“A journey from which you can never return. Treasures that you can never again acquire. Your very life, which once lost will never be restored. Nearly all things in this world will never go back to the way they once were. Understanding that, people still continue, even today, to get up and take another step forward. Spurred on by the thought of viewing a landscape they’ve never seen before, they keep on walking. A longing for the unknown, you see, is something not a single soul is capable of stopping.”
Made in Abyss’s titular chasm means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To characters like Lyza and Riko, it’s a call to adventure, a journey into the unknown, daring them to penetrate its depths. To the people of Orth, it’s a source of riches and culture, legends and lore, the literal and metaphorical center of their way of life. To the friends and family of the cave divers, it represents death itself, as they bid a tearful farewell to a loved one they may never see again. The further the show went on, the meaning that kept crawling back into my mind was that of change – permanent, irreversible change. The deepest human drive to seek change, to understand it, to reach for new horizons in search of anything we can find. The horrific price we pay for that drive, the impossibility of return from those horizons, and the need to push toward them all the same.
Once something has changed, it is very difficult – perhaps impossible – to return it to the way it used to be. Once something is broken, it will never be quite the same again, no matter how you put it back together. Even if you can get it extremely close to its original form, there will always be something ever so slightly different. You can see this everywhere in life.
You can see it in relationships: if you try to advance or back off of a relationship, you can never fully return it back to what it was. You will both remember that at least one of you wants (or wanted) something different from the other, and that will underscore every interaction from that moment forward, for worse or for better.
You can see it in politics: once a group of people has been granted a right or a freedom, it becomes political suicide to take it away from them (unless you can trick them into thinking you aren’t).
You can see it in your body: if you injure yourself, the wound will leave behind a scar after it’s healed. A bone, once broken, will from then on always be sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure.
You can even see it in the intensely mathematical realm of physics and chemistry, in perhaps its purest form – the second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system can only increase (never decrease), which means that the transfer of energy only naturally moves one way – it can’t move back without the interference of forces outside the system. While mathematically possible, a zero-entropy, completely-reversible energy transfer is more of a theoretical ideal than something truly achievable in reality.
The most universal example is, of course, the permanence of death.
Death is a shadow which looms heavily over every aspect of Abyss’s world. From the obvious lethality of the creatures that inhabit the Abyss, to the symbolism of its bottomless void, the Abyss itself personifies death. No matter where you are in the Abyss, you are never far from its gaping maw, an unquestionably deadly fall with no visible end. An acceptance of mortality is baked into the very fabric of the society surrounding the Abyss. You can feel it behind every action and word of the townspeople – the celebration of a cave raider’s last dive, the prevalence of Orth’s orphanage. Many raiders never return, living on only through the things they send back, whether by word of mouth or by hot air balloon. Made in Abyss is extremely good at good-byes, and this is no accident. The weight, the permanence of that farewell – the sense that the characters watching our heroes descend into the Abyss may as well be watching them die – is essential to what the show is trying to achieve.
The further you descend into the Abyss, the greater the toll you must pay to return, until you reach a point where the toll exceeds the limits of your humanity or your life, rendering your descent all but impossible to reverse. And these same rules apply even to light – the Abyss lets it in, but doesn’t let it out – just as with real-life change, you can’t truly see what awaits until you’ve taken your first steps into the unknown. And the further you go, the more you try to see, the harder it is to return. Not only that, but the harder it is to continue. Each layer of the Abyss has its own dangers, and beyond a certain point, the only way to survive is either to work together to protect each other, or in the case of the orbed piercer, be able sense the Abyss well enough to literally predict the future.
So why even set foot in the Abyss, then? Why take the risk? Because we’re drawn to it. The call to adventure sits at the root of our very nature. It is the need to understand, the need to experience, the need to conquer the unknown, that drives humanity as a species, and it is only by braving the irreversibility of change that we can achieve this. This is one of the biggest challenges I’m facing myself right now – I’m terrified of committing to an irreversible break in the comfort of the life I have now, but while it’s comfortable, maintaining this status quo for as long as I have has left me utterly restless. I see more and more clearly as time passes that as long as I stay where I am, the things I truly want in life will remain out of reach; the nagging dissatisfaction eats at me more every day, and there’s only so long I can fight that call before either answering it or going mad. So in time, I know I’ll have to answer it – it’s just a matter of working up the courage to do so. The Abyss is inescapable, not just in how it prevents your return, but in how it’s impossible to avoid forever.
This is the real reason the good-byes in this show carry such weight. It’s not just because these people know they may never see each other again. It’s because each departure has so much meaning, so much inevitability, to the ones who are carrying on. It’s because in giving up what they have now, they venture into uncertainty toward what we can only hope will enrich their lives, but we can never know that for sure. It’s because we know that this is something they have to do. The tears are tears of loss, but also tears of hope, and with each good-bye our heroes take another step toward fulfilling that drive that we all share as humans, another step toward finding where we belong in the Abyss.
Nanachi’s and Mitty’s arc in particular hit me like a ton of bricks. The change in their lives was horrible and permanent and beyond their control, and left them in a desperate situation. And the change they had to enact to overcome that situation was equally horrible and equally permanent. But this change was enacted by their own power. This was an act of their own agency – a claim to some shred the very humanity that had been so brutally taken from them. It was a chance to leave some part of their curse behind them – with the help of Reg and Riko, to plunge further into the Abyss on their own terms (in one way or another). And it’s this great reclamation of self, along with its great cost, that makes this farewell so devastatingly powerful.
Despite all its horrors, despite all its cruelty, despite being a bottomless deathtrap with no hope of escape, those who venture into its depths want only to continue further. And while some amount of that results from the internal drive of humanity to conquer the unknown, the Abyss has a draw all its own. Even just watching the show, it’s extremely easy to get taken in by the Abyss’s awe-inspiring layers, brought to life through its lush background art. Familiar enough to be inviting, yet alien enough to inspire wonder, the art of the Abyss perfectly encapsulates its appeal and its danger. As our heroes descend ever further, we are eager to venture along with them, to uncover what terrifying beauty it has in store. It’s one thing to hear the stories about what awaits in the depths, but quite another to experience it firsthand.
In a way, it may be that our perception of that beauty is rooted in the very adventurous spirit that drives us to seek it – that we see the Abyss as beautiful because it feeds that enticing need to conquer it. Perhaps we stare in awe at the Goblets of Giants because they stand tall before us, begging to be explored. And the further we descend, the further that perception becomes twisted – where once the grassy slopes and open air of the first layer beckoned forth with their familiar, welcoming expanse, now the fourth layer’s treacherous dropoffs and isolating, steaming pools dare anyone to even try to conquer them. The deeper we go, the less we long for what’s behind us, and the more we look for what’s ahead. It’s a cruel, hellish beauty, but it’s one that we cannot ignore.
As we stubbornly venture past the point of no return, we irretrievably let go of any that stay behind us. And as we discover more of the unknown, more of the horror, more of the beauty of the Abyss, the most we can do for them is send back a message – a fascinating scrap of that discovery for those who may or may not follow.