This ICHF was written by Sir K, who you can find at https://www.deviantart.com/sirkaijuofvaudeville. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
I love Lost World fiction. Even though it has a fraught history, there is something about the idea of finding a mysterious place unknown to your civilization and so alien or detached from it that makes exploring it, its new cultures, and whatever fauna it has so compelling to me as a writer. However, nowadays most fiction who do such stories either do so by mindless regurgitation of long-tired tropes and horribly outdated stereotypes unironically. Especially regarding other people or cultures. The long shadow of Colonialism infesting every core and function of the genre.
However, from time to time there comes a lost-world so compelling and unique that it stands apart from its contemporaries. Imagine, you are a sailor sailing the ocean blue, something, something deep calls to you as you explore the unmarked parts of the map. When you find a strange island… a perfectly circular island like a crater with mountains on all sides. Upon the painstaking climb to the interior, what you find is not a valley or crater…
But a bottomless pit, miles wide heading straight into the depths of the earth itself… calling you, beckoning you to go deeper. And as you go deeper, the world you know gets left behind as layer by layer, new biomes emerge and animals and fauna so far different than anything you know exist in a cruel, yet beautiful alien ecosystem. As you progress, you find ruins and remnants of people here before you, possibly thousands of years of culture and civilization before you, now dead… departed. Most of the bodies in twisted prayer. And artifacts of strange power and capacity litter the depths. Some useless trinkets and others seemingly so alien yet powerful they defy imagination. Deeper you go as the depths themselves twist, plants grow upside down from the ceiling, strange new weather phenomenon rips at you despite being in the depths of the Earth… eventually your supplies run thin, and you decide to make the way back…
But that is when the horror begins as the scouting party who went ahead deeper come back… some are bleeding from all their orifices. Others are crippled with sickness whereas others cry out for family members who they see in front of them but not there. Those are the lucky ones. Others who ventured even deeper don’t come back at all and the one who did… you wish they hadn’t. Somehow, you return… and despite the horror you encountered… the Abyss itself calls back to you. As it has to all who would venture to its siren call.
That story of discovery, however it happened, is not the story we are presented with when we are first introduced to the titular Abyss, but rather almost two thousand years after the fact. All along the ring of the Abyss an entire culture and community of explorers have erected a settlement all along the ring of this horrifying pit to the netherworld. The Lost World was colonized… yet it is still untamed. Yet when we are introduced to the horrifying, yet compelling world and culture it is not through the bravery of an intrepid explorer finding it… but through a child who dreams of being the explorer who reaches the bottom… and the mysterious child-shaped machine she discovers.
Needless to say, Made in Abyss is one of my favorite anime of the last decade. And the 2010’s were **rife** with competition for that title. Between actual faithful adaptations of Jojo, Fate/Zero, Madoka Magica, Castlevania (it counts don’t @ me) and numerous other darlings of the year Made in Abyss stands out from the rest, as truly there is no other anime like it in terms of concept, presentation and execution. Its art-style is like a mix of classic shoujo w/ backgrounds by Studio Ghibli, a powerful as hell OST, monster designs by the late-great Kentaro Miura, and a setting and lore as done by Junji Ito all thrown into a blender and giftwrapped in a lovely steampunk FF9-esq aesthetic.
But beyond the cutesy artstyle and scenery porn that looks straight out of Studio Ghibli, the things Riko (and Reg) go through during the series are things that’d take your average person off the census. With one of the very first monsters, we are introduced is a flying manta-ray/snake/xenomorph who almost devours a child victim and then few episodes later our lead is almost devoured alive by a three-eyed bird that imitates dying screams of its victims to lure prey towards itself, a twisted spec-evo version of a Siren. Yet this is the iconic characters of Horror Fiction, which after that preamble, we finally get to the point. For we cannot go over the characters of the world without the world itself.
From the very opening of the series, which is sung by the seiyus in-character of the two characters, wee are introduced to the dynamic of the two leads that will go through the depths of hell and us biting our thumbs every moment in hopes that these lovely kids will pull through… all while deceiving the ever-lasting hell out of us to what the adventure of this series will be, much like Evangelion and Madoka Magica before it.
But quickly the deception is gone however, as our main human protagonist is bloodied, blinded and battered by the aforementioned Manta/Snake monster and almost devoured… if not for a strange heat ray that punches a hole into the beast and sends it spiralling back into the depths from where it came. The strength of the ray punching a clean perfect hole through dozens of petrified trees and canyon walls as or small heroine finds the supposed savior:
A small child like herself, but unconscious. But the strange gauntlets, helmet, strange skin texture and the still smoking trail of steam emanating from the palm of their hands say otherwise. This boy is not human, but a machine…
Awakening said machine boy later via electric chair we are introduced to him: a timid, shy, sweet boy who knows not his name, his past, nor even the fact that he’s a robot. And initially wonders if Riko is a torturer due to her room. However, he is subconsciously able to use the full extent of his body at whim. He is given a name by Riko, after a dog she once had, named Reg. Reg is clueless, and as such offers a more audience friendly pair of eyes to the world, we find ourselves in, and especially what exactly the Abyss is… yet we are told implicitly… whatever it is… Reg must have come from the bottom.
And with that, it isn’t long until the siren call of the Abyss will enrapture Riko and her new companion drawing them into its depths… as in the following episodes, this siren call will manifest fully. As if the Abyss itself calls out to Riko, a letter, from Riko’s mother surfaces… with notes of strange fauna and details of layers unknown to the rest of the world… as well as a sketch of a machine that looks suspiciously like Reg… with a single note directed to Riko, seemingly from her mother:
“I will await you at the bottom of the Netherworld”.
It doesn’t take long for Riko and Reg to decide that, hell or high water… they shall descend to the bottom of the Abyss, the letter serving as a siren call for both of them… as they descend deeper and deeper into a hell world that all who go too deep never return from…
Together, Riko and Reg are some of the most compelling child leads I have seen in anime in a long time. Riko’s single-minded drive and near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Abyss is a good contrast to Reg’s more cautious, sweet and weary approach to most things. Riko’s obsession with the Abyss being very relatable to any kid on the spectrum or was into nerdy shit as a child. Replace the Abyss with Dinosaurs or Godzilla and you have my behavior to a T. Yet tempered by Reg’s more cautious approach and cool-headedness. The adventure before them Riko has spent much of her short life preparing for, desiring to be a delver, like her mother, before her and as such is well versed in most threats the Abyss has to offer… but knowing something is different from being protected from something.
Which is where Reg comes in. Much like other anime dynamics, Riko and Reg share the Ideal – Mind – Body dynamic a lot of anime trios tend to have (we will get to the third member later 😉) with Riko and Reg making up both Body and Ideal side of the equation. Riko’s drive and enthusiasm are powered by Reg’s steadfast nature and the fact he is a literal robot. The fact we do not have the complete trio yet is an interesting decision but works well for the narrative as both Riko and Reg chafe against one another in some ways yet are toxically codependent in others.
Riko cannot survive the Abyss without Reg, yet Reg’s most deadly defensive tool leaves him incapacitated for two hours. Likewise, Reg is too emotional and cautious to really engage with Riko’s more extreme choices at points in the adventure, which his emotional breakdowns at points render him unable to be coherent whereas Riko is so single-minded to their goal, she gets themselves into trouble at numerous points.
Furthermore, initially, Riko does not regard Reg as human. She initially treats him as a curiosity or a akin to the Dog she named him after, and even in later episodes does not regard his own gender/sex as anything to be even cautious around. Reg is a robot, so why should Riko worry about things like bathing separately? Reg’s bodily autonomy or presumed gender is not even a consideration as in the first episode Riko charts out every inch of Reg’s unconscious form like he’s a new appliance. Something, further shown by other Delver’s in the series, who view Reg even less than human and have no qualms with testing his body or exploring every inch of it (which even going so far as making sure he has private parts) or brutalizing it in extensive ‘stress’ tests.
This disregard for Reg’s autonomy adds a layer of underlying/unspoken tension to the group, which will come to a head later. Especially when the emotional core of the eventual trio is added. Riko and Reg are a body and will together, but without the underlying emotional intelligence or heart to really tie them together as Riko’s disregard for Reg’s autonomy and single minded drive to push on is compounded by Reg’s moments of indecision and her attempts to be emotionally detached (which fails badly because she’s a child) only further compounds Regs emotional instability. However, when that bridge is made, the two are an inseparable adorable duo.
Individually, Riko is not just a walking exposition dump. Unlike in a lot of other anime, which has underage characters just for the gross aesthetic, Riko *feels* like a child. Having more in common with an early Digimon season protagonist than she does most lolicon bait characters of modern anime. She’s independent but is still prone to being completely oblivious to certain subjects, but also is so obsessed with her passions at some points, it becomes almost disturbing. Her entire drive is to the Abyss and one day, reaching the bottom of it. Instead of playing pretend, she’s already being used to find small relics in the highest layers for the powers that be, literal child labor, for the delver city of Orth along its rim. Yet this disturbing factoid is not wholly addressed, nor is the fact that Riko’s room in the local orphanage a former torture chamber. All little elements of fridge horror that help build up the foreboding tone of the series… and made it more disturbing how she doesn’t seem to mind any of this.
Her mother, a legendary delver, long ago made her last dive into the Abyss, leaving her daughter behind (and this was treated as inevitable by almost everyone). Leaving her daughter with the exact same insatiable wanderlust to go deeper, deeper, deeper…
Which raises an interesting dilemma of Made in Abyss. One of the core adult fears of Made in Abyss is the fact that children are going through these horrible adult fear-inducing situations and engaging in clinical operations (like an emergency suppository to help save a life) that are inherently squicky but are not portrayed in an overtly sexual matter. Riko and Reg go through some serious shit and a lot of it is squicky and uncomfortable and done so intentionally uncomfortable. But at the same time, even when dressed down, the characters are still far less sexualized than fully clothed little sister characters in such trash like Ero-Manga sensei. It’s not so much the gore and horrible body horror fates that can and will befall them that squicks people out, but rather where does one draw the line on the subject matter that children get exposed to or the kind of adventures they endure?
Which is where one of the strongest horrors of Made in Abyss presents itself. It’s not the body horror, fates worse than death, cruel gorey fates, or the Lovecraftian eldritch horror of what lays at the bottom, but rather seeing children engage in situations and dilemmas that are deeply intrinsically uncomfortable, for an adult reader. Riko and Reg raise questions on not only the exact nature and the resilience of children and how they can cope with trauma, but the adult dilemma of seeing them go through said trauma. A wholly adult fear.
In a lot of media, children are exempt from the terrors of the world. In most horror movies children are there only for a shock value death or add some stakes to protect them in the final act, otherwise exempt and excluded from the narrative of the story. Sure, we’re told Freddy Krueger murdered children, but in the series itself, he goes after adults and teens (played by adults) for the most part with one or two notable exceptions. Its also one of the reasons why I think Stephen King’s It and things like Stranger Things resonate with so many people, especially young people, is that it presents children as they are going through terrifying situations where adults cannot help or actively impede them. As a kid, the Tim Curry Miniseries adaptation terrified me, because I had a inbuilt condition in my head that kids are safe in horror movies, but the miniseries , in the opening act murders children left and right and attacks them in the shower from the sewers which made me afraid to take a shower for years.
Made in Abyss capitalizes on that fear, with two children going through something that Junji Ito would dream up and having to overcome. Sure, one’s a robot child with extendo-arms, a laser beam and tough body, but at the end of the day Reg is as much a child as Riko is. And emotionally the duo are oblivious to the adult fears of the world. I mean, it makes perfect rational sense to cut off a poisoned arm at the elbow to keep on going, but it’s something entirely different when it’s a child making that request of another child.
Riko acts mature and clinical, but at the end of the day, she’s still a child and is as emotionally vulnerable as Reg is despite not showing it. Which is one of the reasons I find them so damn compelling. These two adorable fucking nerds going through horrible, horrible situation, with a smile on their face? And at the end of the day, the horror is lifted to see the uplifting thrill of childlike, adventure that has been long sense lost to many people. From Riko macguyvering a new giant backpack for Reg and the silly doodles Riko makes to send up in a balloon to tell their friends back home they are alright and are heading deeper. Or Riko and Reg teaming up and using their talents in tandem to overcome a survival situation. There’s something very 80’s fantasy about it that resonates so well with me.
As characters, Riko and Reg are compelling, amazingly designed, and feel like I’m experiencing early Digimon all over again. Yet the two are still children at the end of the day, and their psychology and codependency and the things they value or are told to value are interesting and compelling to see through their eyes. Riko doesn’t bat an eye at her bedroom being a former torture chamber or the fact she’s basically child labor for an exploitative colonial society. Yet through their eyes we see the childlike wonder and obsession they have and the things they truly do value, which resonates deeply with my neurodivergent self.
I’m not one to make blanket claims on “THIS CHARACTER IS CLEARLY AUTISTIC” because, well, Autistic myself, and two, most of the time those claims are mind are done to basically children (like Guilmon from Digimon) or done to infantilize certain characters. But I see a lot of myself in Riko and Reg as a child both as an emotional wreck (Reg) but also in the hyper nerdy single-minded obsession of Riko and the sheer obliviousness to certain social constructs she has. Stuff that reminds me implicitly of my own childhood, and overall, I can think of no two nerds better suited than to go on an 80’s fantasy adventure… if that 80’s fantasy adventure was written by Junji Ito that is.
However, our disaster duo are missing something, still. For they lack the emotional core that is needed to bind them together. And in that, they shall meet a new friend in the depths of the Abyss…
However, our disaster duo are missing something, still. For they lack the emotional core that is needed to bind them together. And in that, they shall meet a new friend in the depths of the Abyss…
[MADE IN ABYSS SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT]
For as one delves deeper into the Abyss, the strains to ascend from its depths become more and more unbearable. Going more than ten meters upwards in the Abyss can lead to a whole host of catastrophic effects. The so-called “Curse of the Abyss” or “Strain of Ascension”. At higher levels, this manifests as nausea, fatigue, and cold-like symptoms. Ascending from deeper, this escalates to vomiting and dizziness. Deeper, one begins to hallucinate visually and auditorily. At even lower levels, your body is wracked with pain as you begin to bleed from every orifice… and even deeper still, well…
It is said one loses their humanity. Death is considered preferable…
So with that in mind let’s check in on our two adventure children over in the fourth layer of the Abyss, surely they are having a grand ole ti—
[Bleeding Eyes Riko]
Our duo, while trekking and caught off guard in the mists of the Fourth Layer are attacked by a venomous quilled predator who seems to read their every moment and with no recourse Reg and Riko ascend to escape… leaving Riko impaled through the hand, bleeding from every orifice… and her arm swelling up to massive size as lethal venom courses through her body. Riko between gasps of blood pleads with Reg… to cut her arm off at the elbow… but despite his efforts he is unable to bring himself to do it as he feels her life seems to fade from her body and he breaks down… wailing in despair and agony. Their journey ended in tragedy…
“You’re noisy” Comes a sudden voice. “That Girl still has a beating heart you know. It might stop at any moment though.
Reg turns to see a figure clad in furs. In a panic he demands who they are. In response to his demands:
“Nnah~ I’m just a fluffy stuffed doll. One that has come to comfort you guys. I’d properly introduce myself… but you’d be better off knowing how to save her… right?”
In that moment, a savior comes in the form of this mysterious figure. A figure who has been trailing them for quite some time. Through this figure we are taken to a place where “the curse of the abyss” does not exist to the bewilderment of Reg. And therein we see the figure disrobe and reveal themselves.
A furred humanoid creature of ambiguous gender, that looks like a child at first but covered in thick fur, claws and two rabbit-like ears and a fluffy tail. They call themselves Nanachi… and they are a Narehate: A Hollow… someone who has undergone the curse and the transformation of the sixth layer of the Abyss.
Nanachi is the third piece of the trio, the Heart to Riko and Reg’s Mind and Body. And immediately throws a wrench into the dynamic. Nanachi in contrast to Riko and Reg is much more emotionally intelligent but also in some respects more callous, manipulative and caustic. Nanachi has no problems trolling Reg into getting them dinner by convincing him it’s needed to save Riko’s life from the deadly poison the monster impaled her with when in fact she only needed one specific item, the rest was just a shopping list. With Riko out of commission for a bit, through Reg we are left to understand more of the Abyss through Nanachi… and why if they are a Hollow, there aren’t more like them and why haven’t more people like them made it back from the Sixth Layer of the Abyss.
Nanachi as a character, offers an intriguing shift to the dynamic of Riko and Reg but also through the course of the Abyss itself. Adding a degree of emotional weight to the journey that Riko and Reg were otherwise more detached from. While caustic and prone to making snide remarks, Nanachi by and large is the emotional core that Riko and Reg sorely needed in tempering both and making them a whole unit. Nanachi also has something neither Riko nor Reg really have: First Hand Experience.
Regarding Lost World fiction, Nanachi is the native guide or person who’s been marooned in the location of note and has learned every little nook and cranny of the area. What the Fauna is like and more importantly, how to survive. But how they achieve that role in a story is a compelling twist on the narrative in that regard. As opposed to simply ‘going native’, Nanachi simply understands the fundamental nature of the Abyss in a way that no human delver can really survive.
Through Nanachi, we find out the true nature of the Abyss’s curse… in that in operates much like a veil that is layered over and over each other and ascending rips through that veil causing the effects of the ‘curse’ to manifest. However, fauna and things native in the Abyss can perceive and manipulate the field to some extent allowing them to move freely through layers without hassle while also being evolved to use the forcefield to, say, gauge the intent of prey and plan accordingly around it based on how the field reacts around something.
However their experience is not born out of happenstance, Nanachi’s time in the abyss has been far from pleasant and the callous nature they have is evident by the dozens of pieces of delving equipment they procured… and not just by scavenging. Nanachi has killed Delver’s before and is very cautious around them (and for damn good reason) and is implied that most of the time Nanachi is perfectly willing to let the fauna of the fourth layer murder Delvers and then swoop in and scavenge the remains. Nanachi intervening to save Riko was due to Reg’s emotional breakdown in being unable too as it reminded Nanachi of themselves.
Nanachi is no stranger to tragedy, and most importantly, love. Which we see firsthand, when we see Nanachi’s house mate… a horrible fleshy blob abomination that used to be human… Mitty. Mitty, or what’s left of her, is Nanachi’s oldest and only friend. But now she is reduced to a near mindless blob in perpetual pain who has no higher functions in their brain anymore. Unable to die as they seem to heal any injury, toxin, or other cruelty. A life of pure agony that Nanachi tries their best to make pleasant…
Mitty is also a Narehate… and the reason why most people don’t make it back from the Sixth layer. A fact Nanachi makes clear and ending Mitty’s life of suffering is the only thing Nanachi has going for themselves anymore… and without Mitty, Nanachi themselves have no reason for living… until Riko and Reg show up.
Riko and Reg help give Nanachi purpose and furthermore, family again. Allowing for Nanachi to open back up and grow attached once more. Deciding to accompany these poor naive children in their one-way trip and completely the trinity of Mind – Body – Heart. Nanachi’s experience and emotional intelligence helps balance out the trio and allows each of them to understand one another and work together as a cohesive unit. Nanachi’s experience tempers Riko and helps direct Reg, while their emotional maturity and understanding helps Reg calm himself and Riko and Reg to, process their emotions together and mature themselves, as well as helping Reg process the fact, that in spite of him being a robot… he’s also apparently hit puberty. And trollishly prodding him about it.
Likewise, Nanachi, unlike every other human character (barring maybe Marulk), doesn’t seem to regard Reg with any sense of disconnection with the fact he’s a robot. Nanachi regards Reg the same as they regard everyone else, and as such helps temper Regs’ emotions and experience with their own tactical insight and knowledge how the surroundings work. He’s just a lost child who they are begrudgingly grown attached too and is very ‘weird’ about his insistence to rub Nanachi’s fur (also probably because Nanachi is attracted to females given they are A-Okay with Riko doing it). And prods Riko and Reg into understanding each other more closely.
Nanachi is defined by their emotions and ultimately their capacity for love, no matter how twisted or hurt that love gets. Even though Riko has the ideals and the brains, Reg has the body, Nanachi is the heart of the group, the caustic, furry, tragic heart who despite everything still has love to give, even if they have difficulty letting it go. Despite everything, Nanachi still has conscience and love. Their love for Mitty, and eventually their bond with Riko and Reg, to a point they are ready to willingly sacrifice themselves to be subservient to the monster that made them and Mitty into what they are in exchange for Riko and Reg having safe passage deeper. In spite of the horrible atrocities, they are sure to befall them and will be made to befall others… just like the tragedy that befell them and Mitty before… and the dozens of other children from Nanachi’s home country who all met Mitty’s fate…
Hm? What was that about a monster? Turning children into horrible agony blobs? Wait… have you heard that? That deep shaking in the depths.
Ah. I hear it clearly now.