Well now, that was special. It was apparent pretty much from the opening frames, and it never stopped being obvious until the closing credits. Sometimes you get an anime that’s simply “other” – one that stands out so distinctly that it virtually defies categorization. That’s certainly true of Made in Abyss. That’s a long way from saying it can be a compelling watch for thirteen episodes, but for one week at least it was jaw-dropping stuff.
The staff for Made in Abyss is an impressive murderers row of industry heavyweights, starting with director Kojima Masayuki. He has a lot of cinema experience and it shows here. Kinema Citrus has a lot of old Bones staff (the studio is basically an offshoot), but the big names on “Abyss” are animation director/character designer Kise Kazuchika, an old Gainax hand, and art director Masuyama Osamu. It’s Masuyama’s influence that’s most obvious here, because even though I confess I hadn’t noted his presence on the staff list. what really struck me about the look of this premiere is how Ghibli-like it was. And of course, Masuyama-san spent most of his career as an art director for Miyazaki at that iconic studio.
Simply put, the class shows. Made in Abyss is an astoundingly stylish production – and that includes the music by English composer Kevin Penkin. It looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, and the strange world it conjures up is both beautiful and sinister. The Ghibli connection is interesting and gives the series an even more fairy tale look than Tsukushi Akihito’s manga – and that’s important, because one of the most important elements in this series is the contrast between the look and the content. Manga readers will tell you that this is going to be a dark ride, and that gives me pause – because I’m already emotionally invested in the story and the kawaii children at the center of it.
Those children are “Red Whistles” – apprentice diggers who go down into the giant pit called The Abyss to search for ancient artifacts and valuable relics. They’re also orphans, and there’s a bit of Dickens in their plight – clearly the work these prepubescents are sent to do is highly dangerous, and they live under the yoke of a cruel housemistress and a stern foreman, an older boy they call “Leader” (Murata Taishi). While the Red Whistles’ life is hardscrabble, the great city at the edge of the pit. Orth, is storybook beautiful – belying the fact that it’s a place of danger and death.
As with many Ghibli works, there’s a very European feel to Made in Abyss (and as we know, European fairy tales can get very dark). The first two children we meet are the brash Riko (Tomita Miyu), and the mild-mannered Nat (Tamura Mutsumi), on their way into a the pit for a day’s digging. Riko is desperate to be assigned to deeper digs, apparently chasing after her long-lost mother – Nat is more concerned with keeping her out of trouble and staying alive. The pit is full of dangerous Togashi-esque beasts, one of whom wounds Nat and is about to eat him before Riko blows her whistle and saves him. It turns its attention to her, but she’s saved in the nick of time (probably) by a mysterious robot (Ise Mariya). When Riko finds him unconscious, she drags him back to the orphanage with Nat’s help.
There isn’t a tremendous lot of exposition in this premiere, but the beauty of it is that the storytelling is so good that it isn’t necessary. I didn’t take a lot of notes with this episode – mostly I just sat mesmerized, absorbing it. By the end of it I was totally enraptured and quite curious about where the story would go next. There’s something distinctly Hunter X Hunter to Made in Abyss in addition to the Ghibli vibe – the explosion of imagination, the cute and funny children at the heart of darkness, at the center of a story which feels dangerous and unpredictable. This is really why I love anime, series like this – fantastic and dark and beautiful. I don’t know what the next 12 episodes have in store for us, but if the first is any to go by Made in Abyss has a chance to be the season’s surprise standout.