Good science fiction isn’t always new, but it’s often fresh in its portrayal of established rules. Series such as Star Trek, Star Wars, or even Doctor Who haven't maintained such longevity because of their ability to surprise, but because they can immerse their fans in beloved worlds and the lives of their characters while dazzling them with adventures.
There will always be a familiar narrative thread that runs through cinema and media as a whole — there are only so many chords to play — it’s what a filmmaker or creator does with the outline that allows a project to distinguish itself from the crowd. And one TV series from director Masayuki Kojima is a winning example of being a genre stand-out.
Made in Abyss, a 13-episode series now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is a love letter to the adventure stories of the past while being thrillingly unexpected. Much of that comes from the compelling characterizations and richly drawn worldbuilding that is as immersive as it is disorienting in its endless scope. Here’s why you need to add Made in Abyss to your streaming queue.
Based on the manga by Akihito Tsukushi, Made in Abyss is a fantastical, science-fiction series that sets itself on the edge of the only unexplored place in the world. Known as the “Abyss,” the enormous pit and cave system contains layers that become incredibly hostile to travelers. Still, the dangers don’t stop explorers, known as “Delvers,” from descending into the unknown.
Riko, an orphan girl who lives on Orth, the town on the edge of the Abyss, dreams of becoming a Delver like her mother so that she can solve its mysteries. After meeting a robot, Reg, who resembles a human boy around her age, the two spark a friendship. And when Riko receives a note potentially from her long-missing mother, the pair decide to take on the depths of the Abyss themselves, despite having little training in survival and knowing many Delvers are unable to handle the physical strain of exploring the cave.
From the very start, the series is haunting in its crushing sense of foreboding with imagery and narrative beats that echo Alex Garland’s Annihilation. From beasts that feed on fears, environmental yet humanistic statues, and a descending, hallucinogenic world that affects the characters drastically with each new step, it’s closer to the nightmarish, otherworldly effects of Annihilation than almost anything else. With imagery that conjures up scenes from any Ghibli film — notably Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa with their central themes of preservation of nature — Made in Abyss’ striking and immediate beauty contrasts the grim reality the characters must face.
There’s a confectionary sweetness to elements of the TV show, a soured fairytale that delays the horrors the characters are facing. It’s that element that takes Made in Abyss from being simply another unknown world adventure to a perfectly balanced tale that operates as both a coming-of-age story as well as a character study on self-reckoning.
What provokes a visceral reaction from viewers is how the show handles its leading characters, Riko and Reg. So much of the horror and sickening sense of dread is based on their ignorance of the hardships that lie ahead, while the audience is fully aware of those struggles. From the start of their journey, we know they are out of their depths. However, even that can’t prepare us for when Riko and Reg encounter an impossible hurdle.
Up until the eighth episode, the show remains relatively tame, despite near-constant twinges of melancholia and a creeping suspicion that all is not well. We see that in the character designs from Kazuchika Kise that give billowy threats their shadows and Kevin Penkin’s score, which announces itself as a harrowing cry of the darkness ahead.
Then we get to episode nine. The situation turns on Riko and Reg, who by that point descended quite far in the Abyss. Not only does this episode provide some of the most gruesome sequences of the show thus far, but it also reminds us of how young these characters are. With more episodes to follow, the show convinces us that all hope is lost, which is narratively and tonally a huge risk for a TV series to take. Yet, Made in Abyss shockingly pulls it off.
For all of genre inspirations and tropes, Made in Abyss stays surprising and unpredictable throughout its 13-episode season. With a second season arriving next year, now is the perfect time to catch up on this evocative adventure story. Its mystery lies within the world unknown, but its heart lies in the characters, their bond, and the fact that, as viewers, we’re constantly worrying that one mistake, one inexperienced misstep, could ultimately be their last.
We watch Made in Abyss with the expectation to be heartbroken, and to do that and not have it feel mindlessly torturous or needlessly miserable is a testament to all involved.
Made in Abyss Season 1 is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.