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Review: Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn

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The Dark Souls of anime

I'm going to level with you all; Made in Abyss is one of my favorite anime series. After I first saw it in the summer of 2017, I knew that I was in love with it. Despite being thrown into Amazon's short-lived and poorly executed anime block, Anime Strike, it still was able to find an audience and get the attention that it deserved. To this day, whenever people ask me what anime titles to watch if they want to get into anime, I list three titles for them. I tell them to watch Trigun, Kill la Kill, and Made in Abyss.

Now, nearly two years since the show first aired, Made in Abyss has returned, but through a compilation film duology. It's a general practice for some anime to receive film adaptations during long hiatuses in between new seasons where the films are more or less just a retelling of the original anime with some new animation. In the case of Made in Abyss, its two film adaptations released in Japan earlier this year with the first film, Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn, covering the first half of the first season. After watching Journey's Dawn, I'm reminded about why Made in Abyss was such a phenomenal anime, but Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn shows off the best and worst of the series simultaneously. 

Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn
Director: Masayuki Kojima
Rating: NR

Release Date: March 20th (English Sub), March 25th (English Dub)

In the world of Made in Abyss, all life is centered on the titular abyss. Thousands of years ago, explorers discovered the abyss, a gigantic hole in the ground that descends for what seems like forever. No one has ever reached the bottom of the abyss and horrifying monsters live there unlike anything humans can comprehend. So civilization starts to spring up around the abyss, with explorers called Cave Raiders venturing into the abyss to find treasure and resources that could advance humanity's understanding of the abyss. One such Cave Raider is Riko, a young girl who comes across a robot boy named Reg, who both want to reach the bottom of the abyss for their own purposes. Riko wants to discover if her mother, who disappeared a decade ago, is at the bottom, while Reg wants to discover if he was created at the bottom of the abyss. And absolutely nothing horrifying and nightmare-inducing happens to them. At all. 

What makes Made in Abyss, and to an extent Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn, stand out is how much time is spent on building up the world of the abyss and life in the city of Orth. From the first five minutes, we're given a huge exposition dump about the abyss, but it never comes across like forced. Every bit of information we get about it is fascinating and raises questions that I want answered. One of the most fascinating elements to the abyss is the "Curse of the Abyss," which effects anyone who tries to ascending from the various layers of the abyss. Ascend one layer and you get dizzy. Ascend from the second layer and you throw up. Ascend from the sixth layer and you lose your humanity and become a mindless monster at best. Even going up a hill in the abyss can subject you to the curse. And that's not even getting into the different breeds of monsters, the different Cave Raiders ranks, and how you should run for your life from any Cave Raiders that call themselves White Whistles. 

It's very challenging not to play curator when talking about Made in Abyss. I could tell you why the show is so perfect, but then I'd ruin the discovery that you the viewer would get. So take this in mind. If you're at all interested in seeing Made in Abyss, do it. Instead, I want to talk specifically about what makes Journey's Dawn, the truncated film adaptation, stand out and if this supplants the original series, compliments it, or harms it. 

Going into Journey's Dawn, I was expecting a shortened retelling of the first six episodes of the 13 episode first season. It would make sense if the first season was going to be adapted into a duology, but that isn't the case here. Instead, the first eight episodes are adapted into a two-hour movie, which unfortunately means that about two episodes worth of content had to be cut. Nothing plot essential was lost in the transition from TV series to film, but a lot of the slower beats and character moments have fallen by the wayside. As such, the movie seems rushed, especially in the second half. 

While the beginning does an incredible job at telling and showing the audience the world of the abyss, it takes nearly an hour for Riko and Reg to set off on their adventure to the bottom. While this would be tolerable in an anime series, it comes across as padding in the movie. A handful of characters are introduced and we get to see some legitimate character drama happen between Riko and her friends, fully aware that she may never see them again, but it loses its impact because the audience will never see them again either. The large cast introduced at the beginning never reappear during the movie after Riko and Reg set off on their adventure, making the drama pointless. 

Once Riko and Reg are left to their own devices, their banter is fun and energetic. They're fantastic protagonists that compliment each other very well. Reg protects Riko with his superhuman strength, but he feels like he's letting her down whenever he can't protect her due to his limitations. As for Riko, she's peppy and positive, but she's driven to get to the bottom to find her mother at any cost and starts to crack when reality stands in her way. Despite her optimism and drive, she's still a child, and that naivete is her own downfall. 

It's odd that while the second part of the movie excels at these character moments, it's also the most rushed. The first major encounter of the show, Riko and Reg's time at the Seeker Camp, was bone chilling and incredibly uncomfortable with the implications it gave about Riko and the fate of her mother, but that horror seems glossed over. We're introduced to the White Whistle Ozen, who is deeply unsettling and poses a strong ideological challenge to our heroes, but the movie seems uninterested in her. She comes across more as a footnote than the first real threat the duo have to face. 

However, first-time viewers likely won't have an issue with this and will enjoy the movie nonetheless. If you were watching this movie for the first time, you likely wouldn't notice any of the issues. Most of these problems are geared specifically towards fans and criticism that they may have. It's like how not much happened in Fellowship of the Ring and original fans may be a bit disappointed that so much content was cut from the books, but newcomers will just see a great movie and not be aware of the original version. It doesn't make the new version bad, just different. But I can't help but say that as a fan of the original show, some scenes and moments felt off. 

What is undeniably off that will put off any audience, regardless of familiarity, was how the series has an unnatural focus on the kid's genitalia. There's no other way to put it; Made in Abyss is obsessed with cracking jokes about Reg's penis and showing Riko shirtless. I could overlook it if it was a one-off issue, like if it was brought up once and then never mentioned again, but the movie makes frequent mention of Reg's penis and how humanlike it is with multiple characters wanting to look at it. We never see it thankfully, but there's enough implication about it that it's really uncomfortable to hear about. Both Riko and Reg are never framed sexually, but it's an aspect of the movie that is unfortunately there, as well as in the show, but it seems ratcheted up in the film. Why those scenes weren't cut I'll never know. 

As for the original animation included in the movie, the bulk of it is at the beginning of the where we follow Riko's mom, her husband (?), and Ozen on an expedition into the abyss. It doesn't add much to the overall story besides introducing Riko's father, who I'm fairly certain wasn't in the original series, but it does add a nice little bit of flavor to the movie. We never really got to see much of Riko's mother in the show, so even spending just a little bit of time with her does a lot to flesh her out. 

I want to stress this as much as possible; while this may have been a hypercritical look at Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn, I would still recommend it to first-time viewers. It's not as well polished as the anime series, but that comes with the territory of cramming nearly three hours worth of content into a two hour running time. Even then, the first half of Made in Abyss was never my favorite part, so if we get a localization of the sequel film, you better believe I'll be all ears for that.

Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn is so close to being as good as the original series. It's completely unique and unlike any other anime out there, and even if it is a flawed adaptation, if it convinces even one person to go out and seek out the series, or watch the second movie if/when it comes to theaters, then Journey's Dawn did its job. Veterans may not like it as much, but a subpar Made in Abyss is still better than most other anime franchises. Fathom Events is screening this movie only in local theaters for two nights only, so if you're interested in Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn even one iota, you should check it out. 

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Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn reviewed by Jesse Lab

7

GOOD

Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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