Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul – Trials Make Love Stronger

I finished the first season of Made in Abyss three years and a week ago, commenting that while I ached to know what would happen next, a long rest was in order, so that I might recover from the emotional wounds throughout that first run, culminating in the shockingly brutal story of Mitty and Nanachi.

Turns out no amount of time would heal those wounds to the extent they wouldn’t be re-opened and—very soul freshly re-crushed—upon watching the continuation of the Abyss story. That’s because the deeper Riko, Reg, and Nanachi descend, the more acute and devastating the horrors they encounter.

This is the third of three Made in Abyss films; the first two were a retelling of the first season, while the third is a direct sequel As such, spoilers throughout.

Case in point: upon arriving at one of her mother’s favorite spots in all of the Abyss, the Garden of Flowers of Fortitude, they encounter one of Bondrewd’s delvers, the Umbra Hands, harvesting tissue from other delvers who have been infected by a parasite that not only feeds off you while you’re still alive, but feeds itself to you in order to keep you alive. Lovely!

Few anime do soaring vistas like Abyss, and there’s something just so otherworldly and dread-inducing about the sight of the Fifth Layer’s Sea of Corpses, along with Idofront, Bondrewd the Novel’s domain. But as cold and unyielding and inhospitable as the spinning ghost city seems on the outside, within resides one of the sweetest, warmest, most human souls they’ve yet encountered: an adorable little girl named Prushka.

Prushka is Bondrewd’s daughter (voiced by Minase Inori), who is initially suspicious of outsiders coming to help her dad when she thinks she should be enough. But once she meets Riko, Reg, and Nanachi, they open for her a whole new world of questions and information about the Surface (she was born in the Abyss).

It’s so strange to see Prushka acting so lovey-dovey with Bondrewd, perpetrator of countless acts of sickening biological crimes, especially since he and his Umbra Hands resemble evil robots. And yet that evil robot still has a strange gravitational pull Nanachi finds hard to resist. Nanachi can’t forgive Bondrewd, but something still draws them toward him. Nanachi was something of a child figure to him, after all, so Nanachi sees Prushka as a younger self.

Bondrewd has bad news for Riko: while she may have her mother’s White Whistle, only the person for whom the whistle was made can use it to activate the altar that will take her down to the Sixth Layer. He offers them accommodations to “think things over”, but there isn’t any doubt his intentions for them are about as far from harmless as they’re all far from the Surface.

Despite her cozy room, soon Riko wakes up alone, and upon exploring, finds that she’s trapped in a small area with the only exit being a stair Prushka warned will cause “strains of ascension” if climbed. When Riko attempts to climb them anyway, she loses all sense of touch and balance, grinds her baby molars away and falls down the stairs, gaining cuts here and there. But she hallucinates far worse: as the very concepts of what and where are gradually eaten away by white light.

Ultimately, the reason Bondrewd does anything all comes down to curiosity and the aspiration to reach the bottom of the Abyss and learn its infinite secrets, same as Riko. It’s just a matter of scope and scale. Riko has managed to retain her humanity throughout her descent. But while has the affable dad voice and general form of a man, there is simply nothing left of Bondrewd’s humanity.

After Nanachi offers to stay with him and help him continue his research in exchange for Riko and Reg’s safety, Bondrewd tells them that, uh, unfortunately, he’s already tossed Reg to his Umbra Hands, who restrain him, slice off his right arm (along with Incinerator) and start collecting his bodily fluids. That’s when Riko, who was helped up to the upper level by Prushka, intervenes, and Prushka learns the truth about her father for the first time.

With Bondrewd showing his true horrific colors loudly and proudly, Nanachi, the most experienced with how he operates, comes up with a plan to take him out. This involves luring him into a nest of giant seven-tailed scorpions, trying to infect him with parasite larvae, and finally Reg crushing his body with a giant boulder.

Naturally, Bondrewd praises both Reg and Nanachi every time they toss a new tactic at him, saying things like “wonderful” and “I’m surprised.” After all, Nanachi is one of the creations of which of which he is most proud, one who unlike Mitty and the others was able to receive the “Blessing” of the Abyss rather than fall victim to the Curse. You’d could mistake it for fatherly pride if, again, Bondrewd had a shred of humanity. But his willingness to offer love and pain and suffering in equal measure disqualifies him as both from being either a parent or a human.

None of the tactics against him end up working, because the Umbra Hand who escorted Prushka simply takes the mask off of the crushed Bondrewd and places it on his head, thus transforming into a new, untouched Bondrewd. Turns out all of his Umbra Hands are him—and his immortality is tied to a relic called Zoaholic. The fight ends for now, and Bondrewd returns home with Prushka.

If Zoaholic didn’t make Bondrewd insane, the act of splitting his soul and essence into multiple bodies still removed what was left of his empathy or humanity, which is why he ends up having Prushka cruelly vivisected just like all of the other orphan children before her. He’s satisfied her experiences with Reg, Riko, and Nanachi helped “perfect” her, and this is the natural next step. She is never told this would happen, and never asked if it’s okay.

Her body is marked with “X’s” to signify the parts that will be cut away and discarded (most of it) until all that is left is a mass of “fleshy curse repellant” to be placed within a suitcase-sized cartridge. It is in this way that Bondrewd staves off the curse; using the pain and suffering of still technically-living children as his strength.

It’s truly skin-crawling, horrible, horrible stuff, and even though I had a reasonable suspicion that Prushka was doomed to a Mitty-like fate, I was still not ready to see even a little of that fate carried out, nor would I ever be. No one would!

By the Riko, Reg, and Nanachi return to Idofront to rescue her they’re way too late, while the sight of the “processing” room brings back Nanachi’s memories of assisting with said processing. When Bondrewd arrives, Riko and Nanachi they buy time for Reg, who hooks himself up to Idofront’s power supply and ends up rebooting in Berserk Mode.

Bondrewd tells Riko that his own White Whistle is the result of sacrificing his own body and soul, and that all White Whistles are made in this way—with a willing human sacrifice, not carved stone.

It’s then when Berserk-Reg arrives and fights on the same level as Bondrewd, ultimately blasting a huge sphere-shaped chunk out of Idofront. He lands in a pit of Mittys—material for Bondrewd’s cartridges, and we’re reminded of all those lights on the wall representing their lives are labeled: he remembers the name of every child, their unique qualities, and how cute they were. Shudder…

As Bondrewd and Reg are locked in an epic battle, we hear Prushka’s disembodied voice as she recounts her life with Bondrewd, starting as a failed subject. He decided to raise her as his daughter, gave her Meinya as a pet, and gave her a fun and happy childhood, ultimately culminating in her helplessly watching as pieces of her are removed one by one on the operating table.

We hear Prushka because she’s now a cartridge that Bondrewd is currently using in his fight, and ends up being his last cartridge. Even after what he did to her, she still wants to help her dad achieve his dreams—even if it means helping him fight against Reg, Riko, and Nanachi.

Thus aided by Bondrewd, Reg can’t defeat him with one arm, which is why he was buying time for Riko to retrieve his other arm. Even disconnected from his body, she’s able to aim it at Bondrewd and fire it, blasting him to pieces.

As this is happening, Prushka pleads with everyone not to fight, because they’re all going to have adventures together. An image of that dream appears in the climax of the battle, and is pretty much the most heartbreaking goddamn thing I’ve ever seen.

Then Bondrewd falls to the ground, finally beaten, and Nanachi stand over him. True to form, Bondrewd isn’t bitter about losing; on the contrary: he’s never been happier to find someone with stronger aspirations, will, and love defeat him. It means they, not him, are worthy of exploring the greater depths of the Abyss, and all the curses and blessings therein.

Riko holds the spent cartridge of what’s left of Prushka, simply red liquid that spills everywhere, and very understandably begins to bawl in absolute despair. But then she notices an object lying in the puddle of liquid: a White Whistle. Turns out Prushka’s soul willingly became the sacrifice necessary for Riko. Now her dream of going on adventures together can be realized.

With that, Riko gains the means to make her Last Dive, along with Reg (who learned a great deal about what his relic body can do) and Nanachi (who found a degree of closure in her vendetta with Bondrewd). Bondrewd, oddly enough, is still alive (after a fashion), but no longer a threat to them, and indeed is happy to see them off as they enter the “elevator” that will take them to the Sixth Layer, that much closer to Riko’s Mom, whatever’s become of her.

Quite appropriately, the end credits pull double duty as an illustration of that elevator descending ever deeper  into the Abyss, accompanied by an achingly gorgeous song that is a collab between MYTH & ROID and Kevin Penkin. Penkin, of course, also contributed the score and outdoes himself in the task; his music has been and continues to be a vital piece of what makes Abyss so unique an special.

It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to end this in less than 1500 words, but whatever; this was basically four episodes of the anime comprising a Fifth Layer arc, enshrining Bondrewd the Novel as one of anime’s all-time most monstrous and compelling villains, exploring the ways ambition can mutate “love” into a heartlessly destructive force.

It also ably reinforced Abyss’ uncanny ability to tear its viewers’ hearts and souls to bloody shreds before painstakingly sewing them back together with delicate threads of hope. And with a second season in the early stages of production, the story of Riko, Reg, and Nanachi is far from over.

Tower of God – 01 (First Impressions) – They’re Just Like You

This is the story of Rachel, the girl who climbed the tower so she could see the stars, and Bam, the boy who needed nothing but her.

I like it—Succinct and concise. Efficient and elemental. Stark, yet beautiful. Before we’re tossed into the present, we get a brief look at the past: the last time Bam saw his beloved Rachel. Rachel is bound for the greater heights (literally) of the Tower, and Bam can’t go with her, so it’s farewell.

Rachel’s intolerance of the darkness of their world, and desire to see the stars at the top of the Tower, meant more than remaining with Bam. Meanwhile Bam can’t tolerate living in a world without Rachel; she’s his Eureka to his Renton. So when the opportunity to climb the Tower presents itself, he takes it.

That means dealing with the Tower’s caretaker, Headon, who presents the first test: avoid a giant steel-clad eel and break a black sphere. Two other challengers appear in Princess Yuri (who gives off strong Tohsaka Rin vibes) and her attendant Evan. They lend him a “Pocket” that translates their speech and does other things.

Yuri isn’t impressed by the frail-looking Bam, but the point of the test isn’t to defeat the giant eel, but simply to stare death in the face and not flinch. Needing to be with Rachel more than he fears deah, Bam passes that first part of the test. And because he has a cute face, Yuri lends him an heirloom of her family, a sword called Black March.

Bam lets the eel swallow him and then wounds it from within, but the black sphere proves too hard, even for Black March. That’s because Bam is trying to use his own strength without asking Black March to lend him hers. Yuri is again skeptical it will listen, but like her Black March likes his cute face.

The sword is also moved by Bam’s story of being saved by Rachel some time ago, when he was trying to break out of a dark place rather than cutting into one. Rachel told him about the stars in the sky.

He comes to see her as one of those stars, which means to climb the Tower and reach the sky is to return to where she belongs. He, in turn, wants to return to her warm, celestial light. Black March stuns the eel and shatters the black sphere, and Bam is transported to the second level for the next test.

Yuri, initially surprised by Bam, now knows the score, and decides that she and Evan will follow. Because there’s something she loathes more than she fears death, and that’s boredom. Not a princess to live within the walls of the palace, she seeks adventure, excitement, and entertainment, which Bam looks primed to provide.

The second test takes the first—facing death and not withering—and adds a new challenge: summoning the will to take life, not just preserve one’s own. It’s a battle royale involving 400 “regulars” (Bam is non-regular) that quickly drops below 300. Bam realizes what he must do and prepares to do it, but ends up locked in a firing circle with three other combatants, including a blue-haired student and a lizardman-like hunter.

Tower of God is disciplined, refined, and concise in its themes and crystal clear, if relatively shallow, in the motivations of its characters. It balances the simplicity of those elements with solid, confident execution. I dug the Bones-style character design and the rough old-school line work, and of course, Kevin Penkin’s gripping, eclectic score; he’s a composer who instantly elevates any work he’s tied to. Hayami Saori soars as Rachel in a role perfect for her.

Tower of God, the first big-league anime from Lee Jong-hui (AKA SIU) and animated by the venerable Telecom studio, has apparently been hugely anticipated by fans of his webtoon (which has amassed 4.5 billion views worldwide). Speaking as a newbie, I can see why. Everything in this episode conspires to create a gravitas that’s hard to fake—an atmosphere of seriousness, significance, and auspiciousness that calls to mind shows like Steins;Gate and Attack on Titan, which have their own massive fan legions.

To quote the space rabbit Headon, “I’m interested in seeing what’s next.”

P.S. Read Crow’s review of Tower of God Episode 01 here.

The Rising of the Shield Hero – 25 (Fin) – Beginning Anew?

With the arrival of a Glass, a bad-ass virtual force of nature during the previous wave, one could have expected the battle to intensify exponentially. Well, one would be wrong; all Naofumi needed to do was level up thirty-three times to not only survive Glass’s attacks (and her combo with Therese) but deliver considerable damage with his Soul Eater Shield (with no Maka Albarn in sight).

In rough shape but refusing to surrender, Glass activates a Tunnel of Moving Pictures® that we see way too often in anime as a cheap way to remind us of Everything That’s Happened™. It also offers Naofumi a glimpse of Glass’s (and L’Arc and Therese’s) devastated world. He ponders whether he wants to save this world as much as Glass wants to save hers, and if he’s willing to kill her for that cause.

Ultimately Naofumi decides to fight on for this world, if for no other reason than it contains Raphtalia, Filo, and Melty. They have been loyal and true friends and servants. But L’Arc tosses Glass a potion that restores the SP the Soul Eater took away, and seems ready for another round…that is, until she suddenly gets sloshed.

Throughout this battle, the meek green-haired mage who is a member of the Bow Hero’s party and mostly says “HOEEE!” like Cardcaptor Sakura, is quietly distinguishing herself as a key contributor.

First, she rowed Melty over to the dead shark thingy so she could join the party. Then, acting on a light bulb from the queen, she uses her wind magic to shoot some great casks of that weird wine that seems to get everyone drunk immediately (but has no effect on Naofumi).

I can’t help but applaud this audacious, completely-out-of-left field way to conclude the battle, as time runs out, the waves recede, and L’Arc, Therese, and Glass bid goodbye until the next one.

With the Wave gone, Naofumi’s party, done with leveling up for now, still has to wait for a storm to pass for them to sail back to Melromarc. They spend the time on various leisure activities, during which Raphtalia blushes and beams at Naofumi roughly 96% of the time, to no avail…

More intriguingly, the green-haired mage, who finally gets a name—Lecia—joins Naofumi’s party after she’s thrown out of Itsuki’s for the same reason Jar Jar was banished: shesa bein’ clumsy.

But Lecia whines a lot and has a very low opinion of herself, she’s the victim of a false accusation, just as Naofumi was (in her case, destruction of an accessory, though that was probably just an excuse to get rid of her). That automatically makes her a spiritual ally of Naofumi, so he goes a bit further and makes her a literal one.

For the remainder of the episode, Naofumi strings Raphtalia along across land and sea to surprise her with the reward bestowed upon him by Queen Mirelia for his leal service to her kingdom: lordship over the lands of Seyaette, including her rebuilding home village, which is to become the Shield Hero’s official headquarters and training facility.

All the other decent sorts with whom Naofumi has crossed paths made it a point to move there and help his cause. He tasks Raphtalia with revitalizing the fishing industry. Raphtalia is obviously very happy and grateful for all this, but none of that matters compared to having Naofumi by her side. He makes her promise never to leave her or Filo, even when the last Wave is beaten back. She doesn’t like how all this looks like him prepping for the time when he’ll be gone—an eventuality she can’t accept.

While Naofumi doesn’t 100% promise her he’ll never leave or die—I mean, he can’t really do that; it’s out of his control for the moment—he gets a flash back to his own world, as he walks past his old, useless self, and reassures her that he won’t leave her side. There’s still so much to do:  get the village up and running, recruit and train new party members like Lecia, continue to level up for the coming threats, even trying to uncover the mystery of why the heroes of different worlds are competing.

Basically, Iwatani Naofumi isn’t going to dwell on the the what-ifs of after the Waves end, because he’s just getting started. In other words, there’s more than enough to fill another season, which is likely forthcoming but not yet officially confirmed. In this viewer’s opinion, I hope it’s confirmed soon, and in a year or so we get to watch more of Naofumi, Raphtalia, Filo, Melty, Lecia, heck, even Bitch and Trash—and just as importantly, get to hear more excellent Kevin Penkinage.

The Rising of the Shield Hero – 17 – Rite of Succession

The next morning, it’s No More Mrs. Nice Fitoria. She binds Melty in a wind prison and demands once more for Naofumi to make up with the other heroes. When he refuses, she once again threatens to kill all four heroes, but first gives his party the chance to prove they can take on the waves on their own. She’ll determine this by fighting Filo.

As expected, the spirited but woefully under-leveled Filo is absolutely no match for Fitoria…at first. But with continual pointers and encouragement from Naofumi, Filo keeps getting back up dusting herself off, and trying again. Eventually, she’s able to summon enough power to literally put a scratch on Fitoria’s face. That’s enough to satisfy the queen: Filo wins.

Not only that, but Fitoria names Filo her official successor, conjuring a crown to place on Filo’s head, which is replaced by an ahoge of which Filo very much not a fan. She opens a new Filolial-themed section of Naofumi’s sphere grid—albeit all shields he’s of too low a level to access—and increases Filo’s stats (though she still can’t break Level 40 quite yet).

She also apologizes to Melty by giving her a ride in her giant filolial form (of which I wish we could have seen more), and throws a huge party. Throughout these events, and the episode itself, Kevin Penkin’s marvelous score really asserts itself, elevating the images on the screen. This show’s music is just a pure joy to listen to.

Once the festivities have wound down and everyone else is asleep, Naofumi finds himself in a similar situation as the previous night: alone with a Fitoria committed to getting him to reconsider his hard stance on not playing nice with the other heroes, which she actually manages to achieve when she points out that his refusal to defend himself against Malty’s lies is as saying the lies are true.

While Fitoria doesn’t have the best memory, on two occasions Naofumi says something her hero once said to her, and the nostalgia leads to her tearing up and placing her head in his lap to be patted. The reason Fitoria works so hard to make Naofumi repair his reputation and relationship to the other heroes goes beyond the fate of the world: she knows he’s a good man by dint of raising the next Filolial Queen. It’s time the rest of the world knew it.

As for those other heroes, both Sword and Bow enter a cave seeking some kind of treasure, only for it to be a trap that incinerates the entire cave. I highly doubt they didn’t survive, though it’s not like I’d care if they didn’t…

Monday OP: “Underground River” from Made in Abyss

This piece of music (by series composer Kevin Penkin) is played at the start of the first episode of Made in Abyss in lieu of the standard OP, during an otherwise soundless montage of Riko and Nat heading home to Orth with Reg on Nat’s back.

“Underground River” and the montage that accompanies it, were all I needed to see and hear become absolutely hooked on Made in Abyss, albeit five weeks later than most others.

It perfectly encapsulates the show’s spirit of youthful adventure, as well as the excitement and bittersweet yearning that go hand in hand upon striking out into the big world, from the home you’ve always known.

(The vocals also remind me of Sohn.)

So far I think MIA is hands-down the best series of the Summer, excelling equally in story, characters, animation, and yes, music. I only wish this piece was the weekly OP (though the actual one isn’t bad either).