“If someone other than a White Whistle sends information up from the Abyss, it will be considered ‘mere rumor.'”
-Shiggy, Made in Abyss, Episode 3
Continuing with a fairly rigid adherence to the basic structure of the monomyth (the Hero’s Journey), Riko has recklessly set out for the depths of the Abyss by the end of Made in Abyss‘ third episode.
For those keeping score, we’re just past the supernatural aid stage — Leader’s Episode 2 revelation that Riko was born in the Abyss and his probable gift that was left in their climbing backpack — and Riko has crossed the first threshold.
There are a myriad of things that Made in Abyss does well, but the most impressive of these is how it uses such a tried and true framework for Riko’s story without succumbing to the scores of clichés that could follow. It also helps that the Abyss itself is a physical manifestation of many of these storytelling tools and checkmarks. Diving into the Abyss involved Riko crossing a literal threshold, not just a figurative one.
If anything, the Made in Abyss anime adaptation (I can’t personally speak to the manga because I haven’t read it) thrives because it uses such a familiar, simple structure and expands on it through characterization, visuals, and musical score. The numerous hints at the mysteries of the Abyss are small and presented as every day life for the likes of Riko, Nat, and Shiggy, but speaks volumes to outsiders like Reg and us as a viewing audience.
For example, when Reg stumbles on a praying skeleton, his reaction is wholly different from Riko’s. Where Riko was momentarily startled because she hadn’t seen a skeleton in a while, she quickly accepted it and apologized for disturbing its rest, moving on her merry way. Reg is startled, scared, and runs to Nat for help. Nat calmly explains that all skeletons are posed that way and their remains are apparently from 2,000 years ago.
How they ended up that way — a catastrophic event during which they could see their end approaching and therefore decided to pray is my personal guess — is left a mystery. More importantly, it’s a mystery that Nat explains and accepts without incident, just as Riko apologized and moved on with her excavation.
These small hints are also treated as separate from the Abyss itself. Riko, Shiggy, Nat, and the other children at the orphanage, aren’t concerned with things like the praying skeletons, they’re more interested in relics and uncovering what they consider to be the mysteries of the Abyss in the form of odd creatures, fantastical forests, and bizarre landscapes.
They’re not nearly as interested in humanity, and this is likely a learned behavior from their teachers and society as a whole.
Made in Abyss‘ third episode focuses on information flow within their society and how facts are passed down from generation to generation. Most importantly, it tells us what information is trusted and from whom. Made in Abyss remains focused on the return rather than the initial descent, and this includes everything from physical bodies trained to withstand the Curse of the Abyss and accounts sent by mail balloons from the depths.
The revelation that only the word of White Whistles is taken as fact when collecting information from mail balloons is particularly telling. White Whistles are able to dive further than anyone in their society, combing the depths of the Abyss where one is likely to lose their humanity. This is why outside information is not trusted. It’s curious that the word of a White Whistle goes undisputed, given what they are rumored to be dealing with at those levels of the Abyss.
Riko remarks that Lyza must have sent numerous letters, all in haste, to ensure that just one mail balloon surfaced. What little we know of Lyza — a woman willing to abandon and use valuable relics just to have a daughter — corroborates with Riko’s thoughts.
However, there’s no guarantee that what Riko sends to the surface, if she manages to send anything at all, will be taken as truth. Riko, unlike her mother, is not a White Whistle. She’s the furthest thing from it outside of the jingle bell given to trainees too young or inexperienced to cave dive. Although Shiggy responds that he’ll believe any mail balloon from Riko regardless, this adds an extra layer of finality to Riko’s parting. Not only is she essentially undertaking a suicide mission, but she’s also cutting herself off from all communication with her society. Even if she manages to send something, it isn’t likely to be regarded as factual. If anything, there’s a far higher possibility that it will be treated as a rumor, and perhaps not passed on at all.
As the protagonist of this story, it’s now Riko’s task to find a way to not only survive within the Abyss, but “return” somehow, either physically or through sending information to the surface.
Riko, a special baby who was born in the Abyss. Riko, the daughter of one of the greatest White Whistles of all time, Lyza the Annihilator.
The stage has been set.