Imagination has the power to change everything.
– Shinsekai Yori, Episode 25
When I was eleven years old, my parents decided to invite family friends over for dinner. The couple that was invited had a daughter who was about the same age as me; we found ourselves alone at my house when all the adults decided to go out for a small outdoor excursion. Bored and frustrated with the lack of things to do at home, we decided to do a small outdoor excursion ourselves and began to play in the backyard. It was then that we heard the small cry of a young killdeer. We drew closer to the bird: it was trapped beneath a box in our open garage. Wanting to indulge our curiosity, we decided to play with it.
What started out as an hour of observation and gentle petting grew into something more insidious. We examined the killdeer, looked up the species, tried to find its mother – all rather harmless activities. But in a fit of pride and excitement, I got carried away. I wanted to see if maybe fear could push the bird to fly, and so I gently nudged the fledgling off a high table in the hopes that it would flap its wings. Instead, I heard the soft crack of a bone breaking, as the killdeer cried in pain as it plopped onto the ground, now unable to stand.
I was horrified. A wave of repulsion, regret, and nausea swept over me as I realized what I had done. But under that wave was also a small feeling of pride; that I, Natasha, had some kind of power over this small bird’s life and could easily play with it. Fighting this sick urge, I instead chose guilt to plague me as I carried the bird over to a shaded spot under a tree and walked away, not looking back. It is a memory I carry with me to this day – now tinted with shame and regret. I didn’t understand those kinds of feelings back then; to me, a bird was a bird, a fleeting presence that came across my way, that came with little responsibility or consequence.
Made in Abyss starts off with a calm presence. Among gentle fields and valleys we spot a young girl named Rico and her friend Nat as they work hard to scavenge any strange materials they can find. What begins as a fun journey into the valley and woods however, gives way to a more mysterious one as Rico is saved by a young robot boy. In a weird way of thanks but also out of excitement, Rico takes back the boy and examines him to hopefully uncover some deeper truth about the Abyss. With this first episode, it’s clear that Rico is our main protagonist, and there’s a great reason why.
Rico’s personality is refreshing in many ways – she’s curious, confident, and ambitious. The unknowable depths of the Abyss do not deter her from wanting to explore, and her quick wits ends up saving Nat from death. In concentration, these traits are exactly what an adventurer needs to survive, and it’s what makes her a great protagonist. However, combine this with contextual information of her upbringing and her cheery demeanor suddenly becomes all the more unsettling. Made in Abyss does a particularly excellent job of emphasizing this through careful direction; much of the episode focuses on Rico’s expressions to her surroundings and situations. The only thing that absolutely terrified her through her journey was not the discovery of a skeleton, or using dangerous techniques to revive a kid-looking robot; it was almost getting eaten by a giant monster. Combine this with the breadcrumbs of information regarding the kind of society she was brought up in, and it leaves a slightly sour taste in your mouth.
Can we call it innocence? Rico certainly has no malice in the way she thinks or perceives the world, which is precisely why it is all the more terrifying. The same can be said of the robot she finds, nicknamed Reg, who is equally discovering more about himself as well as the world he wakes up to. Ironically, in contrast to Rico’s unsettling nature, Reg’s curiosity and ability to analyze and react to scenarios is far more comforting, given the context that he in a way, represents the audience.
Despite his friendly nature however, Reg still feels like an unnerving key. We know little about him or where he came from, and as much as curiosity can drive young children to react in bizarre ways, so can fear of the unknown. We don’t know what he’s capable, and in that respect, we are isolated yet again from the cast, unable to truly place ourselves in any character’s shoes.
The last component of Made in Abyss that also explores an unsettling part of innocence is the setting itself. Through gorgeous layouts, we’re given a clear picture of the world that Rico and Reg live in. Dense forestry, giant trees, and beautiful flowers fill up Made of Abyss’ canvas. It’s easy to get immersed and swept away by the imagery. But in the breathtaking views, we’re also reminded of the danger that one faces when visiting the Abyss. Steep cliffs, dark caves, and whale monsters are home to the environment as much as beautiful flowers and comfy towns.
Interestingly enough, Rico never chides Nat for facing imminent danger in the Abyss. Hostility is as much of a part of her life in both her society as much as out of it, and Rico casually accepts this truth. It begs the question – can we call nature innocent? Can we call these children innocent? While curiosity and inherent nature play as forces that dominate the first episode of Made in Abyss, I can’t help but remember that day where I too, was drawn by a curiosity feigned by simple innocence, only for it to give way to something far more terrifying. One can only hope that the Abyss does not follow the same route.