Two of the things that are most likely to make me decide to watch an anime are the quality of the art and how interesting the story sounds. This one scored on both counts. It is set in a town called Orth which clings to the sides of a giant abyss which goes deep down into the Earth. The two main characters are an orphan called Riko, whose mother was a legendary explorer of the abyss who disappeared when Riko was very young, and also a mysterious boy called Reg (pronounced with a hard ‘g’) who has extendable robotic arms so is assumed to be some kind of a robot. His origins lie somewhere in the Abyss. The two of them decide to travel down into the Abyss in secret, to try to find Riko’s mother. Riko is convinced she is still alive, somewhere down there.
The writers cleverly make ascending into the Abyss a very big deal. It’s full of dangerous creatures, but more importantly when they get to a certain depth there’s almost certainly no going back. You can keep descending but if you try to ascend again there are consequences, and the deeper you go the greater the consequences. Bleeding out of every orifice is just about the best case scenario. At worst, you lose every shred of humanity and become trapped for all eternity in a monstrous form, unable to speak but able to experience grief and pain. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
The series lulls you into a false sense of security, and for the first half had me wondering how it justified its 15 certificate. The episodes set in the town are fun, and then the upper layers of the abyss are either beautiful or exciting adventures, with the occasional dangerous creature coming after our heroes. But later in the series some horrendous things happen that more than justify this being a 15. One of the characters nearly dies, and the unflinching portrayal of her suffering had me struggling to even look at the screen, something I’ve rarely experienced with an anime, even the horror ones. Towards the end of the series another main character comes into the story, Nanachi, who resembles a sort of talking rabbit, and lives in the abyss with what appears to be a monster. The final, double length episode reveals the origins of Nanachi and her companion, and then Nanachi has to ask something horrific but entirely necessary of Reg. It is one of the most emotional storylines I’ve ever seen in an anime. The series doesn’t conclude the story, and the franchise is ongoing, with a film that follows the series (I haven’t seen it yet as it’s only just come out in Japan at the time of writing) and more to come.
Lots of things impressed me about this series. Everything is thought through in intricate detail. The world-building is extraordinary. An example that stuck in my mind is the way the desks in the classroom in the orphanage are fixed up a wall. These people live a vertical life, and that is reflected in all aspects of the way they live, which I thought was very clever. The Abyss is divided into different layers with very different characteristics, which keeps the series always feeling visually fresh, and it’s probably the most heady combination of beauty and danger I have ever seen. The artwork is often breathtakingly gorgeous, but we are never in doubt that the Abyss is a deadly dangerous place to go. If I had to pick the negative points, the series occasionally lingers in one place a little to long for my tastes, particularly for the episodes set in the “seeker camp” on the second layer of the Abyss. There is some important character stuff during those episodes, but I was impatient for Riko and Reg to continue their journey. The other negative is how few episodes Nanachi appears in, but that’s really a positive because she was by far my favourite character. Her backstory is painful to watch, but her experiences have left her capable, stoical and with a great sense of humour, and that makes the moments when her emotions break through all the more powerful. She is also the most cutest, fluffiest character I have ever seen in an anime. It’s no wonder Riko and Reg just want to cuddle her.
I have never been much of a fan of fantasy-based anime, but based on this one maybe I should be. It really was quite an amazing journey. RP