Whenever I hear “top-down” or “vertical” society, I recall Gatchaman Crowds. In that series, Rui Ninomiya references Japanese anthropologist Chie Nakane and her 1970 book Japanese Society, stating that one of their goals is to destroy vertical social structure still prevalent in modern Japan.
The basics of vertical society are just as it sounds: a top-down hierarchy with a “senior” and a “junior,” but Nakane reinforces that these titles and ideas are all tied into the group with which the person identifies. A Japanese person will first compare or establish themselves in a group, then branch out into their given profession or role.
For example, she states that asking a Japanese engineer about their job would result in that person saying, “I’m from A company” rather than the more western response, “I’m an engineer.”
Made in Abyss is a vertical society in both in social construction and physical existence.
There’s an obvious, “It works on two levels!” joke here, and both societal and physical structures are reinforced visually. This only adds to the post-apocalyptic feel of the series, dropping clues as to what may have happened in the past to create such a vibrant society that is seemingly on a dangerous precipice.
It sounds almost facetious to point out that natural light comes from above. Walk outside at most times of the day and the sun will beat down on you from a fixed point above, even if its intensity is obstructed by cloud clover.
Made in Abyss ensures that light is always filtering in from above, using vertical rock formations, towering flora, and falling water to reinforce the depths of the titular Abyss.
Even at sunrise, where the light would theoretically be at its most horizontal in relation to where a person is standing, Made in Abyss focuses on how that light travels from the top down.
Light sources in fiction can say a lot, even when they’re simply words on a page. I remember being thoroughly creeped out at C.S. Lewis’ written description of lighting in The Silver Chair‘s Underland, for example. There, the absence of the sun led to eerie artificial light the further Eustace Scrubb, Jill Pole, and Puddleglum traveled underground. Typically when reading fiction about caves, traversing underground, or falling into an abyss, light dims the further characters venture towards the center of the earth or whatever world they inhabit.
Made in Abyss eschews this, presenting a colorful and vibrant world filled with a variety of flora and fauna. As Riko is excavating relics, she often remains illuminated by natural light from behind or above.
The series also purposefully uses a variety of aerial shots and ground perspectives to reinforce the idea of looking directly up or down rather than taking a more standard, landscape-style approach. Copious amounts of atmospheric perspective create a hazy backdrop, denoting an unsettling, immeasurable distance.
Even in close up establishing shots, like this one of white flowers and dragonflies, swirling clouds are visible at the periphery of the image. These clouds, and visual representation of the Abyss rarely leaves our perception, regardless of where the series’ focal point is at any given time.
People look up or down in this world. Their perception has been shaped by the Abyss, around which they’ve built their society.
Visuals also do the heavy lifting (pun intended, I suppose) of placing physical verticality side-by-side with Made in Abyss‘ societal structure. We only need one look at Riko’s classroom to see yet another example of how the Abyss has shaped every facet of her world.
Desks are mounted vertically in the wall, as opposed to arranged horizontally on the floor like an average classroom with which the viewing audience is familiar. Rope ladders allow the children of the orphanage to climb up to their desks. The entire setup could merely be a way of training these children for their future excursions into the Abyss; however, there’s something oddly sinister about being bolted to a wall, even without the added details that Riko’s room was formerly a torture chamber, or that she was once strung up naked for being disobedient.
Once we watch Riko in the classroom, we’re given an immediate sense of authority and a fairly rigid top-down social structure. From a distance, the splashes of red on each orphan appear to be neckties, like ones worn with sailor-style uniforms in Japanese schools. However, a closer look reveals that they are whistles, color-coded so that each orphan’s abilities, or excavating level, is immediately visible for all to see.
Given Riko and Reg’s inexperience, red whistles are most likely the lowest excavating level. The only whistle shown below the color red is a tiny jingle bell worn by Kiyui, who is too young to go excavating. Riko’s teacher, or leader, wears a purple whistle, signifying a higher status and presumably more experience. Whistles aren’t given to every member of their society — the ominous military guard at the town entryway doesn’t have one — but are reserved for orphans and excavators.
Although Riko is seen as somewhat of a troublemaker within her own society — she was caught keeping relics to herself and punished, made to have the torture chamber room — an important part of her character is that she wants to work within the established social framework. She gets in trouble when her curiosity gets the better of her, but is adamant about becoming a White Whistle like her mother.
We don’t know what a White Whistle is exactly, but the series tells us enough to know that it’s likely a master-class excavator. The fact that Riko is an orphan means that it’s also a dangerous job, which is reiterated by the response of her leader, who tells her that she wouldn’t even be able to survive at the 400-meter depths her mother has traveled. Despite this, Riko still sees a White Whistle as a desirable status, and even raves in awe at the 600-meter club in the episode’s opening scenes. All of this points to the fact that Riko is somewhat disobedient regarding relics, but not radical in any way. Everything she says relates back to how her vertical society has shaped her, from wanting to become a White Whistle to her conviction that Reg came from the Abyss.