Made in Abyss: A history of going down

Made in Abyss is an incredibly atmospheric and adventurous anime, based on a manga all about going down a big hole. Since I love me some fantastical adventure, this blog entry is a fairly long ramble on other stories and concepts that make such adventures feel so absorbing and moody.

 

The state I live in, one of the more heavily-forested in Australia, is surprisingly bereft of spooky places. Aside from old ghost stories about murdered Chinese gold miners, there really isn’t much that comes to mind except for a rather obscure national park area called Black Mountain. It consists of the mountain that gives the park its name and several known Indigenous sacred sites that have been mapped out for years. When the colonists arrived, there were stories of farmers and settlers disappearing in the vicinity of the mountain, leading to a lot of paranormal and supernatural claims. Eventually as more of the region was explored, the reason behind the disappearances became clear: Black Mountain was home to a large amount of subterranean cavities, which had eroded over time and collapsed to form large, gaping holes leading to steep, deadly drops into darkness. These sinkholes and pitfalls are just part of nature, but they speak to us culturally and spiritually too, and throughout history and fiction the descent into the depths of the Earth is a recurring motif.

Which brings us to Made in Abyss, an anime adaptation of a manga about going down a really big hole in the ground. Set in a beautiful yet unsettling and creepy fantasy world, Abyss concerns a gigantic unexplored hole stretching deep into the bowels of the Earth, where ancient technology left by unknown creators can be found among bizarre ruins and hideous creatures. The Abyss is raided constantly by explorers and relic hunters, stationed in a ramshackle city on the edge of the cave mouth, but nobody ever returns from its depths due to a combination of ferocious wildlife, traps, and the strange, poorly-understood properties of the Abyss itself, which inflicts nausea, sickness, and mental or physical corruption upon those who go too far. As the protagonists travel downwards, the nature of the Abyss surrounding them changes and grows more bizarre and distorted, reaching levels of alien, nearly incomprehensible terrain. The varied, creepy and suspenseful atmosphere of Made in Abyss is pitch-perfect, and as a piece of fiction it’s worth looking into. Not just in its own context, but by looking back at religion, mythology, history, and other works of media, we can see just how Made in Abyss feels like a culmination of positively ancient, primal themes that have laid within the psyche of mankind since time immemorial! Or maybe I just want to talk about cool creepy stuff like Abyss, either way.

 

To begin with, the concept of verticality in the cosmologies of various mythologies is familiar to just about everyone. Hell, the Underworld, whatever you want to call it, tends to be placed beneath our feet as a subterranean realm which could be seen as either a final resting place like Sheol or a transitional realm like parts of the Greek afterlife or Buddhist Naraka. Christianity, one of the most influential religions, crystallized a powerfully enduring image of vertical cosmology where humans who are virtuous and good ascend to Heaven and all the little bad people get dumped in hellfire beneath the Earth. Then you have Norse mythology with its Yggdrasil, the world tree, a gigantic living structure that defines the universe and carries the entire human world within its domain while other realms of gods and different beings lie above or below humanity. This sort of central cosmological fixture, often referred to as the “Axis Mundi”, can be seen in many different forms, such as great mountains (Olympus) and even man-made structures like pyramids and pillars. So many cultures have this whole “up to good spiritual stuff and down to “spooky death-related stuff”, it’s very easy to find. We can also speculate pretty easily on why we as humans have these ideas- for example, climbing a tree to evade predators would evoke a sense of safety, falling down a hole and dying represents danger, volcanic eruptions from beneath the earth would be equated with heat and fire, as well as all the underground water sources, and so on.

Religion and myth sparks creativity and storytelling, so let’s look at some classic abyssal literature. The best place to start is of course the most famous vertical descent of all time- The Inferno of Dante’s Divine Comedy. A religious and political text in one package, the 14th Century tale describes a fanciful journey down to the bottom of Hell, through several layers catering to different sinners. Beginning with the gates of Hell, surrounded by the spirits of the indecisive who are bitten and stung by giant insects, the descent takes the reader to many strange locations. From a relatively pleasant, green land for the virtuous “pagans” to a layer where strong winds toss and throw about lustful people to keep them from contact, rains of ice and lakes of pus, hideous great monsters such as Minos and the Cerberus who stand guard, Dante’s detailed descriptions really sell you on the horrors of Hell. Interestingly, the deeper parts of Hell in Dante’s tale are more artificial, with the introduction of the City of Dis, a fortress of walls and towers designed to restrain and punish the “active” sinners and represent the human origins of sin. Among other interesting aspects are the transformative body horror moments, where human sinners are twisted into trees and grotesque contortions and monsters, and intelligent demons such as Geryon and Malacoda. The very bottom of Hell is depicted not as some blazing pit but a cold, dark world of unbreakable ice where the treacherous are trapped frozen for eternity, and at the very dead center of the bottom is Satan himself, embedded but still impotently raging over his failed rebellion against God.

inferno

Dante went on to explore Purgatory and Heaven in similar levels of detail, but his treatment of Hell in the Inferno is probably the most lasting and impactful. Full of frightening religious imagery with the intent of enforcing Christian virtue, there’s still a sense of adventure and narrative danger to the journey. While Dante’s work was full of contemporary political and social commentary, it also served as a revitalization of the mythical Hero’s journey into the underworld that can be found in the legends of cultures previous, a story of imagination born from the cosmology of the time. Naturally as we travel forward in time and more people wrote about the subject of subterranean fiction, the way such a journey was depicted changed, but the whole idea of cosmology, being religious or scientific in nature, was still the driving force. Going down a great big hole or a sprawling tunnel into the Earth is still the focus, and it still plays on our fears and ancient ideas. The 1700s and 1800s brought with them more fanciful tales of underground worlds, often loaded with satire or bizarre horror. While writers such as Jules Verne were very famous for stories involving caverns full of dinosaurs and prehistoric monsters, more unusual and alien ideas emerged from the genre in time. The occult-tinged novel “Vril” featured an encounter with superhuman intelligences living underground who could use a complex and strange energy system like magic, as well as practicing a female-dominated form of society, something also featuring in Mizora, a book by Mary Bradley Lane. Then you also have underground descents in classics like Oz and Alice in Wonderland, though of a more whimsical fare.

Symmes_Hole

Of course these fictional works were from a time when people were still exploring the reality of the world. The reason for a lot of these crazy hollow Earth ideas were due to public belief and speculation that our planet really was hollow, and at least one adventure novel was suspected to have been written by one such proponent of the theory. Occultists and fringe science popularized the ideas, then the ideas ended up in popular writing- Agartha, Pellucidar, fantastical lands and technology and magic, it was all a massive raw resource for adventures. While the original hypothesis for a hollow Earth came from a relatively reasonable desire to understand the structure of the world and examine the magnetic forces within, believers in the idea gradually got wilder and crazier over time as the advance of science pushed them aside. One such infamous man was Richard Sharpe Shaver, an almost tragic figure who was at one point homeless and spent time in an institution in the thirties. Shaver claimed a dark history of being able to hear the tortured screams of victims of malevolent subterranean beings, reminiscent of the victims of Hell, and would send his accounts of time spent underground to pulp fiction magazines that would republish them directly as adventure stories, helped by the question of their alleged legitimacy. Eventually the stories grew less popular, and Shaver ended up advertising “artifacts” he claimed to have uncovered (these were rocks he apparently saw hidden Atlantean writing in) before his death in the seventies. While his stories may have been the products of insanity or just a wild imagination, they ran for decades and influenced many a reader. The touch of new age and spiritualist ideas can be seen affecting other writers of subterranean fiction too- while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote on more conventional adventure stories involving Atlantis and dinosaurs, one story he wrote in the Professor Challenger series features a bizarre theory where the titular scientist believes that the Earth itself is a living being, and digs a massive mineshaft down to a point where his diggers discover a layer of flesh-like, pulsing material. The professor then happily proves his theory by violently stabbing the material and causing the entire planet to scream in pain, venting bile from the shaft all over the spectators.

Astounding-Stories-36-02

One recurring element of the years of hollow Earth theories that influenced writers was the idea of a giant hole in either of the polar regions, a place where the inner world could be entered. The idea of Antarctica as a mysterious, unexplored continent home to mystery and danger was pretty enticing, and one horror/SF writer in particular picked up on it for one of his most famous works. This gives me a chance to slide into Lovecraft’s own dealings with ascents and descents; the cosmic horror popularizer had some good stuff in this category too. The Nameless City, a short story featuring a man discovering an ancient, abandoned underground city built not for humans but strange little mummified reptiles, leads to the discovery of a cavern of such size the narrator feels he is at the peak of a mountain looking down. The Outsider introduces verticality into a more supernatural, reality-bending context; the protagonist lives in a cold, dark castle surrounded by an endless forest, and resolves to escape by climbing an ancient tower. As he reaches the top he finds that he is somehow at surface level of a whole other world, his old home apparently beneath this one. This sort of distortion of space is something that also turns up in Lovecraft’s magnificently weird Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, a story of the world within our own not just physical but reached mentally through sleep via stairs of all things and containing non-linear passage of time, ancient gods that covet human dreams and of course plenty of bizarre creatures. Lovecraft’s inner world was only published after his death and is considered to be his strangest work, but it has a surprisingly upbeat ending, heh.

dreammap-olderversion

The distortion of reality is an important aspect and I think it’s especially important going back to Made in Abyss itself. The physical size of the abyss is an imposing, nearly insurmountable obstacle, but the threats and dangers are all purely things humans can deal with- monsters can be slain, food can be foraged, structures can be built. If that was all there was to the abyss, the descent would hardly be as frightening as the show makes it out to be- this is where the metaphysical aspects come in. Made in Abyss introduces a curse, encompassing several unsettling and nightmarish effects that act upon the cave raiders in ways they can’t actually handle like they would a mundane problem. Ascent and descent between the individual layers causes extreme sickness and pain, leading to medical complications the explorers can’t really handle, a clear reference to, say, the bends. This is compounded with even more extreme variations where humans who enter the Abyss may not just die from exposure but even lose their humanity, transforming into unusual and bizarre creatures. This process as a metaphor can be linked to the loss of your soul in thralls of greed, harkening back to Dante’s adventure. And then there’s the affect on time and human awareness. The story explains that there’s a clear discrepancy between time spent in the abyss and time outside, which leads you to question the very nature of the world- it’s clear from the ruins and remains that there’s something very special going on. Worst of all is the psychological trauma- Ozen, a veteran explorer, has a body scarred from injuries that are self-inflicted as she wildly tried to fight off a brutal assault on her sanity. These are the aspects that distort the world, turning Made in Abyss from an adventure into a scary journey of trepidation. The reader wants to experience the journey, but part of them wants to hold the heroes back from oblivion.

[HorribleSubs] Made in Abyss - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_17.58_[2017.08.26_13.07.48]

Now, the actual environment depicted in Made in Abyss is also reflective of the distorted, twisted reality that heightens this feeling. Going down the design needs to hit several important points, and the show does that pretty perfectly- for example, the terrain of the plant-covered ecosystems depicted early on play on human wariness. Consider an open plain of flat terrain where there’s green grass and things are easy to spot from a distance, as a human you feel safe. However as you travel further into a forest, especially an old-growth forest, you’ll notice that the terrain tends to get more uneven, for various reasons such as the activity of tree roots and the way detritus and remains get churned together. As a result really deep forests are often dangerous, constricted places where trees converge and the ground itself is unsafe due to unseen pitfalls and slopes and there’s a heavy lack of visibility. These things naturally frightened humans on a survival level, and we still feel unsafe when alone in such places. Made in Abyss turns the distortion of the terrain itself into an artform, with upside-down trees, ancient horizontal structures and some very twisted-up landforms. as the story goes deeper it breaks things up with sheer cliffs and underground oceans, and the manga wheels out even more bizarre landforms and locations that we may not get to see in the anime. Interestingly, we can see some similar world concepts in videogames that deal with vertical travel, since there’s a definite convergence of designer intent in immersing and freaking the player out.

silent_hill_2_hole_by_parrafahell-d3h4ttd

To begin with, there’s a great article over here by Duse that goes over the similarities and contrasts between Etrian Odyssey and Made in Abyss, both series about exploring overgrown, forest-laden domains with several defined layers of depth. Another game that captures the atmosphere of exploring a terrifyingly large and oppressive forest is Jade Cocoon for the PS1. The game features four layers of increasingly maze-like and bizarre forests that capture the sense of distortion and twistedness needed, including the transformation of the inhabitants and unnatural creatures. It’s a great game for explorers if you want to feel like you’re diving into the unknown. When it comes to verticality, there’s tons of famous JRPGs featuring mysterious towers, from Druaga to Persona, where the player ascends an enormous structure towards a final truth at the top. I think special mention in this category should go to Catherine, a game that combines the ascension of the tower with fear of the abyss by having a collapsing floor to pursue the player, as well as El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, a game where each floor of the game’s tower is itself a pocket dimension of strange and abstract form. When it comes to descent, the Vita/PS4 title Gravity Rush ticks many boxes. Set around a gigantic tree floating in an endless sky, the protagonist travels down the interior of the giant trunk in search of a lost letter, feeling a growing sense of dread and wrongness, and finally emerges at the bottom of the world, on the very edge of reality. This gets compounded when the player manages to return to the world above only to discover a massive amount of missing time, another fun Abyss aspect. But then, there’s the king of exploration in a twisted, vertical world: Dark Souls. Set in a ruined kingdom beset by the breakdown of time and the laws of nature, Dark Souls gives the player a compact yet expansive and very creepy world to wander. The different layers of Lordran are clearly defined and match a lot of the ascent/descent concepts we’ve been exploring; the player begins in a well-lit, mundane area and travels upwards towards religious-tinged, heavenly domains where gods dwell, but then should they travel downwards they face more primal, unpleasant, unnatural locations such as a putrid swamp that goes down for miles, jagged overgrown forests similar to the upper levels in Abyss, volcanic Dravidian ruins, an alien ocean stretching out endlessly beneath the world, and finally a black, empty void beneath a ruined city. The sense of adventure and fearful exploration where the game’s style prevents the player from being too reckless combine to create a near-perfect experience. Sequel game Bloodborne turns up the spatial distortion to eleven with a clear Lovecraftian Dreamlands influence and introduces nightmarish worlds like a bone-dry wasteland city beneath a giant tower that inexplicably opens up above the surface of the sea, among other things. However, I think one of the best examples of the kind of ancient, abyssal horror in videogames comes from an unexpected quarter: Silent Hill 2. Set in a seemingly mundane urban setting, the game manages to expertly combine psychological fear and a sense of mythology and supernatural terror. The game’s monsters, items, and journey take a modern tale of guilt and twist it to match the archetypal underworld sojourn, exemplified in one infamous segment where the player enters the local historical society after finding the bridge across the lake to be out. Within the building, there is a hole. You’re prompted to jump in. You do. After that, you find another, deeper hole, and continue downwards, each time the sense of foreboding building as you realize how deep you’re going. Eventually, you find yourself inside a prison, somehow completely intact under the surface of the Earth. Exploring this dark, terrible place leads you to an even deeper hole, where the bodies of the dead seemed to have been disposed of. You jump in…and find yourself in a place even deeper, surrounded by claustrophobic, unyielding walls of dirt. After facing some terrible things in the depths, you finally emerge…back outside, only a few feet below sea level, on the shore of the lake. This bizarre and frightful adventure is mirrored in the final part of the game, where the player ascends from the decaying depths of the hotel to face the final boss and the ending. It’s a really special game and definitely worth a look if you want to feel the sensations of descending firsthand.

[HorribleSubs] Made in Abyss - 06 [720p].mkv_snapshot_20.01_[2017.08.12_09.14.35]

And now I’m back to Made in Abyss again. As presented so far, the anime has only reached the third layer of the descent, of which there are supposed to be seven mapped out. Each episode has been a tour-de-force of intimidating yet strangely-beautiful terrain, worlds decorated by ever-shifting light patterns and strange lifeforms. The sound design too is pitch-perfect, with the constant noise of bugs, birds and beasts and the ever-present roar of the abyss itself, a great dark wail that echoes forth. In fact, you can argue that the abyss is more of an entity than a static object, a living thing full of danger and opportunity and mystery. Beyond Riko and Reg, it’s the real star of the show, never letting its presence falter or fade away. The great shame of this anime is that it’s unlikely to get a second season and cover the rest of the journey to the bottom, but thankfully we do have the manga to lead us down.

Ultimately, Made in Abyss is a story of an adventure that has been written into humanity’s bones. Our ancient fear of the dark places beneath the Earth, our innate understanding of ascension towards the spiritual and our desire to explore and claim the unknown. By looking back at these various elements and stories it’s reminded me just how big a part the abyss plays in our mind, and why these concepts make for such a great adventure. I look forward to seeing the impact Made in Abyss has on creators in the future, and I think we all know of a hole somewhere in our lives. I do, there’s an old sealed-up well in the back garden of my house. It’s been there since before the house existed, and it’s just wide enough for a skinny person to fit in. But…I don’t think I’ll ever break the stone shell and take a peek.

That hole’s not made for me.

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