Mitty the Person, Mitty the Cursed: Made in Abyss and the paradoxical representation of disability

By: Zeldaru June 29, 20180 Comments
Mitty chewing on one of her toys

CONTENT WARNING: Contains descriptions of dehumanizing attitudes and violence towards disabled people; bloody imagery. SPOILERS for Episodes 11-13 of the Made in Abyss anime.

The mysterious “Great Pit of the Netherworld” in Made in Abyss is itself a curse, looming over the peaceful village of Orth. The legendary hero Lyza’s booming voice describes the titular Abyss as inescapable. Anyone who descends into the abyss is slowly transformed from human into a monstrous form. While sometimes this means becoming monstrous in spirit, physical transformations eventually become inevitable as well. This is best demonstrated through the characters of Mitty and Nanachi.

They are Narehate, or Hollow, a cursed existence resulting from exposure to the abyss. But while they are all created the same way, they are far from equal. Nanachi  has a cute, humanoid bunny-like appearance, while their companion Mitty is blob-like. Nanachi can speak in human language, but Mitty communicates through shrieks and growls, placing her squarely in the realm of “monsters.” Though Nanachi can walk, Mitty crawls. Though both Nanachi and Mitty underwent the dramatic transformation from human to Hollow, they are constructed with perceived differences of ability. Ultimately, this leads to Mitty’s life being depicted as having far less value than Nanachi’s.

Close up of Mitty lying on Riko's chest

In this context, “cursed” effectively means “disabled.” Disability is, at least partially, a social phenomenon where one individual’s set of abilities is viewed as deficient. This includes non-normative verbal communication and an inability to perform functions such as walking, which is best exemplified by Mitty’s “incoherent” vocalizations and crawling.

However, because disability is partially social, perceptions of what disability is are part of what defines it. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, for example, officially designates perceptions of disability as part of the definition of disability. Based on this definition, “alien” appearances, which are used to overtly code Nanachi and Mitty, fit under disability as well. As Nanachi explains, their monstrous appearance puts them in danger.

Clearly, Nanachi sees Mitty as being important beyond being a cursed Hollow. The Episode 12 opening contains a final image depicting main characters Riko and Reg holding hands in the background and Nanachi hugging Mitty in the foreground. Though the viewer is well aware of Riko and Reg’s place in the narrative, they are given inconsistent messages about Mitty’s importance as a character in her own right. She exists by Nanachi’s side but is also confined to Nanachi’s house, stripping her of agency. In those ways, she is Nanachi’s accessory. However, this image does, through its beautifully brilliant aesthetic, illustrate the affectionate love Nanachi feels for Mitty.

Nanachi embracing Mitty with Riko and Reg walking away in the background

When the series first introduces Mitty, the viewer is given the impression that Mitty is beyond human comprehension. As Reg watches over a gravely wounded Riko in Nanachi’s home, he hears a cry emerge from a room in the back. Nanachi then introduces Mitty as “someone I live with” and calls her “my cute little Mitty,” reflecting great affection. Though this response is casual and simultaneously honest, the show’s direction cues the audience to be horrified, cutting quickly from shots of Mitty’s eyes and paws to her large mouth and scoring the scene with a tense piano.

The curse of becoming Hollow is repeatedly framed in-show as a loss of humanity and a fate worse than death. At this point in the series, there is meager evidence to indicate that Nanachi or Mitty have indeed lost their humanity; however, because of the context in which they exist, there’s a built-up environment of fear that prompts Nanachi to both value Mitty and also see her as a monster.

In the same way, the viewer is already primed to see anyone “cursed” as inhuman because of the antagonists Reg and Riko have faced and the rumors they’ve heard. However, Made in Abyss suggests that there is great freedom in living in the Abyss, even while being pressured to adopt vastly different ways of life. Nanachi and Mitty are the first indications that those different ways of life are not threats to the “normal” protagonists.

Mitty and Nanachi sitting in Mitty's darkened room

The condition of being Hollow illustrates a grave double-bind situation: you are either a target for capture or a monster to be killed. The viewer can now see why Nanachi lives hidden away, with Mitty even more hidden. In a sense, the two lead lives filled with apprehension, relying on each other for emotional support, which strongly suggests that Mitty plays an immutable role in Nanachi’s life. However, Nanachi worries that they cannot keep their friend for this emotional support if they are to uncover the mysteries of the Abyss.

In order to establish the conflict at the heart of Mitty’s presence in the show, the viewer must be told in no uncertain terms that Mitty is a conscious being. A strange but touching scene demonstrates Mitty’s humanity at the start of Episode 12: slowly, Mitty crawls on top of Riko, with great care to keep her claws pointed away.  A near-top-down view, bathed in gentle green light, creates the image of Mitty hugging Riko.

This suggests that she’s trying to console Riko, without being able to communicate it. From there, the storyboard zooms in to Mitty’s face, revealing that Riko is reflected in her eye. Though not directly stated, this image heavily implies that Mitty is fully aware of Riko’s presence, rather than her being a “hollow” husk of humanity.

The series calls Mitty’s humanity back into question when Reg raises his arm and voice, insisting that Mitty get off Riko. Reg’s consistent surprise and fear shows us that Mitty is still seen as a monster. Nanachi later dispels this, though, saying that Mitty was not attacking but rather displaying a rare sign of fondness.

Mitty lying on top of a sleeping Riko

Through this series of scenes, Made in Abyss acknowledges that Mitty is seen as a monster but digs deeper into her behaviors as a character. Though Mitty is difficult to see as human because of her appearance, making her an imperfect image of disability, her act offers rare representation for those who act and look very differently from the norm.

The show makes use of striking visuals to assert that humanity exists far beyond verbal communication. Mitty’s cries to Riko, which sound like a normative child (as opposed to the sounds she makes in her Hollow form), awaken Riko’s awareness of Mitty. In an excellent sequence, Riko touches her green eye against Mitty’s red eye, physically establishing her presence and awareness in the world. Because she has been unconscious for episodes, Riko represents an unassuming entity who can peer directly into Mitty’s soul.

Confronted with this evidence, the viewer is almost forcefully convinced that Mitty is human, a thread that appears again and again in these scenes. This thread erases any doubt about Mitty’s ability to consciously interact with her environment and be aware of her surroundings. By forcing this inquiry, the show lays the grounds to investigate Mitty’s right to life. The Abyss is established as habitable only by fierce monsters or by those with full cognitive functions—but Mitty, as a harmless “monster,” is neither.

dreaming Riko pressing her eye to Mitty's

In the manga, Mitty appears in the third volume and exits just as quickly, with her demise treated as a shocking arc finale. Likewise, Riko is sick for a shorter amount of time and her interactions with Mitty are much more limited, depriving her of this opportunity.

It seems very likely that the anime staff intentionally included this scene so they could more deeply explore Mitty as a character in her own right. This expanded approach transforms Mitty’s demise in the finale from one demonstrating the horror of the Abyss to one highlighting Mitty’s humanity. Though she is still portrayed in an objectified manner, the show greatly elevates Mitty’s status by focusing more on her character.

This impression makes Made in Abyss a poignant example of how one might effectively portray disability, by highlighting the value of diverse ranges of ability, in a manner that can teach many other series. By extending the Mitty story, including the fleshed-out and gorgeous series finale, Director Kojima and his staff re-contextualize how Mitty exists within this Abyss. Unfortunately, in my time reading the manga, I was infuriated by how little attention Mitty received. Without Mitty’s vocalizations and the framing in the anime, she takes on a form much closer to an object.

Mitty's face swelling and distorting

However, by establishing Mitty as human and a monster, the series also avoids culpability for what happens to her. This duality traps Mitty in the role of an object that we feel emotional attachment to, telling the viewer to feel bad about her treatment but not outright protest it. Through a series of back-and-forths, Mitty is established as an object with anthropomorphic features, especially in the context of Reg’s wariness around her. The series attempts to justify killing Mitty because she is not fully alive—and thus excluded from the class of persons who can explore the Abyss.

The back and forth on Mitty’s personhood comes to a crushing climax in the anime’s finale, where she is killed as a cursed sacrifice for the Abyss. In this moment, the anime reaffirms Made in Abyss’s tendency to depict characters as ultimately doomed by the Abyss.

Two potential conclusions come from this scene: (1) that the death of Mitty is justified due to her dehumanized state and/or (2) the Abyss is such a cruel landscape that death is better than being cursed. Both conclusions, which are equally alarming, assert that society is expected to discard individuals who carry this curse (disabled people) rather than creating space for them.

Mitty is literally and metaphorically expunged from the space of adventurers and from the symbol for society that is the Abyss. This offers a devastating and inhumane suggestion that humanity can only inhabit a narrow range of abilities and forms.

Nanachi crying and embracing Mitty

Though perhaps not consistent with the series’ tone, a more empowering solution would entail presenting Mitty not as “tragic” or a “nuisance,” but as a member of the team. The anime implies the possibility that disability can be valuable, but never follows up on it. Given her earlier role as Riko’s caretaker, Mitty is established as a sentient creature who is both self-regenerating and capable of healing others (throughout, Riko nurses her weakened hand, which was only possible through Mitty’s restorative powers).

While “usefulness” is not necessary for people to exist, from a purely practical, narrative perspective, Mitty could have easily played an invaluable role in adventures. Made in Abyss never even considers this, despite the versatile range of abilities featured by many inhabitants of the Abyss.

By recognizing Mitty as someone with full personhood, Made in Abyss could have positioned the cursed beings—including its main characters—as valuable persons, demonstrating how disability-coded characters could occupy similar positions in narratives as the temporarily able-bodied characters. Though Made in Abyss undercut this recognition with its finale, the series nevertheless accidentally suggests a path forward for tackling concepts of disability in a more humanizing manner. Given anime’s slow but steady progress in disability representation, there is still great hope (and caution) for the medium.

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