[Discourse] Who’s the Hero, Anyway? Made in Abyss, gendered tropes, and damaging narratives

Made in Abyss is frequently one of the most breathtaking shows of the season (you might recall Dee’s glowing premiere review), juggling gorgeous cinematography and dark fairy tale elements with a grim but (thus far) not hopeless narrative. Its young lead, Riko, is an endearing sometimes-crybaby who never gives up or lets her fear get in her way; and the show has also played with gender fluidity, featuring two nongendered characters whose designs contrast feminine-coded presentation with masculine-coded pronouns (a shy child who wears dresses and uses the politely masculine “boku”; a fuzzy bunny-person who wears pink and uses the casually masculine “oira”). Even when it’s frustrating, I’ve never wanted to tear my eyes away.

Unfortunately, it’s also a show whose flaws are all the more glaring in comparison to its moments of excellence. Discussing those flaws offers a unique challenge, however, as many of the show’s failings are cloaked beneath a layer of in-narrative justification; in other words, it makes sense on the surface as to why these things are happening in the plot. But no media exists in a vacuum, and justifying a trope doesn’t stop it from playing into broader harmful trends.

CONTENT WARNING for nudity and discussions of sexual harassment. SPOILERS for events in Made in Abyss Episodes 1-9.

A blonde girl in a spelunking helmet and hiking gear and a shirtless boy in a metal horned helmet and red cape stand in front of a sheer cliff face, holding hands and looking stern

You might have heard of the issue of in-narrative versus meta-textual justification as applied to fanservice, where someone says “but the character CHOOSES to dress like that!” in response to critiques of a character’s design. And that may indeed be true. But fiction isn’t real—a fictional character thinks the way they do because someone wrote them that way, usually with an audience in mind. More broadly, worlds and plots happen because the author designed them that way.

This is easier to point out regarding fanservice because of the logic behind it. Plenty of articles have already been written on sexual objectification, the male gaze, etc. (including on this very site)—things that are embedded into a culture at an unconscious level and can influence a writer even if they aren’t thinking about it. Sexualization in media is visually apparent to the layperson because generations of critics have worked to expose that connection.

A naked blonde girl stands in the foreground with her back to the camera. In the background two kids - a blue-haired child in a dress & a shirtless boy with mechanical arms - sit at a table and look at her, shocked.

When it comes to larger storytelling beats, troubling elements tend to fly more easily under the radar because they’re baked into the world and narrative. The story agrees with itself in a more self-sustaining way than a strongly visual element like fanservice (and viewers are often already attuned to understanding visual language anyway, even if only unconsciously), so stepping back to the meta level is something a person must train themselves to do.

For example, let’s say a story kills off its only lesbian character. Perhaps in the story she’s naïve and in over her head, and the story foreshadows that this is a possible outcome. It’s well-structured on a purely narrative level. But stepping back, this story would exist alongside many, many other stories (with various levels of quality writing) where gay and lesbian characters are killed either as “punishment” or to imply that their existence is tragic. All media exists in conversation with other media, and it’s something creators and viewers must be aware of when interacting with stories.

a young girl talking while the robot boy beside her looks uncomfortable. subtitle: I tried to probe him with a measuring stick, but it broke while inside him.

The first troubling element of Made in Abyss is, at least partly, a visual one. The show’s protagonists and a large chunk of its cast are prepubescent children, and one of the anime’s themes is that these kids are growing up in a harsh and unforgiving world. Part of that includes the decision to show young characters nude.

This is far from unheard-of in anime, and there are arguments to be made for desexualizing nudity, as seen in familial contexts like My Neighbor Totoro or even absurd comedic series like Dragon Ball or Crayon Shin-chan. In theory, Made in Abyss could justify its nudity as its young protagonists fight to survive in the wild. But framing and context are king, and it’s what makes the show’s choices troubling.

Part of Reg’s character introduction, for example, is discovering that in addition to his robotic limbs he has human genitals. The small, initial moment of discovery is shown only through his reaction, with no one else around, and it’s believable for a character at that age to be both embarrassed and fascinated. Credibility is strained somewhat by then hammering on the same beat multiple times as the other child characters (including Riko) are fascinated by this aspect of his anatomy. It’s repetitive, but again it’s not shown, and all the characters are children.

A bearded man holds an embarrassed young robot boy with one hand while holding the boy's pants open with the other hand. Subtitle: Oh, nothing mechanical about those balls of yours, I see!

Any justification goes out the window when Reg is later grabbed by an adult character who opens his pants to look at his genitals. Reg is clearly embarrassed, but it’s played for comedy anyway, and perpetrated by an adult character we’re meant to read as helpful and trustworthy. It’s hugely uncomfortable and exploitative, and transformed my wariness into active mistrust of the narrative’s handling of its child characters.

Things are worse regarding Riko. While jokes are made at Reg’s expense, it’s invariably Riko who has to get naked for plot reasons. In isolation, some of these moments would arguably fall under believable nonsexualized nudity—Riko spends one scene shirtless, for example, because she vomited on her shirt and had to be stripped while unconscious in case she was in medical danger. That her hair falls over her chest in the same way it would if she had breasts would be odd but not alarming.

a young girl, shirtless and with her arms outstretched, stands in front of foliage with smoldering holes in it

But that dire need for nudity, invariably only in Riko’s case, keeps coming up. In the first eight episodes, four show her fully or partially nude. The sheer quantity dilutes the argument that it’s done for narrative impact and push it more towards fanservice—particularly when the nudity involves an element of humiliation, as when the series depicts the societal punishment of “stringing children up naked.” This is referenced as a painful, horrifying punishment in dialogue, but when we see Riko being punished it’s during an otherwise lighthearted montage; and while the camera shows relatively little of her body, her wriggling shoulders and blushing, humiliated face are in the forefront of the frame.

Nudity is a difficult subject, especially as sexualization (of female characters in particular) is applied to younger and younger characters. Likewise, while Made in Abyss primarily uses its moe aesthetic to contrast its innocent protagonists with the horror of its setting, there’s also a long history of moe intersecting with lolicon that we need to take into account. Finally, there’s the prominent use of humiliation for sexual titillation in hentai, a piece of visual coding that affects viewers’ perceptions even when they’re watching non-pornographic works. These historical influences and bits of established coding come together to make Made in Abyss’s nudity uncomfortable at best and outright exploitative at worst.

A close up of a bearded, smiling face. subtitle: Reg, take care of Riko.

The show’s other problem is tied to gendered tropes. Riko is a skilled forager, but this is depicted mostly as her always doing the cooking (over stew pots whose contents look remarkably like domestic, modern Japanese cuisine despite being scavenged from caves and burrows). We rarely see Riko catching or killing food as the series goes on, and the framing instead depicts it as a domestic activity, as if they’re taking a leisurely camping trip rather than surviving.

While the impetus for the story is Riko’s desire to become like her mother, a capable adventurer, other characters are constantly telling Reg he needs to “protect” Riko (but Riko’s never told to protect Reg). Initially, it seems like the series is going to address this imbalance in Episode 9, “The Great Fault,” when Riko has to both look after Reg while he’s unconscious and find a way to survive on her own. The majority of the episode is by-the-numbers, developing Riko’s character while also enforcing the idea that she and Reg are better as a team.

A young girl kneels beside a cooking pot. She holds a ladle in one hand and her other finger in her mouth, tasting the stew

However, at the climax of the episode, as Riko grabs her mother’s axe and prepares to stand up to a large monster, her heroic moment is stolen from her. The narrative events leading to this scene make it believable that she can win, as the axe is a distance weapon and the monster is already wounded and close to a cliff. But just as she’s about to fight, Reg wakes up and defeats the monster—and uses Riko’s own mother’s axe to do it.

It’s almost offensively anticlimactic, rendering Riko’s progress over the course of the episode moot.  Her ingenuity and determination, which are meant to be a core strength, are disregarded in favor of letting Reg save the day once again. This element could’ve conceivably worked if the two had taken down the monster together, furthering the story’s theme of teamwork, but instead Riko is forced into a passive role at the last minute.

a girl in explorer garb gets ready to throw her oversized pickaxe. subtitle: Reg! Use this!

Like the extreme cases of nudity, this obvious beat of narrative sexism is an outgrowth of the gendered traits displayed earlier in the story. And while the series pays lip service to the pair being a team, it’s Reg who’s coded as both the physically strongest as well as most reasonable character (while Riko is enthusiastic and theoretically has the most background knowledge, Reg still gets to ask the most pertinent and incisive questions during periods of exposition).

Saying two characters are equal doesn’t mean much if narrative execution doesn’t bear it out. While we were told this was Riko’s story, she’s getting to do less and less of importance as time goes on (it also doesn’t help that as the amount of nudity recedes, an emphasis on Riko’s suffering takes its place, shifting the commodification of her body rather than removing it). The manga is ongoing, so the series could still resolve this issue and get itself back on track, but it’ll need to pay careful attention to treating Riko and Reg as an equal team rather than paying lip service to the idea while positioning Reg as the actual, active hero.

a shoulders-up shot of a smiling young girl in glasses. Subtitle: Reg, it's thanks to you that I was able to make it this far.

It can be easy to take a story at face value if it avoids plot holes and hooks you emotionally. And it’s true that Made in Abyss has a thematic backbone behind several of its narrative choices: because Riko is a human and Reg a robot, Riko’s journey often coincides with fears of mortality while Reg’s journey examines the meaning of emotional “humanity.”

These themes are coherent and considered within the story, but they only “have” to be that way because it’s what the author decided to write. The story would feel quite different if Reg and Riko were the same gender, or even if their genders were reversed. There are far fewer stories about physically fragile men undergoing grueling physical and psychological torment while their stronger female companions anguish about not being able to protect them, after all.

A girl with long blonde hair wearing hiking gear a boy with short brown hair with his midriff wrapped in bandages stand on a platform, looking up. They are holding hands. Both are wearing explorers' helmets and are scuffed with dirt stains. The boy looks curious; the girl exhausted.

No story exists without context, and no character decides to do something without an author wanting them to do it. Small, seemingly unimportant decisions can grow into a mindset that affects how the plot progresses, like Riko going from needing to be “protected” to losing her chance to act as the hero. And things that could be harmless when employed with restraint (like nudity or suffering) can become skeevy depending on how they’re framed and how often they’re utilized. It’s worth critically examining story logic and seemingly minor elements, because if those elements are reflective of the creator’s biases (conscious or unconscious), they can grow from background noise to active influences on the plot.

Made in Abyss is, by and large, a well-told story with compelling characters and visuals; and of course no media is free of flaws and troubling elements. Problematic narratives can and often are nested within shows that have good writing—it doesn’t make the series automatically worthless, but neither does it mean those problems should be ignored out of fear the good things will be overlooked. Both are important. Both deserve consideration. That kind of messy nuance is where the best and most productive progress lives. Like the abyss, great ventures mean great risks, great horrors—and, sometimes, great rewards.

 

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  • Belaam

    Spoilers from episodes aired more recently than article was written:

    Yep.

    Kind
    of
    guessing
    how
    long
    til
    Disqus
    cuts
    this
    post
    off.

    By here, surely?

    Okay, here goes.

    Riki has spent the last few episodes unconscious. Because Reg failed to protect her. Said failure because she gave him an insufficiently sturdy shield. So he’s been off having adventures while leaving her in what doesn’t seem the best environment. (I am terrified that Milly may be her mom, but I have zero idea if that is true) The only advice Riki gave Reg prior to passing out was medical advice to save her that ended up making the problem worse (though there was a nice touch about why se took the more painful option).

    That said, Reg is now pretty much entirely the hero here. He’s got internal conflicts, solo monster battling, learning why the curse exists, a subplot about his lost memory, and it appears will even be taking over cooking duties.

    Frankly, the whole series has transitioned from Rio being the motivating force to go adventure to being a poorly coded NPC Reg need to escort. The constant nudity and completely unnecessary biological stuff (blood and urine soaked pants, anyone?) Was already a problem, but the last couple of episodes seem to have given up on Riko being a character at all.

  • Dawnstorm

    If the show was going for practicality, I’d expect far fewer embarrassment jokes (and it’s not just Reg, either). I think it’s more a characterisation point for Riko: I think it’s supposed to signal a disregard for manners, and in a sense this grows from the same trait that drives her downwards into the abyss: if she doesn’t make it, fine, but as long as she can still move, she’ll head downwards. (Her characterisation during the rest-station arc drove that home for me.) She’s a really odd mix between being driven and being resigned to her fate. Her constant nudity, I think, is a function of this trait, rather than a function of in-world culture.

    When we run this through the meta filter, I think Vrai has a very good point. Why nudity? A personal fetish? Unreflected genre cliché? Cash in? And: what is the effect?

    As for “who is the hero”? I’m still not sure how much Abyss is a show about accomplishments, or heroism. The scene where Reg wakes up in time and Riko hands him the weapon? Yeah, that’s pretty much there for no in-story purpose; it’s a meaningless complication, unless you take it to hammer home the protector/protectee point. But I feel that’s a bit of an outlier in the show. The protector/protectee role is clearly there, but it’s not as simple as lining that up against the hero concept. Reg’s protector instinct nearly got them killed during the corpse weeper episode.

    This is where I’m not sure I follow Vrai. He’s definitely physically strongest (but that’s because of his gear), but the “most reasonable” character? I’m not seeing this. Riko is driven and Reg is cautious; but those are personality traits and have nothing to do with being reasonable. Riko seems to have a good handle on both her drives and goal – she just seems to value life less than others. The way she handled herself in episode (an episode that neirly had me faint after the episode was over) showed, IMO, clearer than anything else that she knows exactly what she’s doing and what she’s willing to sacrifice. Her self-control is amazing. Meanwhile, Reg is a hothead who jumps to conclusions and doesn’t think things through before he acts. And he hesitates a lot before making decisions. In a sense, that’s exactly the shounen protagonist journey, so it’s easy to see this as a heroe’s journey, but I think [i]Abyss[/i] is first and foremost about the [i]Abyss[/i] and heroes don’t fare well in there. Reg’s internal reply to above screenshot (if that’s the scene; I’m not sure) that it’s the other way round, that he’s made it so far because of her, is very, very plausible to me. It’s not just empty bluster; I don’t think so.

    When the show started out, I thought Made in Abyss referred to Reg (who’s at least half “relic”), but then we learn Riko’s been born there, and then we learn she died there and came back to life there… I think if you’re looking for heroes in the show you’re missing the point.

    For what it’s worth, all that withstanding, I do see the sexism. But I think it’s largely unreflected genre baggage that surfaces in less dense moments. It’s certainly less bothersome, in its implication, to me than the nudity (where I find Vrai’s arguments very convincing – I started out pretty close to your position – except that I was always a little wary because of the embarrassment scenes).

    • Vrai

      When I talk about Reg as the “reasonable” character I meant it mostly in terms of periods where the series exposits — Reg is usually the one who asks the most probing questions or reasons out what’s going on while Riko is more emotionally driven. Which could be fine as just a difference in their approaches to adventure, but practically speaking Riko’s impulsiveness is almost never a good thing for them. I’ve heard later manga arcs out Riko in the spotlight again, which is great, but the anime has to stand on its own–and the way it decided to tell its story, Riko impulsively gets them into the adventure and then the focus shifts to Reg, what he learns, and his memories as we come toward the end of the series. These are fiddly things that might not bug some viewers, but I hit a cumulative point where I just started NOTICING things.

      Nanachi, likewise, is great and I love them; but they become almost a replacement for Riko toward the end here and it’s really a bummer–with only one more ep to go, we probably won’t get to see Nanachi’s arc concluded or much of Nanachi and Riko become friends. And since there are only six manga volumes so far, it could be YEARS before we get another season. I can’t review the show on what it might do in future maybe.

      Re: Riko and Reg, their dynamic often reminds me of Lyra and Will from His Dark Materials. When it comes to cis male authors, it’s easy to start with the best intentions and find yourself slipping back into masculine/fights/proactive and feminine/supports/passive. It’s baked into our culture, and it takes consistently proactive thinking to avoid.

      • Dawnstorm

        Ah, I did read the line about the questions, but I may have misunderstood. I’d have to re-watch the show with that in mind to really respond to this, since my impression was quite different. Reg’s curiosity about the Abyss ties in with his curiosity about himself, and that’s a convenient entry point for the reader/watcher, because they have similar information about the Abyss. SF often has “outsider” PoV, for exactly that reason.

        As for Riko’s impulsiveness not being good for them, I’m not sure what scenes you’re thinking of. I don’t think Riko’s gotten them impulsively into this adventure; the impression I had was that she was always going – it was practically a life plan; she was hiding artifacts for that moment. Reg said he’d come along on his own account. (And I’m not sure whether Riko counted on that or not; I wouldn’t put it past her.) Similarly, I’d argue that Reg’s impulsiveness also gets them into trouble a fair share (he’d have rushed in to rescue the raider from the corpse weeper, had Riko not stopped him.) I don’t see a clear difference, here, to be honest, though I could have missed things or not remembered them.

        This, though:

        When it comes to cis male authors, it’s easy to start with the best intentions and find yourself slipping back into masculine/fights/proactive and feminine/supports/passive.

        I definitely can see that at work in Abyss, and the example about finishing off that monster is a good one, I think.

        As for sidelining Riko: that’s a fair point, but I jump from character to character fairly easily. The character I’m currently most worried about is actually Mitty, believe it or not.

  • redsilversnake

    At the very least, I honestly don’t see how anyone can disagree with Vrai’s point about Riko tossing the Blaze Reap to Reg as soon as she saw he was awake. She still basically goes, “Oh, that’s right, fighting’s a male thing.” That was so frustratingly lazy, I think it was the first time I felt like letting out a “WHAT” at my monitor while watching the show.

  • Dawnstorm

    I’m not sure I understand your criticism completely, I don’t see Vrai saying that anyone should sue the anime or manga for actual child abuse (based on Riko’s nudity), or that the anime itself is inherently “bad” (whatever that might mean). Things are complicated, and if you analyse every little point of potential divergence in reception, or the relevance of the creator’s intent, or, or, or… you go far beyond the scope of a single blog post.

    What’s at issue here is structural sexism: something so ingrained in a partriarchal society that it’s hard to escape entirely, even if you’re aware of it and would like not to contribute. Every single action we ever do is strongly influenced by the culture we’ve grown up in, and at the same time we reproduce the culture we’re living in. At the same time, no action we ever take is completely determined by the culture we’re groing up in, nor is culture ever reproduced perfectly. That’s why we have change. And being aware of what harmless actions support less harmless makes it easier to shift things more in the direction you’d want it to go. Unfortunally, awareness doesn’t come easy, and successful strategies aren’t easy to find. On top of that, values differ: even if its only a different ordering of priority, people who – on the whole – share the same ideals might work at cross purposes.

    All posts like this one (and it’s an excellent one, I think) do is raise awareness. I see no call for anything else here. Let me try to apply this to episode 9 (which, I think, is the episode that has Reg wake up just in time and Riko hand him the weapon):

    Our adventuring duo meet the crimson splitjaw from episode one. After having been warned by Ozen against the use of Reg’s death ray on account of him fainting afterwards, Reg sees no other way and uses said ray again. Before he passes out, he tells Riko not to move anywhere. Of course, Riko pushes on anyway and gets in trouble, gets nearly out of it, and then Reg wakes up just at the right time to finish off the monster. The end.

    I see little but a string of clichés here. I’ll look at the two (to me) most obvious: the unheeded warning, the last minute rescue (with lucky timing):

    a) Riko doesn’t stay put.

    Why? Is she bored? Doesn’t she want to lose the time? (The episode could focus on that and avoid danger?)

    What if she does stay put, and we get a All-Quiet-On-The-Western-Front episode (composing a report, for example, or experimenting with the environment). This might make for better setting exploration.

    What if she does stay put, and danger finds them? This would be underlining the dangers of the Abyss rather than Riko’s recklessness (no unheeded warning, for example)?

    b) Reg wakes up just in time and finishes off the monster:

    What if Reg wakes up, but doesn’t finish off the monster? Let’s say Riko’s waiting for an opening, and the monster’s distracted by Reg waking up, giving her the chance to strike.

    Or what if Reg doesn’t wake up at all?

    The point here isn’t primarily to re-write the episode. But by playing through alternatives, you can see the difference, here. Where does each path lead? Riko protecting Reg for a change isn’t any less of a cliché than what we’ve got, but it points in a different direction. Both are, narratively, unremarkable, but they have different framing effects for what follows, and they appeal to different base desires.

    It’s not bad to have such scenes. But it’s the unremarablility of the way this plays out that’s at issue here: it happens so often that – if you relax your imagination while writing – you might slip into out of habit. Narratively speaking, Reg waking up at just that moment is a “surprising development”, that is: it would be surprising in real life. Things like that happen so much in fiction, though, that at this point it’s entirely unremarkable. From a writer’s perspective, that’s what cliché means: you expand no energy at all in coming up with the resolution. It’s not even, I think, primarily riffing off of sexist structures: it’s just the most obvious “surprising development”. It’s dumb craftsmenship: last minute rescues make things more exciting. It’s also possible that the writer likes the idea of boys protecting girls, and that’s why it’s in there (I’ve heard episode 9 is anime original; can anyone confirm?).

    Reception is an entirely different context. Here, it’s “just another instance” of a last minute rescue that conforms to gender stereo types. Different people are going to react differently to that. If you were hoping for Riko to shine, that “surprise development” must have been quite the disappointment. And because it’s a trend, that disappointment isn’t all that unusual either. The problem here is that Abyss, as a show, is actually good enough to still get your hope up. See how that works?

    A writer always has more than one path; good writers know how to take the unexpected path. (Riko defeating the monster on her own isn’t the unexpected path either; it’s just the cliché that’s better for a female-heroine-starved audience.) If an aouthor choses the most obvious path, there are reasons for that. If the only reason is “going with the flow”, because it’s literally what first came to mind and I ran with this, because I didn’t know how much another path would have meant to a significant portion of my audience – if it’s an awareness issue – then articles like this, articles that raise awareness, are helpful.

    It’s not about accusing the author of anything. It’s about pointing out ways in which partriarchal structures hurt you, even if it’s “only” disappointment in fiction. Internalised serial disappointment often doesn’t register as disappointment anymore: more often it’s frustration, or – as in my case – no particular reaction at all (I have a working filter for pretty much all fiction, and my anime version is working exceptionally well).

    The fanservice stuff? That’s less about internalised disappointment, and more about worrying a sore wound, the sort of touch that wouldn’t hurt on whole skin. But this post is long enough as it is. To summarise, a feminist critique can’t ignore trends, because a lot of things that are harmful are only harmful because they contribute to a trend. Asking a feminist critique to ignore trends is a bit like excusing raindrops by saying that it’s the rain that makes you wet.

  • Dawnstorm

    Thanks for the info. 🙂

  • Ergoemos

    Hey, no that’s totally fair. I apologize for sounding like I was condemning the show outright, especially given the fact that I haven’t seen it. I was mostly reacting to the article, which, I think, came from a sincere place. That said, I am not, by any means, in a place to really criticize this particular anime I have not seen.

    Sorry about that. I’ve re-read my comment and, placing it in the context of a show I’ve seen and saw someone else criticize, I do apologize. I cede my ill-placed commentary on the article.

    • Sweenifer Toddman

      I’m not looking for an apology, lol. I just don’t want you to not watch it because it’s a great show for me and I want you to enjoy it too.