It’s a Herculean effort to take a multi-volume manga like author Akihito Tsukushi’s “Made in Abyss,” adapt it into a popular anime television series, and then compress the show into a coherent feature (technically, two movies), but the folks at Sentai Filmworks have done just that. Part one, “Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn,” will screen around the U.S. in its original Japanese on March 20 and in an English dub on March 25, to be followed at a later date by “Wandering Twilight,” which opened in Japan in January.
While the first half of director Masayuki Kojima’s cinematic cut-down hits more ebbs than flows, its character-driven escapades and colorful fantasy landscape are captivating enough to engage the uninitiated. Give or take a few tweaks to the material, this catchy premise about an adventurous tween girl and her amnesiac robot-boy companion exploring a mysterious chasm in her city adapts decently well from the small screen to the big, and from its original longer format to this relatively short running time.
Orphaned 12-year-old Riko (voiced by Miyu Tomita in the original Japanese version) is a mischievous, sassy, and intelligent cave-raider with a flair for theatrics. She can usually be found getting into trouble and concocting schemes with her best friend Nat (Mutsumi Tamura), much to their superiors’ chagrin. Since their town is perched on the precipice of the titular abyss, filled with mythical relics and titanic creatures, sitting in class is miserable for kids with wild imaginations and a yearning for exploration.
Riko’s world is turned upside-down by an encounter with a peculiar boy (Mariya Ise), whose mechanical arms and laser cannon hands rescue her and Nat from sure-fire death while they are out digging up artifacts in the first ring of the abyss. Since this robot-boy hybrid doesn’t remember who he is or where he came from, our plucky protagonist nicknames him “Reg” after her former dog and offers him shelter. They devise a cover story for his unexpected appearance at the orphanage, primarily to prevent the adults from performing intrusive experiments on Reg.
At the same time, several curiosities also surface: an intricately carved white whistle, a journal detailing the layout of the abyss, and a handwritten note addressed to Riko. The note is signed by her long-lost mother, courageous cave-raider Lyza (Maaya Sakamoto), who has risen to legendary status in the 10 years she’s been gone. The note beckons Riko to come and find her in the doom-filled gorge. Unwilling to listen to anyone telling her not to go, Riko concocts a plan to travel with Reg into the deadly depths of the netherworld next door, risking her own life to save her estranged mother’s.
The character motivations are well defined. Riko is the complex, fearless, headstrong heroine upon which to hang a franchise. In this first of two installments, she struggles to extricate herself and Reg from their perilous predicaments. However, there are hints that her abilities will grow in the follow-up feature, “Made in Abyss: Wandering Twilight.” Reg proves to be more boy than robot, frequently reminding Riko of her humanity with sage advice about apologizing to friends and demonstrating empathy. Ozen (voiced by Sayaka Ôhara), Lyza’s powerful, much older mentor, is as layered as the pit she inhabits. Her cruel exterior hides a vulnerable interior — one the kids witness.
Aesthetically speaking, the setting of the abyss is crafted with other-worldly originality. Whether it be the lush and exotic greenery of the “Edge of the Abyss,” or the purple haze of the “Inverted Forest” where trees hang like stalactites, each ring is lavishly furnished with inventive details.
Even though the heroes are two youths, the material isn’t suitable for kids of a similar age. Fans of anime will already know this, but the casual viewer may assume otherwise. This one, in particular, occasionally goes to some pretty inappropriate places, dipping into highly suggestive territory younger viewers should be shielded from: The film makes light of rape in the scene where Reg learns that while he was unconscious, Riko experimented on him. Later, beefy cave-raider Hablog (Tetsu Inada) confronts the kids in a pit, grabs Reg and peeks down his pants after learning he’s a hybrid. Riko pukes on herself after being attacked by a hawk-like “corpse weeper,” and in order to clean her up, Reg takes off her top, giving the camera an excuse to pan up her half-nude body. Pump the brakes, kids. Needless to say, all of these things are cringe-worthy.
Though this first part is condensed from 8 of the 13 episodes, it could still use a little fat trimming. There are lulls that could’ve been avoided had the filmmakers cut a few of the exposition dumps (which happen almost every time Riko has a conversation with an adult) and made a tighter montage out of Ozen’s survival challenge posed to the kids. Composer Kevin Penkin weaves an immersive, sonically entrancing score, but some of the sound effects (like “zapping” whenever a character is dumbstruck) keep reminding us we’re watching a TV series.
Despite its flaws and foibles, when this uneven first half comes to its inevitable cliffhanger close, we’re still curious to see what creative craziness awaits us in part two.