Ambient storytelling is brought up constantly when one talks about the affect of mythos and world-building in fiction. For a narrative to be immersive, the storied vision requires layering and textured detailing of the seemingly irrelevant, so the illusion of malleable reality can be made more effective.
The geographical and cultural personality of Made in Abyss’ world is paramount in establishing an organic sense of place for the audience to immerse themselves in. From the onset, the TV series was able to demonstrate an acute sense of in-frame visual density and atmospheric mood setting. Made in Abyss’ creators are very particular about placing emphasis on the object, architectural and organism design of the fictional landscape, as well as the utilisation of striking background art with the intent of ambient world-building. But how do all these so-called ‘background’ elements of the whole viewing experience facilitate a function as crucial as cinematic immersion?
Layer One: Of Awe & Anticipation
It may be redundant at this point, to say that the framing of the picture informs the audience’s interpretation of the fictional world. In the case of Made in Abyss, the rigid and vertical hierarchy of the geographical and societal foundations that the main character Riko lives in, is made demonstratively apparent by the immediate abundance of vertically dominant landscapes defined by cliffs and waterfalls, the virtual camera’s preference for aerial or low-angle shots, and later into the first episode, the architectural and social disposition of Riko’s hometown. In fact, the show practically cold opens with her excavating for relics, accompanied by richly illustrated landscapes of the Abyss’ first layer (with constant dialogue alluding to the existence of even deeper and more treacherous layers), densely rendered with sharp directional lighting. This combination of background rendering conveys a concrete and interactive cinematic space, rich with energy and potential for further exploration.
The pull of curiosity and wonder could not be more well-established than with the constant slow camera zooms and pans that places the Abyss; a giant gaping hole in the ground, front and centre.
Spatial identity is the cornerstone of what makes Made in Abyss’ world so outlandish and bizarre, yet organic and realistic at the same time. It is only natural for human settlements to be inherently influenced by their natural surroundings. Verticality defines the landscape, and the landscape’s nuanced dangers and practical hurdles define the human settlement.
Riko’s world is one that is exceedingly different than our own, and the show goes out of its way to make it apparent to us. The rigid hierarchy of the society she lives in is constantly reinforced by the instant identification afforded to cave raiders like herself and her disappeared mother. Riko is a red whistle, the lowest level for a raider, which only grants her access to the outermost layer of the Abyss. A white whistle is the top rank, reserved only for the most experienced and daring raiders. This difference in social status (i.e. white whistles are considered revered heroes in the community) is readily displayed by the colour-coded whistles that they all wear. Riko’s dream of becoming a white whistle and to explore the deepest levels of the Abyss, clearly alludes to the structural verticality of how status and societal values work: this goal is hardly unique in a society that has monumental respect for raiders, and how far down you can make into the Abyss, and climb your way back up.
Made in Abyss is also not shy about making certain the less rosy aspects of its world. As mentioned before, the background and architectural design is paramount in establishing a sense of spatial identity. As informed by the dominance of the vertical structure of both the land that surrounds the Abyss, as well as the general disposition of the community, details like Riko’s orphanage and her bedroom are great examples of excellent ambient world-building.
Instead of the standard horizontal rows of desks and chairs, the vertically oriented structure of the orphanage’s classroom is such that the children’s desks had to be nailed to the wall, organised in columns instead. With the internal consistency of how Made in Abyss’ world is defined by treacherous and engulfing landscapes, this background design decision does not stray from the narrative.
It is also here where we bear witness to the normalised cruelty of this world.
Made in Abyss is depicting a world that is not like ours, and this inherent distancing is hammered in by the difference of values and what ‘discipline’ means in both worlds. Riko’s bedroom had the design that resembles a retired torture chamber, complete with spiked chains and an electric chair. Punishment for rule breaking in her world means being tied up and suspended in midair, completely naked.
Layer Two: Where the Abominations Are
‘True secrets do not lie concealed in the darkness of night or in clever traps, but rather are hidden deep within people. By spending many moons in such an isolated place, their purity is refined, and they gradually transform into strange enigmas…’ (Episode 6 voice-over)
The series background director, Osamu Masuyama, champions background and ambient design as the most invaluable asset in crafting a rich cinematic experience. The value of informed and deliberate design for the backgrounds of Made in Abyss can only be truly savoured, once the show takes its main characters deeper into the Abyss.
With his expertise in the creation of background concepts rich with diverse species of flora, Masuyama’s vision for the otherworldly lower levels of the Abyss is wholeheartedly complementary of the show’s constant tone of unsettling danger and mystery. The atmosphere generated by the second layer, for instance, is a reality-bending trip. Trees growing upside down, and forests thickly covered with purple haze, offers a vivid contrast to the upper layers’ dominance of natural sunlight and bright greenery, even to the extent of showcasing the differing ecosystems and dependent fauna that live in these habitats.
Speaking of fauna…what I consider to be the other defining achievement of Made in Abyss in world-building, can be said to be an extension of the show’s ‘background’ design: the terrifying characterisation of the creatures.
The backgrounds of a show do not just encompass the painted static picture above which everything happens. Creature design, object design and the aforementioned architectural design are all creative sectors of the umbrella term.
Death is a triviality in Made in Abyss’ world. Living with such hostile predators as their neighbours, the human settlers in the land are depicted as having normalised experiences with the loss of human lives. Of course, this aspect of world-building is competently put into perspective by the gruesome characterisation by the show’s main creature designer and animator, Kou Yoshinari. With everything from giant serpents to oversized spiders, the unkind natural world of Made in Abyss is a constant juxtaposition of hyper-reality and organic dread, as these imagined creatures have such developed…preying strategies and unique movements, that they feel all too real to be dismissed as mere fantasy, even when they are indeed, just imagined abominations.
Not unlike the stuff of nightmares, one such creature that the main characters encounter in the first layer of the Abyss is the corpse-weeper. With a tortured eagle-like angular design, the corpse-weeper mimics the cries for help of its victim, to draw out more stragglers for their flock to prey on.
Such is the extent of terror in Made in Abyss’ more sadistic aspects of world-building.
Made in Abyss is an exercise of abundant creativity and anticipation. Its level of ingenuity and layered ambient background design allows the foregrounded action and story to be well-optimised for an immersive viewing experience.