Ever since From the New World‘s horror episode (Episode 19, where Satoru and Saki visit a deserted hospital), I have been struck by how difficult it is to create tension. There are many reasons why I think it’s hard to achieve that kind of dread that sits with you in anime – most of it plays with how we perceive lighting and our surroundings in day and night, as well as sound manipulation.
Made in Abyss, for all of its breathtaking artistic direction (and it happens to have plenty!) has up till this point lacked something very necessary in a show about life or death consequences: tension. Up until Episode 6, Reg and Rico, despite issues throughout their journey, have never really faced a situation they can’t decipher or get out of. They after all, make the perfect pair – Rico’s quick wits and mental fortitude are a hefty counterpart to Reg’s sturdy body and powerful lasers. With a little bit of luck on their side, they can evade even the most territorial of monsters, and have safely made it past the second layer of the Abyss.
Ozen is such a key figure to introducing the scope, mystery, and foreboding nature that the Abyss is respected (and feared) so much for. She is the first daunting trial that Reg and Rico must overcome to venture to further depths, and rightfully so – nearly everyone Reg and Rico have met on their path has warned about the Abyss’ mysteries, and both of them have heeded them to an extent where it’s time for the show to throw something new along their way. And what could possibly be better than a dreadfully irredeemable mentor like Ozen? Not only terrifying in stature, but in personality, Ozen is the perfect kind of figure that our duo should meet – no, have to meet, for what lies ahead.
Ozen’s perception of the Abyss – and our heroes’ perception of her – all tie into the grander scheme of things that Made in Abyss is about. Our perception of her is tied to, at first, her presentation. Tall, eery, with a striking resemblance to Ougi and Hanekawa from Monogatari, Ozen is the figure of a Dracula-like character. Her brooding nature, unsettling smile, and morbid fascination for breaking things apart to understand them are almost resemblant of the Abyss itself. It brings us to ask: Was she always like this? Or is this a result of the Abyss? Or is it because she’s like this that she can survive the Abyss in the first place?
To Rico and Reg, Ozen is to be equally admired as she is feared. She holds keys to answering the whereabouts of Lyza, Rico’s mother, but she’s also informative about what lies yonder. That perception changes when she attacks them, to test their strength, only to give them a trial that they easily complete. At this point, there’s little point in understanding Ozen’s nature and why she does the things she does. The show cleverly points this out by making her backstory with Lyza privy to our eyes, but not to Rico and Reg’s.
This reveals several things, but most importantly, how Ozen views the Abyss as opposed to our heroes; a difference in mindsets that is challenging for either side to really grasp. Ozen’s idea of the Abyss is constant understanding – she sees everything as a breakable challenge, and has no qualms about modifying her own body to reach those answers. Reg and Rico on the other hand, have a different kind of twisted mentality. They’re willing to go on a suicidal adventure head-deep to search for Lyza, who may not even be alive still. One is continuous, the other is not. In gaining Ozen’s trust and approval, Rico and Reg don’t just move onto the next level of the Abyss well equipped with new physical weapons – they finally have a first taste of what kind of person you have to be to survive the Abyss; that you belong to the Abyss as much as you’re free to explore it.
So by the end of episode 8, it’s safe to assume that the answer, as always, is yes, forwards and backwards. Yes, Ozen was always like this, but also yes, the Abyss only heightens her twisted nature. This makes sense: she’s equally a product of the Abyss as Rico is, as we’re led to discover that Rico was stillborn, but revived (?) through the Cure Repelling Vessel, which partially explains her desire to go to the bottom of the Abyss.
The revelation of Rico being an undead corpse isn’t as surprising to me; if anything, it thematically fits with what Rico is supposed to represent. Dangerous obsessions are like that, and yet as human beings, we too, act like zombies in search of the unknown: pursuing the petty, disgusting, and the beautiful, for some reason, or really, no reason at all. We could reduce Rico’s breathtaking resilience as an inherent compulsion to reach the Netherworld, but it’s far more than that. She follows after her mother; she carves her own destiny; Rico’s agency is as much hers as it is tragically bent by the incomprehensible laws of the Abyss. Made in Abyss since Episode 1 has tried to teach us something special – everything in the Abyss is circular, like a mobius strip. It follows into itself, and all things lead to it as much as they do to each other.
This is especially seen in the breadcrumb trail the show has been giving us regarding the culture and history of society revolving around the Abyss. In the past, we’ve seen that to Rico’s village, the Abyss is an inevitable pursuit – orphaned children are trained to explore and raid caves for status and treasure. The hierarchy of Whistlers is determined by age, experience, and resilience to the Abyss’ wonders. At a certain point (the sixth layer) Whistlers are no longer able to return to the surface, and thus send their excavations – known as Relics (which also have their own hierarchy of value) – through hot air balloons or other means. Even then, these are still not seen as facts of the Abyss and are held as rumors until proven otherwise, or unless the artifacts are from a White Whistler, the topmost in the hierarchy.
This begs several questions. Why bother sending artifacts at all unless you are a White Whistler, and how do Whistlers communicate to one another if their sense of time is distorted? Both are somewhat answered by Ozen in these episodes as she confirms that most White Whistlers, rather than sending all their secrets to the top (a process that is capricious already), orally pass their stories down. At that point, substantial hard evidence isn’t needed for a Whistler to convince their story to another Whistler – it can be assumed through a shared respect and experience of the Abyss that what they’re saying is true.
But this also brings in an answer to the first question; Ozen, and to an extension, most Black/White Whistlers, doesn’t actually care about sending information to society. They explore for themselves, for the idea of freedom, and for the idea of adventure. In a way, this is a twisted circular logic: we are drawn to mysteries for our own pleasure and curiosity, and in falling into their depths, we drag others along. In the process, figures like Ozen, and what I’m assuming are other Black/White Whistlers, perpetuate the kind of society Rico has been brought up in. Because society makes little use or grants merit to the accomplishments of adventures and sends them to their deaths, adventurers themselves become apathetic to contributing back. This shared apathy is something I’ve noted in Rico’s behavior and somewhat frightening mindset as she too, does not care (or possibly even wish) to return to the top. But in that sense, the reaches of the Abyss are far beyond just physical and mental fortitude – they creep into the culture of society itself, like a steady poison, bending everything into some kind of infallible logic.
Almost. Almost, the crushing weight of the Abyss’ never-ending cruelty wins. But despite all the evils that Reg and Rico have encountered – and are yet to encounter – there is some kind of faint glimmer of hope born in the distortions of the show. Maybe Rico’s unending desire to get to the Netherworld makes no sense. Maybe Reg being a robot, but ending up to becoming the character with the most humanity in the show, makes no sense. Maybe Ozen’s drive to insert a thousand pins into her own body to overcome the Abyss’ trials makes no sense. Maybe Rico’s entire journey makes no sense; Made in Abyss doesn’t care about explaining logic that works outside the realm of humanity. But what connects all of these horrible things, and Rico’s tragic adventure, is that burning passion to be free; to pursue questions yourself and experience the world through your own, unfiltered eyes. Curiosity is a passage to freedom, and it is that light that beats against the darkness, and is what carries Reg and Rico to whatever they must face to answer their own personal questions.
From here, it comes together. Made in Abyss doesn’t need to pull the kind of punches From the New World Episode 19 did because they’re different shows but most importantly, they tackle the idea of horror differently. From the New World touches on the unknown possibilities of potential. Made in Abyss isn’t concerned with the darkness that lies under your bed, and what can come out of it. In this world, it’s only a matter of time before something snatches us from the temporary comfort and warmth of home; what Made in Abyss is focused on is the twisted shape of the beast that we see in front of us, and the silent echoes we leave behind to our children as we’re dragged to hellish depths. It is an endless spiral of feelings both hopeful and devastating. It is nihilistic, apathetic, and cruel. But it is also exciting, wondrous, and stunning.