the hero’s journey

Made in Abyss on “The Return”

“You know, that girl simply left without ever turning to look back, but I could see her profile. And she was just like all of the cave raiders I’ve seen. That eye I saw was full of longing. And then, I remembered what it was I wanted to be one day.”

-Riko on meeting Mitty, Made in Abyss, Episode 13

When we first meet her, Riko is bored.

Cave raiding still excites her, but she’s already looking into her own future to a time when she won’t be stuck on the first layer, combing through graves that have already been dug up by countless red whistle trainees for run-of-the-mill artifacts. Initially presented as part of a larger vertical society where the delvers give back to the community in the form of artifacts or new Abyss discoveries, cave raiding first appears to be a societal contribution first.

Yet, from the moment she appears in the series’ first episode, Riko’s desire is far more selfish. She admits to hoarding the Star Compass because its value as an artifact that guides its user towards the truth of the Abyss is more important to her personal goals. She is rarely in the present, talking instead of a far-off time when she’s a white whistle like her mother, Lyza.

Riko looks into the Abyss and sees her mother. Riko looks into the Abyss and sees endless opportunity and possibility. Riko looks into the Abyss and sees her own insatiable curiosity, the inevitable pull that every human has towards something.

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The Belly of the Whale: Cinematography shifts in Made in Abyss

Riko opens her eyes to an upside down view of Reg’s face.

Even something as familiar to Riko as Reg’s face is inverted the first time she opens her eyes at the beginning of their journey. The fact that the above framing is thanks to Reg’s protectiveness does little to assuage the sense of foreboding that permeates the entirety of Episode 4.

Although the two are surrounded by a safety net of sorts, the visual message is loud and clear: Riko and Reg are well past the first threshold and into the belly of the whale.

Using specific visual framing, Made in Abyss doesn’t let us forget that Riko and Reg are past the point of no return.

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A Mother’s Gift: More on Made in Abyss and post-apocalyptic fiction

Any story that follows the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey — as named and made popular by Joseph Campbell and his The Hero with a Thousand Faces — involves a return.

The return is one of the more important parts of a standard hero narrative, since it’s at that point where the hero must not only eschew the place (physical or metaphorical) of where they received enlightenment, but is tasked with gifting that knowledge to the unenlightened. Arguably, bestowing that wisdom upon everyday people in their everyday world is the very thing that makes them heroic.

For example, in the post-apocalyptic short story By the Waters of Babylonwhich I’ve referenced before in relation to Made in Abyss — John returns to his father and tribe with important knowledge of the civilization that preceded their own. Although his father cautions him of dumping too much information on the uniformed, the realization that what he thought were gods were actually mere humans who destroyed their own world is what inspires him to say that they must rebuild. His realization and return likely spark a period of growth and industry.

Made in Abyss‘ second episode is also the start of Riko’s journey as the hero of the main narrative, but it also has some fascinating commentary on the return itself, through the structure of the Abyss.

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