The Miracle of Made in Abyss

There was almost no corner of the anime-inclined internet that wasn’t talking about Made in Abyss in 2017.

This post is part of the 12 Days of Anime 2017 project, where anime bloggers post everyday for 12 days leading up to Christmas. Check this post out for more information.

It’s sumptuous visual presentation was the first to draw people in, quickly followed by great storytelling and characterisation, particularly in the last arc. I’d probably call it my anime of the year, but this year I decided to refrain from doing that sort of thing.

Instead I want to talk less about the inherent qualities of Made In Abyss, but more about it’s unique production circumstances – that of both the original manga and anime adaptation – because, when you really look at it, it was a miracle that Made In Abyss even got made, and made at the level of quality that it was. There’ll be some light spoilers ahead.


One hell of a debut – Akihito Tsukishi

Would you believe me if I said that Made in Abyss was Tsukishi’s first major work? They did some character designs on 2006 Madhouse show Otogi-jushi Akazukin, but it wasn’t until 6 years later that they set about on their own, original venture in Made in Abyss.

For a debuting mangaka, Made in Abyss is an astonishing piece of work. I’ll talk more about the unique art style of the series later, but for a beginner to be able to produce art of that level is baffling to say the least. Tsukishi must have had some job as an illustrator or must’ve spent those 6 years studying hard in art school, because such a mastery over visual presentation does not simply come overnight, despite how much of a genius you might be.

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Beyond visual elements, Tsukishi’s story reflects a maturity and level of craft beyond their seemingly little culminated creative years. Most mangakas, when first starting, are anxious to tell their story quickly, since they have probably spent years leading up to the moment when they are serialised thinking of concepts and story ideas. Many debut manga never run for very long, and even when they do, often improve over the course of their run as the mangaka gains more experience both as an author and artist. They are also most susceptible to bowing to pressure from higher up, particularly from their editors, sometimes ending up changing aspects of the story to make it more sustainable or more marketable.

When you look at the beginning of Made in Abyss, none of these common beginner’s problems are found. Tsukishi was clearly not concerned with the possible backlash from editors as they took their time world-building in the early parts of the story – it is not until volume 1 that Riko and Reg even go into the Abyss and start their adventure proper.

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Furthermore, because of this measured beginning, the pacing of the story is much more balanced than is common in debut manga. Once Riko and Reg are in the Abyss, the story takes as much time as it needs to allow the reader to become accustomed to their new surroundings, but also is clearly comfortable in skipping over parts that would be uninteresting to the reader – take the third layer for example, a simple vertical shaft, which the story breezes through in comparison with the other layers, since the author probably had more interesting stories to tell in the fourth layer.

For someone like Akihito Tsukishi to exist is a rare occurrence. A rookie mangaka with experience seemingly beyond their years, allowing them to create the kind of story that usually comes in the middle of one’s career. No doubt I’m missing part of the story, particularly concerning the 6-year gap between Tsukishi’s work, but for now I continue to be surprised at this particular miraculous aspect of Made in Abyss.


Web Comic Gamma?

There are a lot of manga magazines in Japan – far more than you’re probably aware of. Beyond the Jump giants such as Weekly Shounen Jump and Jump SQ, you have similar shounen magazines such as Shounen Sunday, Weekly Shounen Magazine and countless others. For the seinen audience, we have Young Ace and Young Animal. I could be here for hours recounting countless other genres’ magazines – and that number would be a lot higher than you could imagine.

Within this maelstrom of magazines, it is surprising that Made in Abyss was even found by Kinema Citrus and director Masayuki Kojima (Monster, Black Bullet). The series is published monthly by the magazine Web Comic Gamma – which, as the name suggests, is a web-only magazine.

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As a concept, a web-only magazine seems like a good idea – it cuts out the cost of printing and also the pressure of a deadline since the magazine can be published immediately online. But in reality, it makes it a lot harder to find. Instead of being available in Japanese convenience stores among the other magazines, waiting to be found by someone browsing for something new, it now has to be sought out especially by those who want to read it. No doubt director Kojima and the studio were seeking out new material to adapt – that’s their jobs after all – but due to the nature of the magazine’s circulation, they were hardly guaranteed a massive fanbase for the show.

And why would you want to read Web Comic Gamma anyway, as a consumer? Before Made in Abyss got popular, it had virtually no talked-about serialisations – unless you count the Akiba’s Trip 2 adaptation manga, which probably attracted some diehard fans of the game (if those exist). It also appears to be a relatively new publication, with Made in Abyss seemingly being it’s longest running serialisation from the information available to me, starting in 2012.

When you consider this, it seems almost like a miracle that director Kojima and Kinema Citrus happened upon Made in Abyss, let alone decide to adapt it. Without brand recognition and critical acclaim, the studio was taking a big risk by choosing to adapt the series – a risk that did eventually pay off, of course.


Art style

Another major roadblock for the studio was how to adapt mangaka Akihito Tsukushi’s unorthodox artwork.

Their artwork is incredibly realistic, for one. Rather than looking like a traditional manga – something along the lines of the “expressive realism” of Naruto, with it’s thick black edges and bordering – Tsukushi’s work seems more like a watercolour painting. This is especially true for the backgrounds, which do dive into some watercolour techniques every now and again, particularly in rendering the environments of the Abyss. We are also treated to some hyper-realistic background details, such as the features of Riko’s room and of Ozen’s study.

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For a studio that had previously been involved in more traditional looking shows, such as Yuyushiki and Gochuumon wa Usagi desu ka as producers, how to tackle the starkly unique Made in Abyss style must have been a real challenge for them, since they would have to change from their usual art styles as well as get people experienced in this sort of production on from outside. Clearly, this was a challenge they wished to embark upon, and decided to push themselves further, out of their comfort zones. Luckily, they managed to pull this off very well.

Tsukishi’s unorthodox artwork also carries over from the backgrounds and into the character designs. The hyper-realism is again present in the rendering of Reg’s mechanical body parts, as well as Bondrewd’s fully mechanical body (only seen for a little bit in the anime). But beyond that, what makes Made in Abyss’ character designs truly unorthodox is their expressive nature – the blobby renditions of Reg and Riko’s pre-pubescent bodies flying in the face of normal, more realistic character designs prevalent in the medium.

Furthermore, even when characters are given a design, often the dynamics of it change in order to better accommodate the emotions of the character – most clearly exemplified in the show by Ozen’s change in initial design to a horrific, black haze of hatred during her confrontation with Riko.

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So, not only would Kinema Citrus have to deal with the overall unique art style, as well as it’s hyper-realism, they would also have to deal with the Tsukishi’s complex and expressive character designs, which also shift depending on the scene. Beyond simply replicating this on screen, the team would have to find ways to carry over this sentiment in motion – adding to and expanding on these elements of the art style to make sure the series was able to work in animated form. They were, thankfully, able to achieve this, as many (including myself) were blown away by the production of the show.


A bold step for Kinema Citrus

In adapting something as atypical as Made in Abyss in the ways highlighted, Kinema Citrus had take a fairly large step outside of their comfort zone – it was something they and their team had never tried their hands at before.

If we look at the studio’s previous major works – Barakamon, Kuma Miko and Syakunetsu no Takkyuu Musume (Scorching Ping Pong Girls) – they seemed to be finding success in adapting series with slice of live aesthetics. Even though they later gained some experience in genres other than slice of life later through the crowdfunded OVA Under the Dog,  the leap to the slow, unorthodox and eventually heart wrenching Made in Abyss from cutesy shows like Kuma Miko still seems like a fairly large one.

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Or maybe not that much of a jump?

Because of this, Kinema Citrus had to recognise their own inexperience in producing this type of series and brought in Monster director Kojima to helm the project. His time at Madhouse gave him lots of experience in how best execute slow, meditative and deeply tragic stories such as Monster.

The fact that Kinema Citrus made such a smart decision is something we should applaud them for. Instead of trying to make do with the experience their team already had on their precious slice of life shows and trying to transfer it over to Made in Abyss – which may not have translated so well – they recognised their own faults and sought to remedy them. Not many studios have the foresight to do this, and this is partly why many adaptations leave fans of the original disappointed.

In addition, the studio took some bigger steps in involving several non-Japanese staff in the production process. Foreign animators such as Dongyoung Kim did some key animation for the show, as well as, most surprisingly, an Australian composer arranging the soundtrack.

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Penkin working on the soundtrack in Vienna

Kevin Penkin already did some work with Kinema Citrus previously on NORN9 and their OVA Under the Dog, but Made in Abyss seems like the first time Penkin was inspired by the material and thus was able to flex his creative muscles. His soundtrack is frankly, brilliant, perfectly capturing the mood of the show with it’s orchestral aesthetic, with several pieces such as “Tomorrow” that will stay with me for a long time, not only for their utilisation but also for their beauty.

Anime has slowly become more and more international over the years, including more and more Korean and Chinese animators in the production process, and with animators like Bahi JD forming links with specific directors and studios. But Made in Abyss marks one of the few times that the work of foreign team members has been recognised by both fans and critics alike.

Kinema Citrus’ decision to dip their toes into the still mostly unventured international production waters was a risky one – but one that eventually paid off. The soundtrack and animation has been praised by many people much better than it than I, and the smart decision to get the right director to helm the project was a type of decision that many studios don’t make. Thanks to these unlikely decisions, it was possible for Made in Abyss to become great.


The lure of the market

What’s even more remarkable than that though, is that Kinema Citrus stuck so closely to the manga and resisted the lure of the market.

I already talked about the unusual nature of the manga in terms of art style, and this is one of the most obvious areas that Kinema Citrus had the option to divert from the source material. Since the art style and character designs are so unorthodox and unlike anything the studio had tackled before, by re-rendering them in a style more natural to the team, the production process would have been much simpler and faster. By simplifying the setting and backgrounds also, the studio could have saved bringing on a specialised background studio. However, despite the challenges that both of these things posed for the studio, they decided to let the source material speak for itself and stick as closely as possible.

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But beyond that, the manga is unusual in that the themes it tackles are so adult in nature, and are presented as such. The first taste we get of this in the anime is when Riko and Reg are confronted by Ozen. Her sadism and hatred for Riko oozes throughout this scene, from both the art direction and stellar voice performance. She even ends up assaulting a literal child – something not often seen on broadcast TV.

But the real mature dynamic of the show presents itself during the time in the fourth layer with Nanachi, explaining her backstory. We get to know her and her tragic backstory, that her life was destroyed for the sake of scientific advancement, and that she has no choice but to continue living her life with this trauma, as well as the fact that her best friend was left an uncommunicative blob while she was able to continue living. Clearly, we can draw parallels between Nanachi and Mitty’s story and the problems of global warming, animal testing and even abortion – and the show goes further in exploring the moralism of euthanasia as Nanachi begs Reg to kill Mitty for her.

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It’s not although Japanese animation isn’t adult, not at all, but the level of moral debate that Made in Abyss could’ve triggered could’ve been more of a bane than a boon for Kinema Citrus. Ultimately, anime is made to make money – the right execution, as was achieved, could garner the show attention and therefore sales, but the wrong move could be critical disaster for the studio in the case of bad handling of these themes and issues.

The simplest move Kinema Citrus could have made was to simply change aspects of the manga to make it less adult, or change the dynamics of certain scenes to lessen the risk of outrage. But, again, the team were clearly confident in the source material and decided to stick as closely as possible to it – which fortunately paid off in spades.

Overall, the team prioritised great artistic vision over an easier, less risky production process by not diverting from the original manga. They understood that a good artistic vision would ultimately be worth a lot more both financially and emotionally – resisting the lure of profits by simply changing the art direction to make the production process easier and cheaper, and by playing it safe with the adult themes and presentation of the story.


Conclusion

When considering all of these elements, it really is a miracle that Made in Abyss even got made, and even more of a miracle that is was made to the high level that has gotten so many people talking about it. Tsukishi was able to create a manga of an artistic prowess that goes well beyond their culminated creative years, and Kinema Citrus was able to find the series despite the strange nature of it’s publication. Furthermore, the studio consistently made smart choices in bringing on an experienced director, recruiting some of the best overseas talent, and choosing to stick close to the original series and let the content speak for itself, instead of changing it for quick monetary returns.

Someone at Kinema Citrus clearly fell in love with Made in Abyss at first sight. At lot of these decisions couldn’t have been taken without utter faith and infatuation with the story – particularly when it came to adapting the more adult parts of the manga. Perhaps that person was director Kojima, but I like to imagine it was some shady board-person who stayed up too late one night, binge-reading the entire series. Nevertheless, I’d like to thank this person in particular, who allowed us all to experience the miracle of Made in Abyss.


I recommend Sakugabooru’s excellent series on the production of Made in Abyss if you’re interested in how it was made, the animators etc.

I’d like to thank The Canipa Effect for the second day in a row, this time for enlightening me about the backgrounds of Made in Abyss.

Did you like this post? Did you hate it? Disagree with me? Leave a comment down below or via Twitter.

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