Layers of storytelling in Made in Abyss

“But you know, less than ten percent of the creatures in the Abyss have even been named.”

-Riko to Reg, Made in Abyss, Episode 10

An essential piece of any adventure or fantasy story involves describing the fantasy world that the characters inhabit. Yet, telling or showing the environment is often a tricky endeavor. Too many expository monologues will easily send viewers running in the opposite direction and take away from the mysteries and wonder of the world that a series is trying to showcase.

Made in Abyss has done an exceptional job of dispensing facts to the viewing audience without tedium. Even longer expository passages from various characters in the series blend seamlessly with the visual and auditory storytelling. Made in Abyss‘ characters are experiencing parts of the Abyss for the first time themselves, which lends an authenticity to their words. The series plays with characters’ levels of familiarity with the mysterious Abyss to distribute bits of knowledge organically making the most of how much we, and the characters, do not know.

“Poison and Curse,” the series’ tenth episode, offers an easy example of these different levels of understanding, from us in the audience, to Reg, to Riko, to the Abyss’ latest inhabitant that they meet, Nanachi.

In the waning moments of Episode 9, Reg checks their depth and then looks down to see a series of pale blue-green luminescent circles emerging from the clouds. Riko immediately recognizes this landscape as the Goblet of Giants. A sign that says “The Depths’ Fourth Layer, Goblet of Giants” validates Riko’s claim.

As viewers, we also see this landscape and know what it is instantly, since we’ve already learned a bit about this particular place through mentions of it and assorted imagery that has been sprinkled throughout the previous episodes.

The Goblet of Giants is first mentioned by Shiggy in Episode 3, when he pulls out a map of the Abyss and goes through the layers one by one. He mentions that only Black Whistles and above can travel to this particular layer because it’s so dangerous. This piggybacks on his descriptions of the curse effects by layer from the previous episode. In the Goblet of Giants, ascending means bleeding from every orifice.

If we don’t happen remember the map image that accompanied Shiggy’s description, Episode 10 gives us this convenient image with similar framing.

Made in Abyss has also hinted to us that the Goblet of Giants is a very dangerous place, multiple times throughout the series. As early as Episode 2, we see Riko’s mother Lyza and her mentor Ozen in the fourth layer with their diving crew. This is partnered with Leader Jiruo’s words to Riko that her father died on this excursion, along with everyone who wasn’t Ozen or Lyza, and Lyza managed to give birth to Riko in this layer against all odds. The Goblet of Giants’ signature waterfalls from the “cups” appear faintly in the background of these flashbacks.

Riko and the viewing audience later find out from Ozen that Riko was initially a stillborn. With Lyza incapacitated, the camera follows Ozen, who leans on the Curse-Repelling Vessel that brings Riko back to life. In the background, the cups frame Ozen as she stands guard over Lyza like a samurai.

We know of the Goblet of Giants but not as much as Riko knows of this particular layer since she learned about it in her education at the orphanage. No sooner to they set foot on one of the plant “cups” and begin to walk across it than she begins to chatter excitedly to Reg — and us by extension — about the plants that make up this part of the layer.

The air is more humid than she thought it would be. Her voice echoes. It smells vinegary. All of these add to her pre-existing notions of what she imagined the Goblet of Giants to be like from descriptions in books, images on a map, and word of mouth — lest we forget that the spoken word and letters of White Whistles are actually important parts of Abyss culture — to form a more complete picture of what the Goblet of Giants actually is upon first impression. Riko also expresses genuine wonder and awe that they even made it this far. Her in-moment observations combined with her amazement display the gap between knowing of something and truly experiencing it.

On a more meta level, there are parallels to be drawn between readers of Akihito Tsukushi’s manga — the source material for the anime — and those of us who are experiencing both the original story of Made in Abyss and its audiovisual adaptation simultaneously. I’m in the latter group.

Manga readers are like Riko, educated in the story but without having experienced what the anime version will do with cinematography, animation, music, and sound effects. For weeks, they have hinted at a creeping darkness and this week, the series delivered in a gruesome, horrific way that was painful to watch. I’d personally argue that the series has never been, for lack of a better phrase, cute and cuddly, especially since it delves into the depths of pure human curiosity, which can get dark fairly quickly. However, this episode is an easy point in the story to put one’s finger on and say, “Here. Here’s where Made in Abyss really shows its true colors.”

Even with knowing what was coming, manga readers exploded at this episode, praising the direction — and by extension series director Masayuki Kojima, who storyboarded this episode, and his crew — of what is a crucial series of scenes in the Made in Abyss narrative.

Kojima’s storyboarding does wonders for this episode. He establishes a sense of dread from the moment Reg steps into the water by framing Riko and Reg in a similar way to Shinya Iino’s Episode 4, as if something or someone is watching them. They’re continuously dwarfed by their surroundings until Reg is forced to ascend.

Then, most of the shots are cramped and narrowed in on Riko’s pain and Reg’s inability to help her. There are multiple close-ups of both of their facial expressions as Riko slips further away from consciousness and closer to death. Riko’s screams, Reg’s sobs, and later, Nanachi’s nasally, almost mocking tone of voice all add depth to these scenes that the original source material could not have had due to its medium.

The overwhelming reaction to Made in Abyss Episode 10 is completely justified. This episode is stunning, both in the actual plot points and in the cinematography and sound design used to immerse the viewer. The squelching sound and Riko’s subsequent scream when Reg pulls the Orb Piercer’s spine from her hand is sickening, and the later crack of her wrist brief but nauseating. Her scream afterwards, accompanied by a zoomed out shot of the two of them at the edge of a pool of water, is gut-wrenching. Made in Abyss‘ tenth episode is a microcosm for the storytelling used throughout the series as a whole. All of it works on multiple levels, regardless of how much you know going in.

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5 comments

  1. Last paragraph… “The overwhelming reaction to Made in Abyss Episode 8 is completely justified.” and later in the paragraph “Made in Abyss‘ eighth episode is a microcosm for the storytelling used throughout the series as a whole. All of it works on multiple levels, regardless of how much you know going in.” You mean episode 10, no? I know the pacing was a bit slow, but still…

    Nice analysis on the episode in general. Especially on the “the gap between knowing of something and truly experiencing it” – one of the major points of the episode is that Riko was blindsided by her overall reliance on book knowledge vs. actual experience. In this case, it was falsely assuming that using the scale umbrella would scare off the Tamagrouchy monster, and suffering as a result.

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