Who else had been waiting for the Made in Abyss finale all week? With it being a double-length special, I’m sure the expectation was that it was going to be huge, and sure enough it didn’t disappoint—as if we ever had cause to doubt Made in Abyss. Still, it’s a rather unusual finale, in that it’s not really one. Instead, it’s backstory, the heartbreaking tale of Nanachi and Mitty, how they got where they are in the shape they are in. It’s not really the finale’s place to open up a new plotline like this, but it deserves telling nonetheless and while clearly not the final chapter, makes for a good place to leave our bookmark.
Needless to say, the backstory of Nanachi and Mitty is not a happy one, which I’m sure we all knew from the outset. It’s not just that we’re already privy to their final fate. It’s also that we’ve seen this pattern before. We know not to trust people in black helmets. We know that orphans being herded away en masse can be for nothing good. And we know that experimenting on children in anime always ends horrifically. And so when the Pied Piper of Hamelin came to whisk away the children in bulk, we knew that it wasn’t going to be for a picnic. And perhaps Nanchi should have known too? If she had been reading about the Abyss, shouldn’t she have read the part about the Curse? And should have known that children descending to the fifth stratum is, at best, a one-way trip? But of course, she missed the implications, and her ignorance makes the betrayal hit all the harder.
Again, we are asked to contrast the White Whistles with other perhaps more naive explorers (which is, again, not our usual finale fare but let’s do it anyway). The children make a great juxtaposition. They, like Riko and Reg, have an unblemished vision. They, or at least what we saw of Nanachi and Mitty, have a curiosity about the Abyss. They’re in it for the pure joy of discovery. Bondrewd (Morikawa Toshiyuki) has a curiosity too, but it is far more sinister. The Lyza narration keeps reminding us of the longing for the Abyss, but while the children have that innocent spirit of adventure, for the White Whistles it seems an obsession approaching madness. Ozen, while relatively benign, is a bitter and cynical woman. Bondrewd is a murderous amoral scientist. It’s their heroics that are supposed to inspire new generations to take up cave raiding, but their reality falls far short. So I wonder if Orth’s image of the Abyss may be set to betray them, too; they attach a certain divinity to it, but it may turn out to be more devil than god.
All this sounds quite dark, but it makes Nanachi’s decision to join Riko and Reg on their journey all the more triumphant. By all rights, her ordeal at the hands of Bondrewd should have crushed what spirit she had, and indeed she is a death-seeker in part even now. But for now, she resolves to live on. Putting down Mitty became something more than a release from her duties; it allowed Nanachi to move on. Here, we can turn back to the tradition of Greek tragedy, and the link between death and catharsis. Death is not just a release from pain for the one who dies, but a release of emotions for the ones who live on. Nanachi’s parting with Mitty was such a powerful moment not just because it was objectively sad, but because of the emotional release it allowed. Until Mitty actually dies, Nanachi could not properly mourn. And once she is, Nanachi can finally cry for the friend she had lost long ago—and maybe we as the audience can do some of that, too.
This is what makes this episode a great finale, because even if the plot is not resolved it does the other thing finales do—give emotional closure. Catharsis completes the tragedy, and while Nanachi and Mitty’s story was only about half-an-hour of all of Made in Abyss, its completeness drops a worthy curtain on the entire series.
Final Impressions ~ A videogame adaptation done right
Damn, Made in Abyss was good. Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising considering we had Monster director Kojima Masayuki heading the project, but on my part I jumped at blogging this show mostly based on a gut feeling (helped along by the beautiful background art), and then crossed my fingers and hoped it would be good. Thankfully, my greatest asset as an anime blogger is the ability to stumble into great shows without much effort, and everything worked out more than well.
As an adaptation, Made in Abyss is an object lesson in what they can add to a story. I talk about adaptations basically every season (and I talk about it a bit with Koe no Katachi, and I talk about it a lot with videogames), but since so much of anime are adaptations, particularly from manga, it bears repeating. Anime has many more tools to work with than a manga—like colour, animation, and sound—and a good adaptation is one that can use these extra tools to enhance the story. And, in a nutshell, that’s what Made in Abyss does. I’m not familiar with the original manga, but I was still constantly aware of the strength of these anime tools displayed at every turn, from the art to the cinematography to the sound design. The sound I will give particular praise to, both for powerful performances by the voice cast that drove the drama in many key scenes, and for Kevin Penkin’s excellent score that supported the show at every turn, from pure ambience to big, vocal set pieces that are the highlight of emotional climaxes like the end of episode 08.
Made in Abyss has the distinction, though, of being the adaptation of an adaptation. In the pilot I talked extensively about the parallels between Made in Abyss and old-style dungeon crawlers like Etrian Odyssey, and the connection was no less clear as we went along. Even the soundtrack is uncannily familiar at times; take, for example, The First Layer. As such, I consider Made in Abyss a videogame adaptation as much as anything else, and it does it right. It takes the spirit of these games—the exploration, the unknown, set to the thrill of extreme danger—and turns that into its own thing, stripping away all the ‘gamey’ elementsthat cause so many other videogame adaptations so much trouble. Again, it’s a matter of focusing on the strengths of your medium, and Made in Abyss is able to explore many angles that a traditional dungeon crawler cannot. In Etrian Odyssey, for example, the narrative is very thin by design, and character creation is in the hands of the player, so the game actively encourages the player to fill in the gaps with imagination. Made in Abyss takes the opportunity to engage in character drama, what adventuring into such a dangerous and malevolent place does to people. And while in a game danger is necessarily cushioned by mechanics—if you get injured you can heal, if your party wipes you can reload—Made in Abyss doesn’t have to provide any kind of play experience, and can really put the screws on its characters and explore pain and suffering completely raw.
Despite my praise, Made in Abyss is not without its weaknesses. The comedy, while necessary to break up the tension, never really worked for me. There’s the standard anime gags about bad cooking, which is by now are more charming than funny, if being generous. Other attempts at humour usually involve Riko being in some compromising position or another or some juvenile giggles about biology, which is not exactly high-brow wit. The romantic tension, such as it were, followed much the same lines. I can understand why Made in Abyss does these things, to forcibly mix up the tone of a story always in danger of falling too deeply into darkness, but success is variable. Crudeness aside, it’s still good that they at least make attempts, because the proper balance in tone is important for Made in Abyss. I sometimes see comments talking about how dark Made in Abyss is, or about it being horror, or about its cute designs fooling others into thinking its suitable for kids when it actually isn’t, but I don’t think that Made in Abyss is ever that oppressive. I don’t even think it’s that inappropriate for kids; an older child could certainly watch it with some parental guidance. Children’s fiction is not all unicorn and rainbows, just as adult fiction is not all gloom and gore. Recall that fairy tales were originally very dark, violent and disturbing stories, because children need to confront these themes eventually and fiction is a safe place to do so in. Roald Dahl, if you’ve read his work, was a firm believer in this. Genuinely horrifying things happen to children in his books, but children can handle fiction. The important part is that they persevere despite, and to that end Made in Abyss should be inspirational. It’s why it never actually descends into horror, because it is ultimately empowering. Our protagonists are met with terrible and painful obstacles time and time again, and each time they overcome. They are beaten, they experience loss and hurt, but they get back up again. That’s teachable, I think.
We can certainly stand to have more like Made in Abyss, especially since we’ve only now caught up with the ED with Nanachi joining the party. I’m optimistic that eventually we will once the manga gets along and it perhaps needs promoting again. The ending we have is certainly a second season hook, and while it bodes badly for our protagonists, I’m looking forward to it. Much in the spirit of Made in Abyss.
Full-length images: 13.