“Reg! You’ve even forgotten about the Abyss? This great pit is called the Abyss. And I found you in the depths of the Abyss. Thought that maybe you came up from the bottom of the Abyss, Reg! I mean, I’ve never seen any kind of robot like you before! That’s gotta be right! You must have come from the bottom of the Abyss which no one has ever seen.”
–Riko to Reg, Made in Abyss, Episode 1
One of my first classes in high school was dedicated to reading Stephen Vincent Benét’s By the Waters of Babylon. At that time, I thought I could skate by without doing homework assignments. In this specific case, reading the short story was my homework in order to prepare for in-class discussion. While the rest of the class discussed it, I thumbed through the photocopied pages, quickly underlining key points.
I didn’t make it to the end.
Class participation was part of our grade. When my teacher asked for simple details from the beginning of the story, I quickly raised my hand and gave one regarding its ancient setting. He nodded and moved on to the next student. By the end of the class, all was revealed. I felt horrible. My fact given made it clear that I hadn’t read all the way through the story. More than that, the revelation at the end of the story intrigued me.
That night I went home and read By the Waters of Babylon. I was enthralled. It tells the tale of a young man, John, on a journey to The Place of the Gods. En route, he realizes that the so-called gods are not gods at all, but humans not unlike himself who destroyed their own world. What begins in a seemingly ancient setting turns out to be a post-apocalyptic future. It ends with John’s words, “We must build again.”
“The skeleton of someone in prayer. First time I’ve seen one in quite a while.”
–Riko to herself, Made in Abyss, Episode 1
As soon as Riko discovers what ends up being a tomb — the skeleton of a person who was praying in the final moments before their death — I couldn’t help but think of John and By the Waters of Babylon. Riko searches for relics, whose purpose she doesn’t know. John, the son of a priest, is one of the only people of his tribe allowed to collect metal.
When John sees the skeleton of the dead god, he comes to realize that his so-called gods are humans.
Riko’s reaction to the dead is not one of shock. Although she’s startled by the skeleton itself, she’s not surprised by its existence. She simply apologizes to the skeleton for disturbing it and moves on. Her epiphany comes later, when she discovers the body of a “robot,” whom she first names Robot Boy before calling him Reg.
Throughout her first encounter with an unresponsive Reg, Riko remains oddly detached. Her actions speak volumes that a narration or monologue could never achieve with the same sense of genuine curiosity, which in turn, peppers the viewing audience with the same sense of dread that has been building visually since the opening landscapes.
Like the skeleton, Riko shows curiosity but no fear when confronted with injury or death. While she moves to resuscitate the boy, Riko is overcome with joy at the discovery that he’s not human. Her reaction is of joy, wonder, and finally concern. She had every intention of trying to save his life, had he been dying, but ends up consumed by curiosity. Naturally, she must take the robot boy back to her orphanage to examine him further.
There are other nods to horror and past atrocities throughout Made in Abyss‘ first episode. Riko is housed in a former torture chamber, which turns out to be oddly convenient — she has an electric chair on hand to revive Reg — among other bits and weaponry. When Riko drags Reg to the top of their city to see the sunrise, they stand in front of a windmill, and I couldn’t help but see a brief flash of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when the book’s protagonist (another John) holes up in an “air-lighthouse.”
Riko is certain that Reg comes from the Abyss. It’s the only logical conclusion available to her. Reg, who seemingly remembers nothing, is a mystery, even to himself. Yet, Riko’s certainty is priming her for a revelation, one that will follow up on this episode’s many visual clues, and alter her perception forever.