I’ll stipulate to this up front – Made in Abyss is the best new show of the season thus far, and it’s not really all that close. I’ve seen no dips in any area over the first three episodes (the only “Abyss” here is in the narrative – and the title), but it seems as if some different element stands out as especially noteworthy every week. This time around it’s the sound design generally (I just love the “clank” when Reg’s hand returns to home base) and Kevin Penkin’s background music specifically. You don’t see a lot of Brits doing soundtracks for anime (Penkin has done a couple) but his signature piano melodies and rhythm-driven passages are perfect for the mood of the piece – Togashi meets Miyazaki.
I think it’s fair to say the same about the cast. The premiere was really all about Riko – setting her up as the prime move of the story. Last week the star was Reg, as he fully established himself as a human in every way that mattered, and to an extent Jiruo as well – who showed there was much more to him that the first episode let on. This time around the focus really turned to Nat – so much so that I find myself really hoping that he (and Shiggy, and Kiyui) aren’t going to disappear from the story as it appears they might.
There’s a place for Nat in this dynamic, to be sure, but more than that – I’d say he’s integral to it. Riko is the impetuous dreamer, the Gon figure (the parallels there are quite strong, actually). Reg is the most fascinating character, but largely a mystery waiting to be solved. Nat has to be the hard-headed pragmatist of the group, the one to fill in the gaps between Riko’s imagination, Shiggy’s book knowledge and Reg’s innocent naïveté. And indeed, as we learn more about Nat this week we can see he’s well-suited to the job – a child of the slums who’s seen the worst of what Orth has to offer, and has the life experience to realize that the children’s’ lot at the orphanage isn’t necessarily such a terrible one.
Sadly, it’s Riko’s narrative job to go on the quest no matter how dangerous it is, and Nat’s to be left behind in tears. And they’re well-earned, for both of them – as Nat points out, the odds Riko (and Reg) will ever return from this journey or even get a message back to the surface are long. He’s also right in pointing out that logically, Riko’s mother is likely dead – though that harsh assessment does cause a temporary rift between the two. It does seem as if the fate of the narrative is for Reg and Riko to leave the others behind and descend, and that worries me a bit – I’m not sure the chemistry is going to be quite as compelling with just the two of them. Will those who remain behind on the surface still have a role to play? Will the narrative swing back and forth? Time will tell, I suppose.
However that plays out, this long goodbye was really beautifully done. These are children, after all, and the only family they have is each other. Along the way we get more atmospheric snapshots of life in Orth which may or may not be glimpses into the future, such as the squishy alive-looking “junk” that Reg seems so interested in, and another of the skeletons resting in prayer underground. We also get a tutorial on the six levels (and counting) of the Abyss from Shiggy, and indeed it does sound like a terrible place. Even without the Curse of the Abyss, you wouldn’t bank on anyone’s chances on making it back. And just what was that little box stuffed into Reg’s knapsack?
Riko is the central character, but oddly, though he’s a robot it’s Reg who somehow seems the most human – and therefore the fact that it’s in fact he that’s the point-of-view character for most of the narrative really works. Reg has if anything even more reason to want to go to the netherworld’s bottom than Riko does – he’s not simply looking for a parent, but himself. Because Reg is smart and because he’s sensitive, what’s obvious to us is obvious to him – in every way that seems to matter, he’s a real boy. He feels sadness, fear and embarrassment. He’s curious, he’s loving. It seems to me that while Riko’s quest is the conventional backbone of the story, it’s Reg’s journey that’s ultimately going to prove to be the heart of this exceptional series.