[Review] Made in Abyss – episode 1

An enormous pit and cave system called the “Abyss” is the only unexplored place in the world. Strange and wonderful creatures reside in its depths, and it is full of precious relics that current humans are unable to make. The mysteries of the Abyss fascinate humans, and they head down to explore. The adventurers who venture into pit are known as “Cave Raiders.” A little orphan girl named Rico lives in the town of Ōsu on the edge of the Abyss. Her dream is to become a Cave Raider like her mother and solve the mysteries of the cave system. One day, Rico starts exploring the caves and discovers a robot who resembles a human boy.

Source: Anime News Network

It’s impossible for me to maintain anything even remotely resembling critical distance with this review, so I’m not even going to try. Made in Abyss is a dieselpunk fairy tale that combines a rich world, curious kids, and energetic adventure with an undercurrent of lurking danger and quiet melancholy. I was over-the-moon in love with it by the 30-second mark and gushing about it to the rest of the AniFem staff before the opening credits had finished rolling. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure Kinema Citrus had this series custom-made for me.

A blonde girl claps her hands above her head, eyes squeezed tight, while a robot-boy lies unconscious behind her

My Extreme Bias notwithstanding (it’s a struggle not to write this entire review in all caps), I really do think this was a nigh-perfect premiere that did everything it wanted to and did it very, very well. The greatest challenge of an opening episode is to organically introduce the story and its players—to not just tell us what’s going on, but to make it feel true and real and important so that we care enough to learn more.

Most series struggle with this, usually because they focus too much on information and not enough on atmosphere. Made in Abyss makes it look easy, enveloping its audience in a distinct world and tone from its very first shots and playfully combative dialogue.

The sun sets over an old city, casting a platform in shadow as hot air balloons rise

For starters, it’s technically excellent, neck-and-neck with Welcome to the Ballroom in terms of production quality. The music is beautiful, particularly the pensive English opening theme, and the art is absolutely gorgeous. The world is alive with lush forests you could lose yourself in, sharp vertigo-inducing cliff faces, and a central city that breathes with personality, history, and a faint sense of decay. My screenshot gallery runneth over.

The character designs are similarly appealing, with simple rounded features whose muted color palette make them more “wistful” than “cute,” and whose expressive faces and lively movements imbue them with just as much personality as the land around them. There’s a real sense of depth and breadth here, both for the world and the individuals within it, and all of it is designed to perfectly match the whimsical-but-faintly-sad tone of the story itself.

Two distant figures climb a foggy hill before dawn with windmills in the background

Behind those charming designs are some equally endearing characters, particularly our spunky female protagonist, Riko. A Raider-in-training, Riko is curious and driven, pushing back against the strict laws of her community and working hard to achieve her dream of “catching up to Mom” in the lower levels of the abyss. A natural leader who manages to be courageous without falling into the trap of the emotionless Strong Female Protagonist™, she defends her friends, breaks the rules, and maintains a brave face in front of the adults—but is also more than willing to admit her fears, ask for help, or burst into tears once the danger has passed.

She’s the kind of energetic, ambitious leading lady I can get behind, and I already like her a whole lot. It’s a bit of a shame the only other female character is an antagonistic schoolmarm figure, but Riko’s band of boy buddies—Nat the helpful complainer, Shiggy the timid scientist, and Reg the inquisitive, amnesia-riddled robot—are all quite likable, with plenty of potential for their own arcs and development. I’m looking forward to spending more time with the whole gang.

A blonde girl with pigtails puts her hand on the shoulders of a robot-boy wearing a helmet

That said, Made in Abyss isn’t all charming schoolkid antics and enchanting robot discoveries. Like the forest in the Abyss, beautiful but with monsters lurking right around the corner, there’s a constant threat of danger in this world. It’s not uncommon to unearth praying skeletons while excavating the Abyss; our kids are all orphans whose parents “fell nobly;” the director threatens to “string them up naked” if they’re caught stealing any Relics; and Riko’s bedroom is a dungeon—an old “execution chamber,” her best friend Nat says, where she was moved because she got in trouble so much.

These hints of violence amidst a gentle world give the series even more potential for growth, providing a subtle whiff of wrongness that maintains tension and uncertainty and keeps this premiere from ever feeling too cozy. All the best fairy tales are injected with darkness—it’s part of what makes them such effective coming-of-age stories, acknowledging that growing up is as much about agency and adventure as it is fear and loss—and I’ll be curious to see how Made in Abyss addresses and unveils its grimmer elements going forward.

A girl faces the camera, frightened, while an older woman and young man look on from behind

There are only two downsides to this premiere, really. The first is that Amazon is holding it for ransom in the U.S. behind a double paywall and inside a garbage video player. (Have Vrai and I mentioned how much we hate Strike? We have? Bully.) The second is the source material: Word on the street has it that the manga does indeed go to some dark places, and not necessarily in a meaningful way. There aren’t a lot of things this show could do to ruin the experience for me, but “gratuitous suffering porn” would definitely be on the list.

The anime adaptation has allegedly already skirted some of the manga’s more problematic elements, so we may be safe here. Still, I figured it was worth a word of warning. I for one will be sitting in my little corner of the Interwebs with all my fingers and toes crossed, hoping Made in Abyss can continue to build on itself, expanding its fascinating world, developing its lovable protagonist(s), and teasing out the mysteries of the abyss as Riko and her friends explore its depths. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but so far, so very, very good.

A girl stands at the mouth of a cave with a pickaxe over one shoulder, smiling

Read the ANN Preview Guide review.

 

Dee (@joseinextdoor) is a nerd of all trades and a master of one. She has bachelor’s degrees in English and East Asian studies and an MFA in Creative Writing. To pay the bills, she works as a technical writer. To not pay the bills, she devours novels and comics, watches far too much anime, and cheers very loudly for the Kansas Jayhawks. You can hang out with her at The Josei Next Door, a friendly neighborhood anime blog, and support her work through PayPal.

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  • iblessall

    Riko’s “I want to catch up with my mom” line was one of the most notable moments of any premiere that I’ve seen yet. A female character being inspired by a mother figure? Maybe I need to watch more shojo/josei, but I feel like that’s a motivation that we very, very rarely see – not just in anime, but in anything. Hunter x Hunter is probably the poster child for that particular dynamic (Gon and Ging) and I know I’ve seen other version of it (son/father, daughter/father, even). But daughter/mother? I can’t recall the last time I ever saw that, and I think that’s kind of special.

    • ML Tyler

      Mitchiko & Hatchin might be a candidate, but Hatchin’s inspriation comes slowly over the course of the story. She’s mostly annoyed at her Mom. 🙂

    • Dee

      I immediately thought of Haruhi in Ouran wanting to be a lawyer like her mom, or Maka in Soul Eater admiring her mother – but you’re right, it’s a pretty rare inspiration, even in shojo, and it’s really nice to see more of it here.

      • iblessall

        I like that you bring up Maka – not just because she’s my favorite anime character, but also because she was the first comparison point I thought of for Riko as a whole (not just in terms of inspiration). I haven’t seen Ouran yet so that particular reference was lost on me.

    • Champ Buch

      An older example I saw recently is Fruits Basket. I’ve only seen the anime, but it was made quite clear that Tohru’s vibrant mother was both sorely missed (she died before the first episode) and also a source of inspiration for Tohru. Kiki’s mom is a source of inspiration in Kiki’s Delivery Service and is alive as a bonus, even if K has to leave home for a time.

  • TheSojourner

    This is one show I’ve really been looking forward to, I just have a feeling it will be good… but it’s on Amazon. Dammit.

  • 曠佳信

    Prepare for the SAN check. You will need it.
    ”All the best fairy tales are injected with darkness”, but sometimes when I read the manga, I feel like this story is a dark shithole filled with evey fuck-up things and a bit of happy adventure. The suffering and afflictions are true to characters and readers too.