Synopsis: Riko is a young cave raider who dreams of exploring the depths of the giant chasm known as the Abyss like her mother did. However only being ranked as an apprentice level raider-or “Red Whistle”- means that she has a long way to go before her dream can become a reality. Her fate suddenly changes when she comes across a mysterious boy named Reg, who has a body that seems almost mechanical. Reg claims to come from the depths of the Abyss, and when Riko discovers a letter from her missing mother claiming that she’s waiting for her at the bottom, Riko and Reg embark on a journey to reach the bottom together.
Horror has always been a bit of a tricky area for anime to traverse. There’s certainly no shortage of creepy stuff in anime, and I’ve come across more than a few things that kept me up at night, but anime is such a uniquely bizarre visual medium to begin with, that most genuine attempts at horror come off as cheap shock value, or worse yet: goofy. Much like any good horror film, horror in anime only ever really works when it can catch you off guard or present something familiar in a way that feels disturbing. Very few shows have been truly successful in that respect, but last year’s Made in Abyss stands out as one of anime’s best examples of how to do horror right.
The beginning of Made in Abyss starts out simple enough, as we’re introduced to our protagonist Riko: a plucky young girl who dreams of one day exploring a giant chasm known as the Abyss, where all sorts of unknown creatures and phenomena reside. After one day receiving a letter from her missing mother saying that she’s waiting at the depths of the Abyss, and coming across a mysterious “robot boy” named Reg, Riko and Reg embark on a journey to reach the bottom, and learn more about Reg’s past along the way. On the surface, this comes off as a simple, but fun setup for a big adventure story not unlike something you’d see in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, and for the first few episodes it sticks to what you’d expect out of that formula. The first levels of the Abyss are lush and vibrant, and while the beasts that reside in them can at times be dangerous, there’s never a sense that the duo can’t overcome the danger, and the world it presents feels majestic, making the audience feel naturally inclined to want to see more of what lies beyond, much in the same way Riko does.
However as Riko and Reg head deeper into the Abyss’s depths and receive a startling revelation about Riko’s connection to it, a gradual, but very noticeable change begins to happen with the show’s atmosphere. The once colorful and intriguing world of the Abyss becomes dark and isolating, and the beasts that reside within become more and more dangerous as the feeling of security that initially surrounded our leads is suddenly stripped away. By the time the season heads into its final act and the duo encounters a threat far bigger than they can handle, the show pulls out all the stops in depicting just how unforgiving the Abyss truly is, including everything from the most visceral depiction of pain that I’ve ever seen in animation, to a character backstory so disturbing, that it left me with a chill in a way that almost no other anime has really managed to do.
With such a dramatic shift in tone from the season’s first episode to its finale, its easy to imagine this going off the rails pretty quick, but it manages to stay consistent and engaging from beginning to end. Even when the story begins to dip into some pretty bleak territory, it maintains the same spirit of perseverance and curiosity it began with, while also providing an infectious sense of charm in both its characters and atmosphere. While a lot of these elements are shifted more towards a horror perspective than the more adventure shonen one that it starts out with, these moments of dread always feel like a natural evolution, and the show never seems like it’s forcing its hand. All of this helps to make for a much more powerful experience than would be expected at first glance, and for a story that I’m already eager to get back to when the next season arrives.
As effective as the show’s storytelling is though, something like this can only ever really work when it has the right visual style to match and director Masayuki Kojima and the staff at Kinema Circus have achieved this in spades. While the character designs for most of the show’s human cast are almost purposefully cute and cartoony, the backgrounds of the Abyss feel more like something out a classic fairy-tale, going from vast and colorful, to hauntingly beautiful which allows each of its various environments to feel both fantastical, and very much lived in throughout any given scene. This same level of detail is also carried over into the designs of the creatures that live in the Abyss as each of them manage to feel like the sort of mix between wondrous and dangerous that can only ever be encountered in nature, even when the beast themselves look pretty out there. It’s all kind of magical to behold in a way, and all of this fantastic art direction is supported by an equally fantastic musical score courtesy of composer Kevin Perkin, who always manages to find the right track to fit just about any moment in the show and helps to elevate even some of its most simple scenes into effective tools for capturing its incredible atmosphere.
If there’s one negative point I’d have to give against the show, it would be its occasional moments of sexualization for its pre-pubescent leads. From my understanding, this is more an issue of the source material than anything the anime is doing intentionally, and it’s clear that the staff tried their best to tone this down as much as possible, but there’s still more than a few lingering shots and crude jokes that made me feel kind of uncomfortable. Given the show’s generally positive reception, I imagine this won’t be a deal breaker for most audiences, and its thankfully never played up enough to outright kill the experience. Still it’s there just enough to be noticeable, and it’s kind of a shame since the show otherwise feels pretty accessible to a more general audience than typical late night anime.
It’s a rarity for anime to ever truly get horror right, but Made in Abyss really managed to pull it off. Between its likable characters and incredible sense of atmosphere, there’s a whole lot to enjoy here, and its last few episodes managed to give off a sense of dread that I’ve almost never experienced in an anime before. While its unfortunate penchant for sexualizing the kids is something I wish was gone from the show entirely, it hits hard on enough levels, that it feels almost impossible not to get swept up in all of its charm and mystique. I certainly enjoyed my time traversing the Abyss, and with another season on the horizon, I’m looking forward to the chance to dive in once again.
Available for streaming on Amazon Video