Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul
Riko and Reg, our protagonists from the first season, continue to the Fifth Layer of the Abyss with their new travelling companion Nanachi, heading towards the single known point of access to the mysterious Sixth Layer in an ancient fortress known as the Idofront. Unfortunately, their journey is complicated by the Idofront’s current inhabitants: An order of cave-raiders known as the Umbra Hands, led by the infamous White Whistle Bondrewd the Novel, with whom Nanachi has a grim history. But perhaps more troubling than the strangely hospitable Bondrewd is the presence of a young, sheltered girl named Prushka who claims to be his daughter.
Things get worse from here.
Sometimes it becomes clear only in the process of attempting to articulate what something means to you how much closer to the heart it is than you would have thought, and so in looking for the words, finding instead that you circle your point rather than say what you really mean.
I was identifying as a different gender the last time that I discussed this series here. Strange what time does to us all. “I was a different person back then” feels trite to say, but in some respects it is true. Yet upon returning to the first season of Made in Abyss, those old feelings which had once stirred in me had only grown stronger; very few series, indeed few works of art in any medium, have reduced me to the sort of ugly sobbing which burst out of me upon revisiting the scenes in the last episode which led to the final paragraph of that review. I continued from there to this film after a few days’ break to breathe, remembering what the manga’s next arc held in store. It is rendered here with astonishing fidelity.
But I get ahead of myself a bit.
There were certain omissions which I made to my review of the first series, written shortly after it first aired, for the sake of preserving and to some extent demonstrating the manner in which the true nature of Made in Abyss reveals itself to the viewer, as well as to allow the prospective viewer the experience of encountering certain twists of the tale blind, but at this point, the cat’s out of the bag for much of this. The series’ grotesque body horror and chilling violence, not to mention its occasionally troubling psychosexual aspects, are fairly notorious at this point. This section of the story in particular is where the teeth of the beast are not only flashed, but show us just how hard they can bite down.
But perhaps I just knew, on some level which I was not prepared to acknowledge at the time, that I was not ready to talk about Nanachi.
I am still not ready to talk about Nanachi. Regardless, I will try.
Nanachi first appears in the duo’s hour of direst need in the final quarter of the first season as a kind of reluctant saviour. Transformed into an ageless rabbit-like creature referred to as a Hollow by experiments into the humanity-stripping properties of the Curse of the Sixth Layer, Nanachi leads a secluded existence caring for Mitty, once their only friend, transformed by the same experiments into something shapeless, mindless, and, for all that Nanachi has attempted to free her from this state, deathless. The manner in which this situation is resolved is, as alluded to, heartbreaking in a way for which I have no words.
There is a fundamental tension between presentation and context with Nanachi. Their demeanour as is more composed than either of our more overtly childish protagonists; as captured in Shiori Izawa’s excellent performance, there is an easy-going, contented worldliness to them, at times gently sardonic yet more often than not matter-of-fact. Only occasionally does this break, in moments where their composure falters or something terribly honest is let slip, and one is confronted with the fact that their body itself, described in their own words as like a “fluffy stuffed doll,” is in itself the worst thing to ever happen to them—the moment of the loss of their humanity and the only person they ever loved frozen in time and forever with them. Every inch is a scar. The analogies feel only too obvious.
The mind reels to think of who would do this to a child, or to many (and there were many, before and after). We met him in Nanachi’s memories, but only here do we, with Riko and Reg, meet that kind of man in the flesh. He is introduced here without expected fanfare, without much in the way of "music" at all: The repetition of a single ugly, hammering chord and its mirror, the echoing clack-clack-clack of boots on stone. His face is obscured by mask nearly devoid of features, bisected by violet light; around his neck hangs a pendant of white stone carved into two hands clasped in prayer. The figure which Bondrewd cuts, flanked by his similarly faceless coterie of followers, is only underlined rather than undercut by the warmth of his voice, the fatherly yet not quite condescending tone of his compliments. How far you’ve all made it! Marvellous. How cute you all are.
I saw what you managed to do about Mitty. I’m so proud of you.
He means every word, too. This you must understand.
As one may surmise, in the approach to the Idofront through the frozen desolation of the Fifth Layer, a certain Gothic sensibility is established which thoroughly permeates Dawn of the Deep Soul: An ancient and haunted dwelling looms over the wastes, to which our young ingenues must travel and their guide (themself haunted) must return, meeting there the manor’s lord, a figure at once gracious host and fearsome monster. Vengeance is sought, and blood must be shed, whether righteous or tragic. What was once broken must be mended or else shattered entirely.
The first person to greet our heroes there, however, is not the monster. A young girl, maybe a little older than Riko yet far less accustomed to others her own age, accosts the trio with a stream of cheerful inquiries. Her name, she says, is Prushka. What are theirs? On the appearance of the Umbra Hands, she rushes to their leader without fear, excitedly asking her dear Papa about these new strangers. In true Gothic fashion, the monster has a beautiful daughter.
The stomach drops. We watch Nanachi process this new information and we too must wonder how he, could he…? There is no satisfactory answer, and we know that no good can come of this. I know that no good can come of this. I have read this before but even then, even first seeing her, I knew that no good could come of this.
As with the manga volumes which it reproduces nearly to the page in places—and no doubt, this was adapted as a film because of the difficulty which such fidelity would pose when put up against television censors—there is a tight vacillation throughout Dawn of the Deep Soul between stretches of tension and points of horrible, horrible release. While one could say that the action is markedly increased here from the preceding season, the spectacular bursts of kinetic choreographed conflict are perhaps better contextualised as a subset of scenes of tremendous violence, the first of which is not of conflict as such but of torture rendered in nauseating detail. This is not unexpected, not without context or necessity, but to pretend that this film was not all but designed to put the viewer through the paces would be risible. Even those aforementioned bursts of action, astonishingly animated and set to truly incredible music—when Bondrewd receives his fanfare, by the gods above and below, it is something of terrible glory—are inked and painted in the shades of the horrific.
I could talk through the plot past the way that it sets up the pieces, go through the motions of telling you what happens in what order, but if you’ve made it this far, you know if you’re going to watch this or not, don’t you? You know what lines you’ve set for yourself, what they mean to you, what this series means to you. You probably know exactly how rough things get.
And yet, you probably also understand why I think that you, reader-who-knows, should watch this film if you haven’t already, if you’ve been waiting on it, unsure of how to proceed, if you can really go further, if it’s maybe better not to know, yet recognise somewhere deep down that you have to. The Abyss calls. It compels.
Dawn of the Deep Soul is by no means exclusively hard knocks. There is humour, at times questionable enough to give pause—there is one line verbatim from the source material which the mangaka himself had to clarify was not nearly so alarming in its implications as some thought—but just as often goofy and observational. There is also genuine warmth and kindness set against this backdrop of lingering dread, expressions of sincere care between these characters: I am struck by the poignancy of the friendship which forms between the eccentric Riko and the naïve Prushka, each remarkably brave and fragile in her own way, and that of sweet and tenacious Reg’s desire to give Nanachi both the support that they deserve and the justice that their situation demands in him.
But above all, there is triumph, not in the bombast of a revenger’s tragedy, but in the small gestures of the silence which follows. The catharsis of a hand being placed on a face and, ever so gently, pushed away with a smile and a half-muttered admonition: “Shut up already.”
If pressed, I could talk about how gorgeous this film is, in much the same way as the best moments of the preceding series were; this would, however, be largely redundant. I could spend a great deal of time talking about Kevin Penkin’s score, which, as I have alluded to, arguably surpasses that of the preceding series, mixing eerie microtonal piano flourishes and sizzling electronics with massed children’s choirs and sweeping orchestral figures, each implemented exceptionally in context. I could talk more about the voice acting as I did in the first review, honing in on Toshiyuki Morikawa’s Bondrewd and Inori Minase’s Prushka in fine detail. Conversely, I could maybe quibble with some of the storytelling decisions, with the pacing of the arc, with minor plot contrivances, in the same way that I could praise the small additions which the film makes to its source material. I could touch on the Marulk's Everyday shorts which accompanied the Japanese screenings, which at once exemplify the dodgiest and sweetest aspects of the series' lighter portions only to conclude on a quietly sombre note—a peculiar testament to the finesse with which the series can handle even its bit players. And I could certainly hone in closer on certain themes which are developed here which become particularly crucial later in the series: "What is it that you value most?" is an especially pertinent question. But save for that last point, itself better elaborated upon elsewhere, all of this would be immaterial to why this film matters to me, to why this series matters to me.
By the end of Dawn of the Deep Soul, if only for a moment, Nanachi is free.
That smile is everything.
If it speaks to you, you already understand. — Julian Malerman
Recommended Audience: Even more so than the worst of the series which preceded it, Dawn of the Deep Soul is emphatically not something that one should ever show to children, although thankfully here the exterior is less initially deceptive. The infamous torture scene is something of a line in the sand for what most people are willing to stomach, but that’s far from all of it. Approach with caution.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source.
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul © 2020 Kadokawa, Made in Abyss "Dawn of a Deep Soul" Partners.
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