I mean if kids didn’t want to be scared, they wouldn’t ride roller coasters or read fanfiction.
Feelings like shame and guilt are given to us for a purpose. They’re there to let us know when we’ve done something that is damaging and is wrong and we need to take steps to remedy it. The reason we have fear is so that we can judge situations and make appropriate responses. So if you take that function away from people, you make them less capable of existing efficiently and effectively in the world. – John Mardsen
Made in Abyss is the story of a twelve-year old girl named Riko and her journey into a giant hole known as The Abyss in order to search for her mother after discovering she might still be alive, with nothing but survival skills and a robot boy named Reg for company. While she has been educated since birth regarding how dangerous the Abyss can truly be – especially at the deeper levels – she still wants to risk it because what child wouldn’t want a chance to see their mother again unless they were abusive and whatnot? Upon watching this show, what really stands out to me about Riko’s journey is how she’s fully aware that regardless of whether her mother is actually alive or not, it’s very unlikely she’ll ever be able to return from the Abyss once she gets past the second level or so. But hey, nothing ventured nothing gained, right?
Well regardless of whether or not Riko should have been a little more ready in terms of age and experience before undertaking such a task, there’s no denying that she has a very dedicated audience who’s behind her every step of the way. And even though they ultimately want her to succeed, said audience relishes in the darkness of said journey, whether it be the slightly fucked up Abyss dwellers she meets or the setting itself risking permanent damage to her senses. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Made in Abyss fan whose main motivation for watching the show isn’t because deep down they’re a little afraid of what might happen to this rambunctious girl. But it’s not the kind of fear you get when a normal kid accidentally wanders across the Alien movies for the first time. Rather, it’s the kind of fear that gives us adrenaline and makes us wish for success all the harder. In other words, it’s the same kind of fear that Riko feels throughout her journey.
A lot of things have already been said regarding Made in Abyss and why it’s being seen as one of the best anime of the Summer 2017 anime season. It’s well-produced. It has a fully realized world that you want to explore. The characters are little kids, but the show uses their youth in order to explore the loss of innocence not too dissimilar from the first half of the acclaimed From the New World. There are some people out there who don’t write too much about the show because they’re just too impressed by how good it is. Basically, it’s one of those shows people enjoy because it’s well-produced tough love – which I’m still having a hard time getting a handle on in regards to what’s acceptable and what’s going too far.
Most of us can relate to the feeling of experiencing tough love from cartoons because most of us grew up with The Mouse. And if there was anything The Mouse taught us since birth besides how romance can just happen instantaneously, it was how much we loved being scared. Seeing the Queen in Snow White transform into a hideous old woman. Watching Cruella DeVille become more monstrous the longer that car chase went on. The tears we cried when we saw Mufasa’s lifeless body. The haunting religious imagery of The Hunckback of Notre Dame. For a studio that sells itself as family entertainment, Disney at its best understood the importance of educating us about the dark side of the world. And with that as a baseline, we slowly but surely grew into getting scared by darker material that held back less yet strangely absorbed us into their worlds, animated or otherwise.
And if you didn’t grow up with Disney, you probably grew up with the stories that a lot of those animated films were based on. Which are generally more traumatizing. I mean have you seen the original Pinocchio – which I should point out is labeled as a childrens’ book?
There’s no denying that fear is a part of life that we’re all going to have to deal with at one point or another. With all the wars going in the world along with personal issues like relationships and employment, you can’t escape being afraid in life, no matter how much Dora the Explorer your parents try to shove in your infant face. If anything, denying that fear tends to hurt you more in the long run, because you’ll be less prepared for when it eventually comes and it can lead to some stunted growth at the very least. Can you imagine introducing Made in Abyss to someone who only grew up on Barney the Dinosaur? Plus, how can you know what it’s like to feel safe if you don’t know what it’s like to feel afraid?
And honestly, deep down, most people want to feel fear throughout their entire lives. In fact, a good chunk of us realize that said desire starts from the very moment we start to form words and cry when we get a time-out. Most successful creators of children’s entertainment achieved said status by understanding and exploiting our hidden desires for a challenge, from Disney to Pixar to Laika to Don Bluth – who has been rumored to say that you can show a kid anything as long as it ultimately results in a happy ending. Sometimes we may not understand them at our young age, but most of us within that demographic will definitely understand as we grow older, which allows for films like Secret of Nimh and Babe: Pig in the City to still resonate with us even after we outgrow the target demographic they were meant for.
At the end of the day, what’s the better lesson for a kid to learn? That bad things don’t exist in the world? Or that when bad things do come, there are ways to adapt/counter them? Most rational people would definitely pick the second option, but what truly makes it better than just hoping that the bad stays away from us? Well this answer is going to be selfish, but it’s because humans want to feel adrenaline. They want to feel like they accomplished something in their life, and when a giant wall separates them from their goal, it feels all the more good when they tear that wall down. They want to overcome how much sex hurts at first because the ecstasy achieved once fully mastered makes you feel like you’re in heaven. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as said selfishness doesn’t go too far. I mean why do you think Dark Souls is the most critically acclaimed example of “Nintendo Hard” in the video game landscape despite the phenomenon existing since the days of…well…Nintendo?
That’s because there’s a difference between fear and misery, which is another thing Disney and such learned to understand when scaring the shit out of us. After all, if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, then what are we challenging ourselves for? And it’s not enough for us to have a light at the end, but we also need to believe that there’s a light at the end. Even if it’s to raise our hopes only to strike them down again, that’s still a sight better than just getting visits from the three ghosts of Christmas and having them all act like the Ghost of Christmas Future. For as depressive as Dark Souls could get, it has some good light-hearted moments with NPCs along the way before they go crazy and you end up murdering them, and the gameplay is just incredibly thrilling until you get fucked by the series’ awful collision detection a few too many times. And Made in Abyss itself has characters like Marulk and Nanachi to counterbalance Ozen and presumably this future villain the show keeps foreshadowing. They’re dark characters too, but they’re dark in a friendly way that ultimately wants the characters to succeed.
What we don’t like is when the fears feel too one-sided and unfair. That’s why most of us can’t watch Jason Vorhees when we’re young and why the Rage of Bahamut sequel is getting such a poor critical and audience reaction as of late. Now obviously some people can see the light from the very start and some can’t, hence why I can love Scum’s Wish whilst other people hate it so much. But the point is, we want to be challenged, we want the reward after beating that challenge, and we have the final say regarding whether or not it’s worth it. The products we have said feelings for may differ, but the philosophy surrounding this train of thought its pretty universal.
Made in Abyss not only attracts audience members by playing on our desires to be scared, but a lot of its story is grounded on the very psychology I just described a few paragraphs ago. While I’m sure cultural differences played a factor in choosing to make the characters so young, I can’t help but feel that the decision to make Riko twelve years old is because that’s the perfect age for when you’re just about ready to experience the truly scary stuff whilst also having a crap ton of experience with “toned-down but still horrific” events under your belt. And Riko experiencing constant dangers but always getting through with Reg’s help until one incident (the poison one) nearly kills her can also be seen as a cautionary tale of what happens when you experience something that could have turned out good if you hadn’t gotten too ambitious, like a boy who’s had sex three times trying out Page 39 of the Kama Sutra. What exactly was the point of seeing her suffer from the effects for half an episode, only to become bedridden for another two? I…have no idea. I think that direction was stupid.
But even though she made mistakes that threatened her very life, we understood why she made them for three reasons: 1) there’s no way to fully know how well-prepared you are until you actually do something 2) mistakes are always going to be made regardless 3) aside from maybe her age, Riko has shown herself to be capable enough in her skills and she has a robot boy with a laser cannon for help. A robot boy with balls I should point out. Yeah, I’m weirded out by that too, but at least that answers this age-old question.
Since fear is always going to be something we experience no matter what age we are, what generation we live in, or what our living circumstances turn out to be, we just have to deal with it however we can. Preferably young and slow for all the reasons I’ve stated, and because it’s just common sense. Yeah you could make the argument that Riko being taught fear since she was little was what caused her to enter the Abyss and effectively throw her life away – especially since she acknowledges she won’t come out. But here’s the thing: not only is nothing a guarantee, but it’s also likely that if she hadn’t been taught about the horrors of the Abyss, she would have wandered in as an older teenager who’s at their curious phase and be killed instantly by the lack of preparation that living what passes for an idyllic life in the upper world would most certainly bring. At least in her current state of mode, she can make her own decisions and we’d be able to understand them. Because if we didn’t need to understand the character before the writers toss them into this sort of danger in order to build an audience, you might as well just replace Riko with one of the characters from that Devil Survivor 2 anime. Don’t remember it? There’s a good reason for that.
Not much else to say except that I think it’s pretty unique for both “the substance that makes up an anime” and “the reaction said anime gets” to have the same reason for existing. And I hope you guys are looking forward to the hour-long finale next week. Which I honestly can’t see being that satisfying because the manga is still on-going, there hasn’t been much story to even conclude, and the bad guy who’s supposed to be the main draw of the manga hasn’t shown up as of yet. But hey, at least it’ll be better than Virgin Soul’s inevitably awful conclusion that’ll also occur on the same day. Right?