Summer is in full swing! For most, that means beaches, cookouts, and outdoor fun. For anime fans, however, it means new anime. This is the time where we watch premiere after premiere, looking for that one anime that will induce 3 months of fresh addiction. Simultaneously, plenty of video services are hopping on the anime train, with Netflix releasing its own series and Amazon adding an anime section for streaming. Amazon recently released the first few episodes of MADE IN ABYSS, an anime that sounds dark but looks childish. The art style is something I would expect from a child’s cartoon, but the delivery surpasses even the most popular adult anime.
The main things MADE IN ABYSS does well is present dark concepts and introduces plot organically. Oftentimes, a series impatiently shoves every morsel of exposition into a viewer’s eyes. But with the first few episodes, MADE IN ABYSS has shown that it can, through a simple, lighthearted style, deliver dark themes without too much exposition.
Spoilers for MADE IN ABYSS up to and including “Departure” follow.
So What is it all About?
Let’s start with a basic run-through of the show’s core. In a strange land, there is a giant hole hundreds of meters wide and incredibly deep. Within this abyss are a myriad of magical and dangerous creatures. These predators are the first obstacle between explorers and the valuable artifacts hidden behind rocks and trees. The second obstacle is a strange sickness colloquially known as the Curse of the Abyss. Explorers experience intense fatigue, blurred vision, and even vomiting just barely below the surface. The deeper one travels into the hole, the more difficult it becomes to return to the surface. Explorers of the abyss earn ranking according to how deep they could conceivably travel while avoiding certain death. The story begins with a pair of 12-year-old children scavenging for artifacts about 100 meters in.
Almost everyone I knew who had seen the show or read the manga had similar thoughts about it. MADE IN ABYSS has a cute art style but is very dark. After the first few episodes, both sides of that description come to light. Our protagonist, Riko, is an orphan with dreams of exploring every bit of the abyss. Clearly, this series has no qualms about conflating childish wonder with terrifying destinations. One might expect an unrestrained flow of information about the abyss and its origin; yet, it successfully relays its narrative in a way that feels natural rather than forced.
More Than a Childish Aesthetic
Before we encounter the strange plot, MADE IN ABYSS presents a curious animation style hardly ever seen in adult anime. Even though the characters we initially see are children, they’re comically lacking in bodily definition. Their limbs are more string-like and thin, while their heads and faces remain large. This gives a lot more room for reactions and emotions to be exaggerated and makes the children seem even smaller. Beyond the simple visuals, voices are high and rather crisp. Childish excitement is conveyed rather well whenever Riko finds even the smallest treasures.
On first glance, this is a style I expected out of an anime specifically for children, but MADE IN ABYSS destroyed this expectation about a minute into the first episode. Riko, having stolen from her orphanage, remarks that staff routinely string her up naked as a punishment. Even as a joke, this is something that would never make it into a children’s show. From the reaction of Riko’s friend, Nat, this even seems like a common punishment for the explorer girl. This is extremely odd for children to be exposed to, but that point is never really highlighted in the show.
The Darker Themes
The contrast between the kid-friendly style and dark themes remains consistent. There is a moment when Riko lifts a sheet of rock in search of more treasure, only to find a complete skeleton. Upon closer inspection, the skeleton has its hands pressed together in prayer, something Riko says she hasn’t “seen in a while.” Firstly, these cutely drawn kids are in a strange place doing manual labor. From their dialogue, it seems to be a job they go out to do on a daily basis, and a relatively common find is praying skeletons.
These kids have a thought process that reflects the kind of harsh lives they live. After finding a strange robot boy, named Reg by the kids, they strip him down and inspect every part of him (yes, EVERY part) to determine what kind of thing he is. As abyss divers themselves, they’re aware of the kinds of treasures that exist within. They more or less appraised him before powering him up and asking about his origins. The exact same day that this robot comes from the depths of the abyss, the white whistle of an elite explorer is recovered-without a body.
The kids quickly learn that this is the whistle of Riko’s mother, who is almost certainly dead at the lowest part of the abyss. Riko spends almost no time grieving. Instead, she gains the resolve to journey on and find her mother. Despite her childish disposition, Riko becomes determined to seek truth at the bottom of the abyss despite certain death. This introduction to the show bombards the viewers with grave moments without, surprisingly, going into too much detail.
Far too often, anime tries too hard to differentiate itself from the reality of its viewer. A magical world might saturate early episodes with spells and talking animals to up that ‘wow’ factor, all at the expense of the story. MADE IN ABYSS is more casual in its delivery. Even something as basic as the contrast between childish artwork and adult themes raises questions in viewers’ minds. Why are these children working? Where are they? MADE IN ABYSS introduces each character quite well. Even the mysterious robot boy, Reg, who would usually be introduced with some annoyingly strong power in most anime, is rather straightforward. He has no memories at all and has to work at not being noticed as a robot lest the orphanage sell him.
After the kids return from the abyss, we learn more things about their world. The kids in the show are mostly the children of explorers who died during trips. They live in an orphanage that has a strict system of rules. On top of that, they must give everything they find to the orphanage staff, presumably to sustain the place. Viewers learn important facts like these through events, not just constant talking. The orphans are in what appears to be a classroom with vertically aligned desks on a wall. Here, Riko worries about her punishment for stealing while the whole class is lectured about it. This effectively lets us enjoy her nervous reactions while receiving some careful exposition. It feels gentle, and that delivery aids in reducing confusion without being boring or overwhelming.
None of the details we learn are pushed in a way that ruins the content of the show. Objectively speaking, the entire show’s concepts are completely terrifying. Why are these children involved with this place? An orphanage that strings them up as punishment and forces them to spend their days mining is somehow the best option for these kids. In that case, what is the worst option? These kids seem pretty happy about their lives, creating some depth through the contrast.
The third episode is entirely about the lead up to Riko and Reg’s departure into the abyss. Both want to learn about its secrets, but plenty of their friends try and stop them. Riko’s closest friend, Nat, even goes as far as to insult her in a last ditch effort to convince her to stay. Even as children, these characters know that a journey beyond just a few hundred meters into the abyss is certain death for them.
While the exaggerated tears and wracking sobs fit the childish art style, the context is very adult-like. These orphans have the presence of mind to understand the (no pun intended) depth of their actions. Riko is fully aware that she’ll likely die on her journey deep into the abyss. Nat knows he’ll probably never see his friend again. Looking forward, this gentle exploration mixed with love between friends should create an amazing story.
Time to Explore MADE IN ABYSS
Following in the footsteps of popular anime from the last few months, MADE IN ABYSS is a bit of a departure in style. It’s not a shonen (a type of anime targeting younger men) and lacks fighting thus far. Because of a need to show off powers and prove themselves animation wise, a lot of those shonen types fall flat plotwise. MADE IN ABYSS doesn’t suffer from that setback and instead dedicates itself to achieving literary levels of subtlety.
Most importantly, viewers observe this world rather than just hearing about it. This acts like an immersive experience and creates a neat contrast with the decidedly darker themes. When all of this comes together, the finished product is an anime that’s sure to grace the eyes of thousands in the weeks to come. Nobody says much about the deeper ends of the abyss beyond it simply being dangerous. But if automatons like Reg apparently exist that deep, and even the best abyss divers struggle to return, it is hard to predict what will happen next.