, writing, and some physical stuff in between. If you ever want to talk about the big or little things of life, fire him a message. Helping others through tough times is both his passion and way of living. 'Got it memorized?'

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