「大穴の街」 (Ouana no machi)
“The City of the Great Pit”
There’s this videogame series on the Nintendo handhelds that I really enjoy called Etrian Odyssey. It’s the spiritual descendant of the old-school first-person dungeon crawlers a la Wizardry, and it’s great. Basically, in its fantasy world there’s these huge labyrinths that nobody knows the origins of filled with alien fauna and flaura. Entire cities have popped up around them, supported by the explorers who hope to strike fame and fortune within these labyrinths. A tried and true formula, and also one familiar to regular anime viewers because it’s a premise frequently adapted to the TV screen either as videogame adaptations (e.g. Tower of Druaga) or actual videogames (e.g. Sword Art Online). And of course, there’s Made in Abyss, with its flavour of labyrinth being a giant hole in the ground. What really makes me think of Etrian Odyssey when I watched this pilot episode, though, was not the conceit, but the aesthetic. Unlike the minimalist Wizardry, Etrian Odyssey features ‘cute’ character designs and a bright colour palette. The dungeons one crawls through are only dungeons in the loosest sense, filled with life and light, and what one explores are not just dark corridors, but new worlds. So too, I think, is the initial draw of Made in Abyss (supported by a fantastically atmospheric score), tapping into the thrill of stepping into a land untouched by man and going, ‘Wow.’.
Indeed, Made in Abyss is a pretty anime. Very pretty. Almost unreasonably so. I can imagine it costing a background artists many hours to craft each scene. I am reminded of the breathtaking wonder when one is confronted with the lush backgrounds of a Miyazaki film, especially Castle in the Sky Laputa. Surely, I can’t be the only one who expected a trumpet solo as the sunrise caressed the mining town? Any comparison to Miyazaki, the high priest of all things good in anime, must surely be a good thing, and one can spot some shared techniques. Like in Laputa, the relatively simple character designs of Made in Abyss (mostly round, blobby children for our protagonists) places emphasis on the backgrounds. Each character must be seen in the context of their world.
But there’s another reason, I think, for these designs and here I go back to Etrian Odyssey. As I mentioned before, it’s art is definitely of the cute and cheerful variety. The player can actually choose the portrait art for each of their party member, and one can definitely assemble a party of young girls and boys to go dungeon-crawling with. Mechanically, though, Etrian Odyssey can get pretty dark. You are frequently attacked by all manner of grotesque creatures, the difficulty can sometimes be punishing, and being unprepared can well mean death for your entire party. And during your journey, you definitely will find the corpses of adventurers less fortunate than you, NPCs will die foolishly without there being anything you can do to save them, and there’s even the occasional genocide. The cute contrasting with the dark draws out an amoral malice in the setting, and I think Made in Abyss will go that route as well; I haven’t read the source, but I’ve heard anecdotes about it, and there are certainly hints already. I fear these pitiable orphans are going to be sacrificed for our horror and/or amusement. It’s the first episode and already one has almost been eaten. How long until one is actually eaten? I don’t think one goes exploring a place called ‘the Abyss’ without expecting madness and death.