“I like everything but the monster animation. It’s too weird and jarring with the rest of the show” has been a common criticism of Made in Abyss since its much-lauded debut.
In a world where praying skeletons hint at a cataclysmic end for a past society and the current generation has built their entire infrastructure around exploring a gaping maw in the ground the rough lines and blurred movement of the Abyss’ more fantastic inhabitants is jarring to say the least.
The man responsible for this purposeful design is none other than veteran key animator Kou Yoshinari — “Aninari,” or older brother Yoshinari — older brother to Little Witch Academia‘s Yoh Yoshinari. Kou Yoshinari’s approach in both production and overall aesthetic has been looser and detached than that of other animators, younger brother included despite the fact that both men are remarkably talented. When Kou Yoshinari animates a scene, viewers will take notice. He’s one of few animators that even a sakuga novice like myself — think of me as Kiyui with a small jingle bell rather than a proper whistle — can recognize immediately. Throughout his career, his scenes stand out, especially when appearing as a guest, providing a cut here and there.
For Made in Abyss, Kou Yoshinari is no transient visitor to the production but the series’ monster designer. This makes him responsible for the various creatures of the Abyss that pop up here and there. He’s the perfect fit for this particular role, and many of his animation and creature design choices help reiterate thematic elements of the Abyss, and Made in Abyss as a whole.
The first creature introduced is a crimson splitjaw, an Abyss monster that belongs at much lower depths than the first layer according to Riko and the monster’s visible position on the Abyss map in the opening sequence. Made in Abyss reveals much of its story in small environmental details like this, and for an audience that already doesn’t know what to expect, Riko’s exclamation that the crimson splitjaw shouldn’t be present is unsettling.
In comparison to Riko, who is in focus in the foreground and therefore a bit larger in size to show depth, the crimson splitjaw is massive, far too large to fit within the frame provided of two cliff walls and the lifeless body of Nat. Even out of focus, the monster is still drawn like Riko and Nat without heavy linework and blurring.
This continues when the monster devours Nat’s backpack. It moves slowly, but not in an uncoordinated or unusual fashion.
Only after Riko blows her whistle and the crimson splitjaw turns does it begin to detach itself from its surroundings. As Riko runs, she’s animated in the established fashion of the series while the monster moves erratically with blurred sections and bold lines. It stands out in relief to Riko and the environment of the first layer.
The monster becomes wholly disconnected once it corners Riko. Here is where Kou Yoshinari’s animation comes to life in the most distressing way. Filtered and completely separate, the crimson splitjaw advances on Riko, still moving unnaturally both in general movement and due to the way that the linework in and of itself moves around the edges of the creature.
While the cinematography of the scene pictures the crimson splitjaw as a creature so large that it’s squeezing itself onto the screen, the linework shows that the creature is too big even for its own skin.
This trend continues for every Abyss creature introduced. Certain creatures, like the fifth episode’s corpse weeper, are shown with similar linework to beings that appear alongside them like Reg, Riko, or in this specific case, the corpse of the cave raider. Through environments and in-universe cataloging of everything from the layers of the Abyss, known relics and creatures, and even Riko’s own notebook, Made in Abyss is a series that begs its audience to notice details as they contribute to the story. The question of why Kou Yoshinari chose to have these monsters act and behave in specific ways at specific times beyond personal style — although there is an element of that — is one worth asking, especially in a series like this.
The obvious answer is to separate these creatures from humans and even robots, in the case of Reg, but the Abyss creatures aren’t always shown that way, blurring lines between human and creature.
For example, the corpse weepers only grow otherworldly when one flies away from Reg with Riko in tow while the others attack Reg. The first layer’s silkfang is shown as perpetually blurry with a dark, thick outline that moves constantly, but Reg’s robot arm is given the same treatment when it grabs hold of the monster. This could be a simple animation necessity, but in Made in Abyss, it could always mean more.
With the very idea of losing one’s humanity in the lower layers of the Abyss and what that could possibly mean a fact unknown not only to the viewing audience but to Riko herself, Kou Yoshinari’s monster design choices push thematic elements of the series further visually, through animation and design.