Dispatches from the Abyss

When Riko sends a mail balloon to the surface in Made in Abyss‘ first season, the framing is that of a cave raider’s ascent. The balloon travels through every layer we have seen Riko delve from week-to-week. Interspersed with scenes of Riko, Nanachi, and Reg planning to go further into the Abyss and making their preparations, the balloon is buffeted by winds and monsters, repaired by Marulk on the second layer, and fortuitously discovered by Riko’s friend Nat during his daily delving on the first layer. As he returns to Orth with the balloon’s package in hand, scattered petals of eternal fortune flowers trail behind him. Riko has made her own ascent, perhaps without the pomp and circumstance of her mother Lyza’s, but no less emotionally-affecting for Nat and the viewing audience.

Riko’s second balloon mail balloon from the Abyss doesn’t go nearly as well.  

The actual mailing of the balloon is visually framed similarly to Riko’s first balloon in the first season. We see Riko and Reg’s hands on it, preparing it to launch, there’s a larger establishing shot of where they’re going to release the balloon, the music swells. For a moment, despite Reg bringing up how difficult it is to send a message from the sixth layer, it seems like the scene from the first season’s finale will repeat itself here.

However, the narrative framing and dialogue preceding both balloon launches is completely different, reflecting Riko’s growth and changing ambitions.

And the balloon immediately is skewered by a monster, never leaving the sixth layer at all.

When Riko launches her balloon from the fourth layer, it follows a line where she says that her mother is waiting for her, after all, so she must continue her adventure. She sends the balloon to let others know this, telling them how far she’s come. The journey of the balloon itself is shown between preparation scenes and its ascent is placed side-by-side with a soundtrack that swells as it breaks through to the first layer. It is Riko’s triumphant return. It is an event.

By contrast, her dispatch from the sixth layer is more matter-of-fact. She’s reminded of Nat and the orphanage through the meal she cooks for her, Reg, and Nanachi. When she grows homesick at Nanachi’s reminder that she’ll never see them again, Nanachi tells her that they’re connected via the Abyss and tells her to write a letter. Suddenly, Riko remembers where she is in the context of being an Orth cave-delver, and decides to send a report from “Team Riko.” It lacks the same sense of finality or gravity. This letter is just another report from Riko about her adventures.

“Let’s just believe that the last one made it, and this’ll definitely reach them too.”

-Nanachi, Made in Abyss: The Golden City of the Scorching Sun, Episode 2

This makes the near-instant skewering of the mail balloon by a monster not only hilarious, but also another indication of just how far they’ve come. Riko is sad but hardly despondent, and simply says she’ll sulk in her bed. She is on the sixth layer now. She cannot return.

The mention of the other mail balloon is also interesting as Nanachi and the series itself remind us that Riko has no idea whether her first letter made it to the surface (despite the fact that we know that it did). What we and Riko both do not know is the response from Nat and the rest regarding Riko’s adventures. And unless the series takes a more holistic narrative turn away from Riko’s personal journey, we never will.

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