Made in Abyss
To cite Wikipedia:
"The story is centered around an orphan girl named Riko who lives in the town of Orth on an island in the sea of Beoluska. The city surrounds a strange, giant hole going deep into the earth, which is commonly called the Abyss. The Abyss harbors artifacts and remnants of a civilization long gone, and is therefore the popular hunting spot for so-called Cave Raiders, who undertake arduous and dangerous descents into the mist-filled pit to recover whatever relics they can find. However, the deeper one goes into the Abyss, the more they are afflicted by a progressively fatal malady called the Curse of the Abyss once they ascend back; few who have descended into the lower regions have returned to tell of their experiences. Some legendary Cave Raiders earn the title of White Whistle, one of them being Riko's mother Lyza.
"Riko's goal is to follow in her mother's footsteps and solve the mysteries of the Abyss. One day she explores the caves and discovers a robot named Reg who resembles a human boy that she and her friends befriend. Some time later, Riko is informed that some items sent by Lyza were recovered, including a message to her, telling her to meet in the bottom of the Abyss. Riko then bids farewell to her friends and departs to the Abyss with Reg in search for her mother, despite knowing of the risks and the fact that due to the Curse of the Abyss, she will never be able to return."
Japanese self-publication culture isn't much discussed in the United States, and less often still is it particularly well understood. Although present in one form or another since the Meiji Restoration and encompassing all manner of media, the term "doujinshi" is generally associated in the West with comics, or more particularly pornographic fanfiction in comic form, often somehow perverse. While this is not an entirely unfair assessment—derivative works do make up a fair chunk of the market, and there certainly is quite a lot of smut out there—it undersells the significance of original fiction not intended to titillate in those circles, and moreover trivialises the freedom that working outside of traditional publishing constraints can grant an artist. No less a luminary than Yoshitoshi ABe began his career as a doujin artist, with NieA_7 and Haibane Renmei gestating as independent manga before being more fully realised at the behest of producer Yasuyuki Ueda as animated series.
I mention all this because it is in this milieu which Akihito Tsukushi spent most of his creative life before Made in Abyss, which, insofar as I can tell, is his first "mainstream" published series; likewise, his status as original creator here would be his sole appearance in animation at all wee it not for the curious distinction of being the original character designer for Fairy Musketeers. I really hope that this is not the last we see of him in these circles. Like ABe, Tsukushi's work is instantly recognisable and intensely original, not to mention gorgeous in its small details and broad gestures. Yet also like ABe's work, Made in Abyss is deeply strange in its own, unique way: Something grown in the dark, far from prying eyes. Something not malicious, but still dangerous. Something with teeth.
The first thing you will notice about Made in Abyss is that, perhaps even more so than its source material, it is breathtakingly beautiful. Describing every little nuance would take a lifetime, be it the sun creeping over the roofs of the sprawling city of Orth or the grain of the wooden walls of the raider station on the Third Layer or the horrid ripple of the scales of the Crimson Splitjaw as it descends on our erstwhile protagonists, but I think those three provide enough gushing in their own right. If I am to assign particular credit here, I must single out Osamu Maruyama and Kou Yoshinari, the art director and creature designer respectively, the former a seasoned Studio Ghibli veteran and landscape painter (what a surprise), the latter a master key animator who any sakuga nerd could tell you far more about than I could ever manage. Even when the quality of the animation dips slightly in the middle third or so of the series, the quality of the art and the ever-expressive soundtrack courtesy of the Australian-born composer Kevin Penkin keep the aesthetics of the show from ever feeling fatally undercut. All of this, too, is ignoring the rather exceptional character designs, ranging from the bubbly, Dennou Coil-esque designs of our child leads to the otherworldly grotesquerie of the White Whistles, who have more often than not shed their humanity in bits and pieces simply to survive the Abyss which they have made their home.
Befitting the characters themselves, the Japanese voice acting is diverse and exceptional, each role cast perfectly. I would particularly like to single out our two leads: Reg half-stammering, doubling back, piecing out thoughts which he only has the courage to speak aloud half the time, set against Riko, who speaks with absolute confidence and verve despite her relative fragility and occasional dearth of common sense. Even fairly minor characters are deftly played, with Aki Toyosaki's portrayal of Marulk being particularly subtle in a very interesting way that I'd rather not spoil. All this would be for naught were it not for the excellent writing on display which, even at its most extravagant, displays and incredible amount of emotional depth and poignancy. Consider Ozen the Immovable, White Whistle and mentor to Riko's mother Lyza, a character who affects a monstrous demeanour and unrestrained callousness to disguise decades of sorrow and isolation, encapsulated perfectly in the bizarre bull-like hairstyle which she uses to hide the scars which cover her scalp.
Now, you might be thinking, "He sure does keep coming back to that body horror thing, doesn't he? What's he not telling us? What are you hiding, Reviewer?"
Well, now is as good a time as ever to talk about it.
The body breaks. The body is meat and bone, and that meat and bone will break. The mind which it houses is an extension of that meat, and it too can and will break. Made in Abyss wants you to know this and to understand it, and it forces you to understand it in many different ways. The show eases you into the concept of the fragility of bodies by slight degrees: Reg's indestructibility against Riko's penchant for small injuries, Shiggy's explanation of the Curse of the Abyss, Nat's allusions to slow death by pollution in the slums of the city. Yet it is not until the last quarter of the show, after a slow-paced period of relief punctuated by occasional bursts of violence and peril in which the show almost lures one into the impression that this will be just an offbeat and somewhat ominous adventure romp, that it truly puts paid to these notions. It is here that the horror of bodies breaking is finally put front and centre in several of the most viscerally discomfiting scenes in television anime, the first of which actually brought me to the brink of tears. Perhaps even more uncomfortable for certain viewers might be the frankness with which the show approaches the young protagonists' budding sexuality. While outside of a few decidedly risqué jokes regarding the accuracy of Reg's anatomy the show treats the subject rather tastefully, acknowledging the sexual attraction of one child to another is an extremely touchy subject, even more so when the audience is put in that child's shoes. A show for the squeamish, this is not.
But none of this is pointless. None of this is meant simply to shock for its own sake or arouse through perversity. For all that our bodies betray us, and for all that our minds may be ruined by these betrayals, Made in Abyss suggests that some deeper fire remains, something essential that goes beyond what we can convey with mere words and gestures. The corruption and disfigurement of the body and mind is a counterpoint to the perdurance of the soul, and more often than not, what comes from this soul is love, one light seeking another in the darkness. The manner in which the show approaches this conclusion is often brutal and alienating, but the final answer is simple and pure. It sings.
Probably the best show you will see this year. Watch it. — Julian Malerman
Recommended Audience: Hoo boy. Have you read the review? Older teens and up only, for thematic reasons as much as anything else. And there's a lot of "anything else" here.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source.
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Made in Abyss © 2017 Akihito Tsukushi / Takeshobo / Kinema Citrus / Animax Asia
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