Take the plunge into the netherworld with Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn.
Many years ago, explorers found an island in the middle of the ocean containing the world’s most peculiar secret. Completely isolated from the rest of the world, this island, Ortho, possessed an enormous abyss in it’s center: a cavern that stretched endlessly into the ground with no apparent bottom to be seen. This abyss attracted explorers and adventurers of all kinds, who soon found the abyss to be filled with valuable relics and wondrous sights to behold. Those with the fortitude to brave the abyss can find fortune and fame, but such fortunes come at a great cost. Those that travel the abyss face monsters of terrifying description and are subject to a curse within the abyss that gnaws at the mind and eats at a person’s very humanity.
This is the setup for Made in Abyss, the breakout fantasy anime which released in 2017. The movie, Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn, is a recap of the first eight episodes of the series, compressing those episodes into a movie experience roughly two hours in length. It enters this strange, but intriguing setting of abyss and adventure in the shoes of Riko, a young girl no older than 12, who lives in an orphanage on Ortho set up for the orphaned children of adventurers who died in the abyss. From the beginning, she has a heart for adventure which motivates her training as a “Red Whistle”, an apprentice “Cave Raider” who follows in the footsteps of the explorers who search the Abyss’s depths. On an everyday training mission she comes across a strange robotic boy with extendable arms and a wicked energy cannon ingrained into his left arm. She brings him into the orphanage, dubs him “Reg”, and becomes his best friend, with both of them eager to learn how to be true cave raiders.
However, adventure finds Riko and Reg a bit faster than they were expecting. When a famed adventurer, Hablog, returns to town with a legendary white whistle belonging to Riko’s lost mother, he gives Riko a letter that he found on his latest trip to the abyss. The letter is a summons, a request to Riko to come and meet her at the bottom of the abyss, a place no cave raider has reached before. Despite all the warnings against this foolhardy adventure, Riko and Reg decide now is the time to chase their destiny, and the two descend into the abyss to face the horrors within.
And that’s just the beginning. Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn packs in a whole lot more, detailing the first half of their journey as best as it can with the constraints of a feature film. That sentiment, “As best as it can”, will echo throughout this entire review, not necessarily as a negative, but just as a reality of what a recap film can do. Having just left the theater and my mind still abuzz with visions of derring-do and the existential horror of exploring a giant, endless hole, I have no doubt that this material is of immense quality, just somewhat hampered by being constrained to a two-hour feature film.
The characters are likable and well-written, though Riko does suffer from being a little kid who can annoy me in that special way that only children can. That aside, Riko and Reg have an excellent chemistry with each other, with Riko bringing the courage and Reg serving as a sheepish protectorate of his newfound comrade. Together, the two capture an innocence and curiosity that blends well into this story of truly perilous adventure.
What separates Made in Abyss from your typical fantasy adventure is the sense of danger and foreboding that is driven home throughout the entirety of the movie. Though Riko has that sense of adventure you typically see of hobbits and heroes, the world she occupies is terrifying, and she is very clearly in over her head. Every step she and and Reg take down into the abyss fills the viewer with dread, as if something is waiting to brutally murder them at every turn. And usually, there is. The terrors that lurk within the abyss are not your everyday monsters, rather they are much more of the “Lovecraftian” variety that reminds you of just how mortally fragile you are. To top it all off, the “Curse” of the abyss, which grows in severity as people descend further into its core, has very real effects on one’s sanity, as well as their physical health. This clash of childish curiosity and the dread of what’s to come serves as the engine of tension within the film, and will keep your eyes glued and your mind on fire as you watch it’s events unfold.
All of this would mean nothing without the proper visuals to back up such an ambitious story. Thankfully, Journey’s Dawn follows the themes of the story in both sight and sound. It’s soft colors and adorable character designs give the film a “Ghibli-esque” feel, which is met with harsh dissonance when the much rougher, much more realistic designs of the Abyss’s monsters arrive onscreen. The animation is fluid and exciting, capturing the fantastic beauty of anime while not losing the impact of seeing someone whipped across the room into a rock face. All this is backed by a lovely original score that is unlike any other. Though it draws inspiration from Celtic and Japanese musical sources, the ultimate result is something completely unique, just as unique as the world of Made in Abyss.
All the elements are in play for a great story here, but they come with a giant but that gets in the way. The “Anime recap movie” format is fundamentally insufficient to capture the detail and love that goes into a story like this. Though the film does what it can to get most of the major points in the story down, there are some very real skips in plot and character that keep interrupting. Certain characters, such as Riko’s orphanage friends and teacher, aren’t given a lot of time to develop. In addition, some character motivation remains murky as the movie needs to keep the pacing of the film going so as not to waste valuable screen time. In essence, though it’s a great movie, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t be better enjoyed in the original anime format, save for maybe the 5.1 surround sound.
However, at the end of it all, I think Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn has fulfilled it’s purpose. A movie like this doesn’t exist for fans of the series to re-watch a story they already know, but to try and attract newcomers to the property without having to worry about catching up through an entire season of content before getting to the current stuff. As an initiator into the Made in Abyss cult, this film has performed splendidly. It gives us a satisfying helping of what this show is without getting too bogged down in details best left to the anime proper to flesh out. This series, which wasn’t even on my radar, is now something I eagerly wish to finish and I will no doubt pick up the manga its based off of when the anime runs out of episodes. Do yourself a favor and, if you haven’t already, check out this anime and this movie if possible. It’s an experience both delightful and terrifying, making for an adventure story unlike anything you’ve seen before.