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But first! A post-mortem of the anime adaptation of Made in Abyss
(SPOILER WARNING: you know the drill, heavy spoilers for chapters 40?45 of Made in Abyss)
If you had told me last spring that Kinema Citrus?s adaptation of Akihito Tsukushi?s Made in Abyss would become not only the critical darling of 2017, but also win the ?Anime of the Year? category in the Crunchyroll Awards (over My Hero Academia no less) I would have probably slapped you and loudly fart while storming out of the room.
But, you know, sometimes is good to be proven wrong.
Made in Abyss is one of those properties that had everything stacked up against it: a dark fantasy focused on children?s suffering, a unique art style not following any of the current trends of the anime industry, and available as a streaming exclusive on (disastrous) Amazon Video. I have to admit that I underestimated the quality of Tsukushi?s writing and the power of the world he created over many years of hard work. Looking at the scope and masterful structure of the first episode, it?s quite obvious why legendary director Masayuki Kojima?s became interested in the material: Made in Abyss is one of those manga that screams ?please turn me into beautiful moving pictures.? If anything, the quality and pedigree of the anime speak volumes to the level of passion behind the production, turning an eccentric manga (with very disturbing and niche fetishistic images) from an odd author into an example of ?prestige anime?; all thanks to the collective ambition of Kinema Citrus, an amazing soundtrack by the talented Kevin Penkin, and the gorgeous art design of Ghibli master Osamu Masuyama. I would even go as far as to say that anime critics and fans embraced the anime to such a degree that we collectively decided to just ignore the most unsavory aspects of the story and the author (that somehow managed to filter their way through the adaption process).
Even more shocking was the announcement of a second season and two compilation films after only one of the Japanese Blu-rays cracked the bestselling charts. I personally feel that the upcoming Bondrewd arc will test the patience of even the most ardent apologists of the first season, since the anime will cover the most brutal segments of the story where Tsukushi escalates the violence and bleakness to their breaking point. The arc is, in many ways, the final barrier for viewers who are still unsure if they want to continue on this unpleasant journey or to run away as far as possible and never turn back. In that sense, Kojima has quite the challenge here and adapting this material will be tricky to say the least.
And speaking of tricky creative choices?
What has happened so far in chapters 40?45? (Answer: so much and so little)
A lot of anime fans and critics criticized Made in Abyss writing, pointing in particular to its sometimes uneven narrative rhythm. For instance, the Ozen training arc stops the plot momentum for a few chapters and it never really feels that relevant to what comes after (if anything, there?s this sense of unease and whether or not Ozen trained Reg and Riko appropriately considering the awful events that occur after they reach the fourth layer). That said, I feel that these criticisms ignore some of the best qualities of Tsukushi?s writing. Like other classic dark fantasies (thinking of Berserk as the landmark in fantasy manga), the writing in Made in Abyss really shines in its effective balancing of an organic world building that never overshadows its character-driven drama. The Abyss feels real because you can almost touch and sense every corner of its creepy landscape, but the characters only provide information in a way that feels natural (the use of Reg?s amnesia is wonderful and a brilliant use of an overused gimmick to its advantage). As far as I can tell, I never heard anyone accusing the manga of having too many infodumps. No, the the big story flaw of Made in Abyss lies in something that I like to call the ?basement problem? of Attack on Titan.
Okay, so Attack on Titan is a manga/anime I really like, but I can understand why so many people have an almost irrational hatred towards it (regardless of its massive popularity). That the entire story is constructed around a BIG REVELATION (the infodump basement) is a risky gamble. Even if the plot twist was earned or not, readers waited years for the big moment when Eren and co. would reach that basement explaining all the key pieces of the mystery. I believe that Hajime Isayama resolved everything in a masterful way, but the hype was so huge there was just no way for him to please everyone. That manga readers are still complaining about it after five months tells you a lot about the risks of using this ?mystery-box? structure. Overall, Isayama?s handling of Attack on Titan works because the story and characters follow a cohesive and airtight thematic core. Even if you couldn?t guess the twist (something not that difficult if you looked at all the hints and thought outside the box for a bit), Attack on Titan was always a story about how fascistic war structures brainwash civilians into seeing their enemies as inhuman monsters. The big reveal shifts the perspective and expands this ideas by exploring the points of view of different characters allowing the readers to question the intentions of the main characters. Made in Abyss, on the whole, lacks this thematic coherence. Tsukushi has a very efficient plot structure (the characters descend the layers of the Abyss like videogame levels) and the end goals of the characters are clearer (who built Reg? What happened to Lyza?), but its themes are increasingly vague and even after six volumes of story it?s hard to predict how all the variables, characters, lore, and plot details jelled together into a whole. In particular, these last five chapters are maddening in that we were introduced to piles of new information and characters while the overarching plot came to a sudden halt. I?ve been thinking about these chapters for months and I can say, with all honesty, that I have no idea if this is a key moment in the story or a confusing diversion with little relevance to the main journey.
But I?m getting way ahead of myself so, because I?m a lazy fuck and this recap should have been posted three months ago, I?ll list and explain the most relevant details that Tsukushi introduced in these chapters point by point in a (failed) attempt at making sense of this convoluted arc.
The Narehate/Hollow Village (Ilblu)
After tying loose ends with Bondrewd, our main trio descends on their ?last dive? through the Idofront of Bondrewd?s fortress. In their way to the final layer of the Abyss, the group enters the Ilblu Village, a place inhabited by cave riders and other humans that decided to stay there after losing their human forms. We know very little about the village?s history, but the village is a major anomaly in the sense that it?s a space unaffected by the curse of the Abyss and one that functions under its own rules.
I would describe the village as a small ?Abyss? inside the larger ?real? Abyss since it shares some metaphysical similarities to the latter one while having an entire new set of rules independent from the curse of the Abyss. The rules are reminiscent of Full Metal Alchemist?s famous law of ?equivalent exchange? and is clearly related to the cyclical existence of the Abyss. The Hollows living in the village were humans that transformed, in physical terms, into their most inner desires. These desires represent an abstract ?value? that can be used as a form of currency in the village. If you damage the value of someone else or if you wish to exchange some of your value with someone else, a terrifying glob of black liquid monsters ?balance? your physical value and your possessions. If this sounds like body-horror economics is because that what it is. What is interesting about the village is that, like the force field, is a space that can access your consciousness and that the value is determined by the subject. In other words, your most precious possession (be it organic or material) has a set value even if that object/person is useless to someone else. This means that, in theory, is impossible to ?lie? about your most important treasure, but if you delude yourself long enough it?s feasible to assume that your most valuable possession can change.
An example of the lovely effects of the value balancing (left) and the explanation about desires as soul?s signals (right).
As much as I thought about this, I cannot really say that I can grasp the complicated mechanics of the Ilblu value system. The amount of information presented here is frankly overwhelming and I barely scratched the surface of the complexities of the system. It?s also unclear how the village relates to the big unanswered questions about Lyza?s whereabouts and the origins of Reg, but let?s go back to the plot points. After some long exposition and witnessing the dangers of the value system, our main trio gets separated by some odd circumstances (let?s just say that explosive painful diarrhea is at fault here). The structure here gets really frustrating and the plot moves at a snail?s pace since we?re continuously switching perspectives between Rico, Nanachi, and Reg. I?ll start with Nanachi because they* are the main focus of the cliffhanger at the end of chapter 45.
The second Mitty
Okay, so the jaw-dropping reveal of chapter 45 is that Nanachi discovers that Mitty is alive(!!!) and that Bondrewd new more about the Abyss than we initially tought. Turns out Bondrewd visited the village numerous times (also meaning that he performed the ?last dive? multiples times) and, in one occasion, he brought Mitty with him and his party (perhaps to experiment the effects of the village on Mitty). Belafu, one of the three sages ruling the Ilblu village, became interested in Mitty?s immortality and after bargaining without much success, the sage offered most of their body to ?create? an exact replica of Mitty. In other words, at some point there were two ?Mittys? existing simultaneously in the Abyss, evidencing that the village is powerful enough possible to create anything you wish for if you?re willing to pay the price of the balancing. In typical Nanachi fashion, they offered their whole body to save Mitty from Belafu?s endless torture. Riko arrives after a bunch of creepy Tsukushi shenanigans and is faced with an impossible dilemma: leave Mitty and Nanachi or bargain with Belafu using her own body as offering. And the big question looming in the background what the hell is up with the Mitty-clone? Is this Mitty real or not?
The second Mitty is a perfect copy.
Faputa, the Narehate Princess
While a ton of crazyballs things are happening, Reg leaves the village and encounters Faputa, a moth-like creature described as the ?Princess of the Narehate/Hollows? and the being representing the ?undying embodiment of value.? Faputa kidnaps Reg and claims to have known him years before he left for the surface. The startling thing, however, is that his name was ?Reg? before Riko named him like that, And yes, this is a confusing as it sounds. (Also, they were lovers at some point, so the cheap creepy jokes about Reg being a horny little shit are an actual plot point!)
Faputa, the Princess of the Narehate/Hollows.
Reg?s origin is, in many ways, the central mystery of Made in Abyss and the source for all the theories of readers regarding Lyza, so the revelation that Reg?s had that name before meeting Riko, is quite possibly the biggest middle-finger Tsukushi has pulled out so far and effectively puts to rest many of the theories discussed by fans. One of my favorite ones was the possibility of Reg being the reincarnation or embodiment of either Lyza or Torka (or both), Riko?s father, incestuous implications be damned. That Reg-robot might be the reincarnation of Riko?s death Reg-dog sounds very silly, but Tsukushi has provided enough clues hinting at this outlandish theory. Still, part of me feels disappointed (maybe that?s the point?) considering all the imaginative possibilities where this could have gone. I mean, it?s possible that Tsukushi is using these hints as a red herring for something much more unique in the later volumes. Is the Reg-is-Riko?s-dog that outlandish? It requires some hardcore nonsense coincidences and giant leaps of logic, but it?s not the craziest possibility to be honest.
The many ?hints? proving that Reg was Riko?s dog (???)
Besides this earth-shattering reveal, we also learned a few interesting tidbits about Reg?s true nature. Faputa?s companion, a large Bioshock-style robot, has a brief chat with Reg after rescuing him from some of the horrifying creatures surrounding the village (in a good example of my awkward loser son?s moments, it turns out Reg walked for hours in the wrong direction). Robodad explains to Reg that he?s very likely an Interceptor, mechanical beings that gather data in the lower layers of the Abyss. Interesting enough, Robodaddy mentions that him and Reg may have the same creator (due to their similar designs), that most Interceptors are unable to move between layers, and that they only seem to communicate remotely. It?s hard to say if he (they?) was honest to Reg or if he really knows nothing about the identity of his creator and the mysterious author of the message found at Lyza?s ?grave.? What we know very little about though, is the fact that Robodad is performing damage control for something that Faputa caused. What happened and is she going to destroy the village? Or is the incident related to the cycle that the Abyss undergoes every 2,000 years?
Veko (Velo Eluko) and the origins of the Hollow/Iblu village
After a mildly frustrating discretion to the culinary delights of the village and a crash course on the Abyss language, Riko ends up at an underground tunnel at the limits of the village, whose inhabitants seem to actively avoid, covered in the goo creatures that perform the value balancing on the surface. She also finds a chained woman. She introduces herself as Velo Eluko, a human connected to the origins of the village and this also the point where the frustrating pattern in these five chapters becomes hard to ignore. The writing in this section feels off and the main characters have this tendency of going into tunnel vision and either leave (like Reg after being aggressively tested by Faputa) or outright forget to ask important questions after getting some brief pieces of vague information. But I digress, as I was saying Veko explain she was involved in the creation of village?s creation and her entrapment in the cave was a punishment for being ?blinded by greed.? Like a lot of the village inhabitants, there?s something off about Veko and it?s obvious that she?s not telling Riko everything. She seems to feel real guilt for whatever she did in the past, but some of her statements are filled with contradictions. For example, before stating that she?s a ?bad person? she claims to have ?opposed? the creation of the village while also accepting taking responsibility for being the architects (her group? Maybe other cave riders?) of their ?own hell.? She mentions that the village is ?cursed,? but as time went by the village slowly became a small haven for the hollow. There are some trippy flashback images when she explains this and the most interesting one hints at the possibility that Faputa was a product of this incident (which, in turn, opens even more questions: if Faputa is the ?undying embodiment of value,? how was she created? Was Faputa a product of a sizeable balancing offering?).
Veko explaining the village?s origin.
Some final thoughts
Okay, so this recap is getting way too long so I?ll try and wrap things even though I barely scrapped the piles of new info filling these chapters. Some of these revelations would require a whole separate article, but it?s hard to assert something concrete when everything so far in this arc is setting up a big reveal. It?s also worth discussing how this story arc is the first point in the manga where Tsukushi blends psychosexual elements with the metaphysical themes of the story. The tone of the story remains the same (a blend of bleak themes with some moments of levity), but the art is moving towards some very edgy Lovecraftian landscapes (not surprising since Tsukushi is a big Bloodborne fan). The monsters and creatures of the village have grotesque textures and a lot of the spaces our main trio visits feel claustrophobic. It almost feels like you can smell these other spaces and everything is covered by repulsive layers of fat and goo. The fact that the hollows of the village have turned into their innermost desires means that village is, in literal terms, a place where you can transform your body into any fetish you want. It?s hard to say right now if there will be a payoff to all this crazy stuff or if we?re entering the silly fetishistic worldbuilding of writers like Hiroyuki Yoshino, but there?s enough meaty stuff here to warrant a full analysis (or not, it?s hard to talk about this aspect of the manga without feeling like I need to be in the shower for a week). The other thing I would love to discuss at length (if I ever get my shit together and write often) is that the thematic core of the story is clearer, even when we?re far from the endgame of our trio?s adventure. To put it mildly, everything could happen in this cursed story.
Anyways, thanks for reading and I?ll see you on the 30th when the new chapter lands (maybe, perhaps, probably not).
*Tsukushi has explained that Nanachi?s gender is ambiguous so I decided to use the neutral ?they? to refer to this and any other characters without a defined gender (like Belafu and Robodaddy).