“Longing seizes people more powerfully than poison, and more deeply than illness. Once it grips you, there is absolutely no escape… For adventurers, a life without longing is more terrifying than death itself.”
These words, laying bare the true heart of the adventurer, come from Episode 12 of the anime Made in Abyss. An unquenchable thirst drives those who seek to explore the unknown, to experience the unfelt, to reveal the unseen. It is true of heroic epics dating back to Homer’s Odyssey, and is equally true in Akihito Tsukushi’s Made in Abyss.
The series is entering its second season this summer, which is why now is the best time to catch up on one of the best anime in recent years.
In it we follow Riko, who is a young “cave raider”—essentially, a treasure hunter searching for lost relics of past civilizations. Riko lives in the peaceful town of Orth, which looks like the Spanish city of Cuenca by way of a Studio Ghibli film (and it should, given that the chief art director for the series is Ghibli veteran Osamu Masayama). She is tasked with searching for relics with her classmates in the Abyss, a giant hole in the ground that many think could be bottomless. Riko’s teachers warn about going too deep in the Abyss, as anyone who ventures into its far reaches fails to return, falling victim to its “curse.”
But Riko’s adventurous spirit cannot be denied, and she grows restless with the simple treasure hunts she takes on at the edge of the Abyss. With her companion Reg, a partially mechanical boy, they head further into the Abyss after Riko receives a message from her mother, a famous cave raider who is presumed to be down in the deepest depths of this endless crater.
Riko is headstrong, as any good adventuring protagonist should be. She is determined to find her mother and earn the title of White Whistle, given to only the most accomplished of cave raiders. Reg’s mechanical gadgetry makes him the muscle, but he is often weighed down metaphorically by anxiety and the questioning of his own humanity, which he fears he is losing as they dive deeper into the Abyss.
Any exploration yarn worth its salt will succeed in establishing a mysterious world that the viewer, like the hero, can’t help but be drawn into. Made in Abyss constructs a world that immediately leaves an impression. The establishing shots of Orth, where houses cling to the cliffs around the great pit, show how precariously close to the edge humanity lives. It looks as though the town might one day be swallowed by the Abyss itself.
The Abyss is broken up into layers, each with its own unique biome. Viewer anticipation builds as Riko and Reg descend to a new layer, because the staff at animation studio Kinema Citrus go all out to provide a sumptuous visual feast. The immense scale of each of these layers, making our protagonists feel insignificant and leaving them in awe, has shades of the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft and the overwhelming feeling of the sublime.
The opening lines of The Call of Cthulhu offer a thematic jumping off point that Made in Abyss can’t help but be compared to:
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far… the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Made in Abyss doesn’t shy away from the terrifying vistas and bouts of madness one would expect from a Lovecraft story. The world of the Abyss delivers unto our heroes abject cruelty, forcing unfathomable decisions and placing them in a constant state of danger. Learning the secrets of the Abyss and piecing together the dissociated knowledge comes at a great cost. Despite what the cute character designs might make you think you’re getting into, the series fully earns its TV-MA rating. At times the series seems to relish in its grotesquery, but there are a number of ways to read into why these seemingly innocent children are being subjected to such horrors. Made in Abyss is gory at times, but it is never schlocky.
Finally, it must be said that composer Kevin Penkin’s score adds a layer of texture and emotion to the story that elevates Made in Abyss to an even higher level. Recorded at the famous Synchron Stage in Vienna, the orchestral treatment Penkin applies to Made in Abyss is so unique in the anime landscape, so rich and full of thematic depth, that you can’t help but let it envelop you completely. Penkin returns for Season 2, and when Icelandic artist Arnor Dan (who you might remember hearing in Broadchurch) joins him for a vocal performance in the opening episode, it is clear the show hasn’t missed a beat.
There is always something that drives the explorer, often a longing that often cannot be fully explained. Riko in Made in Abyss is similarly driven by this force she doesn’t quite understand. She’s looking for her mother, but even she isn’t sure that’s all of it, saying, “even though the one waiting there might not be my mother, I’m all the more excited.”
Simply put, Made in Abyss is a show you need to catch up on. There isn’t anything like it in anime. It is a compelling adventure into the unknown that delivers emotional gut punches with absolute precision.
Made in Abyss is currently streaming on the anime streaming service HIDIVE. Season 1 and the movie Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul (listed as “movie 3” on HIDIVE’s service) are both essential viewing to get you up to speed as Season 2 gets underway.
Michael Lee is a writer who might take anime and video games a little too seriously. For more musings on animation, fandom, and game worlds, follow him on Twitter @kousatender..
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.