Made in Abyss isn't at all what it appears to be. Though it may seem little more than an adventurous children's anime, chibi art and all, it gradually reveals itself as something much darker, as Riko's and Reg's hopeless ascent continues, stumbles along, no happy ending in sight, death— and worse— awaiting them for each step they fall.
Many anime give off the facade of maturity: gratuitous gore, sadistic and loony villains, self-serving themes ripped from entry-level philosophers such as Nietzsche - features that make a story palatable to rebellious teenagers, rather than the adults they so desperately wish to be.
But Made in Abyss doesn't fall into these trappings. It contains graphic, violent scenes, occasionally even outright disturbing, but never is there a moment where it feels unnecessary. It is a story of adventure, of survival, and of finding life within death.
Made in Abyss has one of the most interesting settings in anime. A city built around a giant pit, gaping downwards for tens of thousands of metres, its nature unknown, treasure and terrifying beasts awaiting any who wish to test their luck. What's at the very bottom of the pit? How deep can one truly go before death is an inevitability? In many ways, the pit is reminiscent of Hell: for each layer they reach, they encounter something more ghastly than the last, the stench of death progressively growing stronger. But Riko and Reg press onward, determined to find Riko's mother, no matter if they succumb to the dangers and find themselves a permanent resident of the abyss.
While there exists ample world-building, the story instead puts the focus on the duo rather than the world at large, preferring instead to carefully reveal the details of the world through their eyes and ears, evolving the viewer from mere spectator to active participant. You don't know much about the pit's third and fourth layers until they reach that part themselves, and the fifth and beyond remain a complete mystery because nobody has ever actually survived to tell the tale. It's an elegant way to keep the viewer interested: I don't want to be told what to expect - I want to see for myself what monsters and contamination and other awfulness await the further they fall, and so I find myself with the next episode playing as soon as the credits hit roll.
It can be difficult for some (myself included) to empathise with child characters in anime, but Made in Abyss does an excellent job of making the viewer concerned about and emotionally invested in the survival of Riko and Reg. Their friendship with one another is deeply heart-warming, as they have, much like real children, no ulterior motives, and genuinely enjoy their time together. They rely on one another, their abilities complimenting the other's: intellect and cooking in Riko's case, and combat and acrobatics in Reg's. There is no journey without the other— it is either two or it is zero. And so it is difficult not to have a visceral emotional response when one of the two is desperately, miserably trying to save the other's life.
Some caution should be taken when watching Made in Abyss, as it is by no means a happy adventure. With every episode, there is fear that one of them may die, that they may be betrayed, that they may become permanently disfigured or forced to kill or commit some other horrid act. This is seldom a concern for most anime, as the protagonists will always survive and reach some sort of happy ending to their story. But not Made in Abyss. It makes very clear that bad things are inevitable, which, given the setting, is perhaps only appropriate. Corpses, vomit, grossly deformed wounds, blood bleeding from and seeping into the eyeballs— Made in Abyss is by no means something that should ever be viewed by children, and even adults would do well to prepare themselves if they are not accustomed to these sorts of horrors. The abyss is not a wonderful land of treasure, but an awful place where awful things happen.
There are still some minor issues with the story, however. Most prominent is the fact that there is as of yet no actual ending, something I did not realise until the final episode when I looked at the source material and found out that, oh, the manga was still ongoing. This ceases to be a problem in the event of future seasons and adaptations, but will there be any? Will this be where the anime ends, in the middle of their journey? "Hey, this is the end of the anime, so go and read the manga" is not quite what you want to hear when you are emotionally invested in an anime. But, I suppose, a faithful, if potentially incomplete adaptation is still preferable to the dreadful anime-only endings that plague many unfortunate adaptations. The story is too grand in scale, too personal for it to end after only thirteen episodes.
The story could have also done without the more sexual situations— the references to penises, and one ungraceful moment where Reg returns from trying to save someone's life, only to blush and freak out immediately after when he sees Riko being undressed. With how serious the mood was at that point in the story, it effectively killed all the tension that had been building for the entire episode. That's not to imply this scene existed to create sexual arousal in the audience— Made in Abyss has more integrity than that— as she was being undressed solely for health reasons, but certainly it was not a scene that felt in any way necessary. There's a time and place in the story for comedic relief, and that was not the time.
Made in Abyss is fairly impressive in terms of its sound and artwork. The background music starts adventurous and gradually becomes more ominous as the story progresses, even if the ending theme remains almost hilariously light-hearted and incongruently so— its lyrics being more appropriate to Barney & Friends than a graphic life-or-death struggle. While the artstyle may not be to everyone's taste, it at least remains detailed and consistent throughout the series (the map after the ending sequence being a nice addition), although there are perhaps two or three odd moments during the action sequences where the animation will suddenly become sketchy, for reasons that are mystery to me.
In one of the weakest seasons for anime, where interesting series may well be nonexistent, Made in the Abyss is a genuine surprise. While I might reserve claims such as it being the best anime of the year (Sangatsu no Lion takes that one for me), it is a truly special anime, one which had me worried and invested in the characters' fate in a way that very few anime ever have.
I want to see a future where Riko and Reg return to a happy life on the surface. But, much like them, I am determined to see their journey to its end, no matter the result.