Rolling Review – Children of the Whales (01)

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Episode Synopsis:

A floating island slowly drifts through the endless, shifting dunes of the sand sea. Nine in ten people here are born Marked; blessed with telekinetic abilities and cursed with short lives, typically living only into their 20s or 30s. On this island lives a young archivist named Chakuro, who records the stories of his home, affectionately dubbed the Mud Whale. Though Marked, his mastery of his powers leaves a lot to be desired. Still, his excellent memory and passion for writing make him a valuable member of the community.

One day, another drifting island appears in the distance, and Chakuro is sent with a scouting party to hunt for useful tools and materials. Separated from his companions, Chakuro comes across a strange, seemingly emotionless girl, who suddenly attempts to kill him before collapsing. The scouting party brings this strange girl back to the elders that rule Mud Whale, but a young criminal interrupts their inquiry and kidnaps both the girl and Chakuro. For the first time, Chakuro has the opportunity to see the world beyond the tiny island he’s called home for so long.

Review:

At first glance, Children of the Whales has a lot of elements that many other shows have covered in the past. Before the end of episode one, we’ve got a potentially post-apocalyptic setting, young people with vaguely-defined magic-like abilities, and an emotionless girl with a knack for violence. While these may seem overdone individually, this show weaves them together nicely and builds excellent context for what we see on screen. The first episode is a little heavy on exposition, but that’s not really a bad thing when you’re introducing a completely new world to the audience.

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The first thing you’ll probably notice about Children of the Whales is the artwork. The characters are painted in soft pastel colors with very thin lines, set against detailed and heavily-textured backgrounds. It’s not a combination I’ve seen much of in recent years, and it’s always nice to see a studio embracing a different visual style, especially when it’s as well-executed as it is here.

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I find the backgrounds to be particularly eye-catching – they’re reminiscent of the early work of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I think it’s the man-made earthwork and greenery that makes the connection, and it gives the environments a lived-in and welcoming feel, especially against the harsh backdrop of the unending desert the show takes place in.

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Setting the art aside, I greatly enjoyed how the first episode laid the foundations of its story and setting. Chakuro seems like a decent guy, and his love of history and recording the lives of his fellows makes his generous narration less stilted than it might feel otherwise. It gives us all the information we need without slowing down the story too much, and all but vanishes after the halfway point, leaving us to experience the world of the Mud Whale from his perspective. While we don’t have much to go on from the rest of the cast so far, everyone seems nicely characterized without relying too much on the cliched character archetypes we’ve come to expect from modern anime. Even Lykos, the emotionless girl Chakuro finds on the drifting island, seems to be something greater than just another dead-eyed non-character that the audience is supposed to somehow find endearing. The island’s elders talk about her as if she’s a symptom of something that has been affecting the world for a long time, making her condition part of a much larger mystery.

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Whatever plagues the world and leaves people like this is both intriguing and deeply concerning

I also appreciate that we get a taste of every major character’s motivations early on. Chakuro is driven by a desire for knowledge, which is great for allowing us as the audience to become immersed in an alien world. The criminal, Ouni, is driven by a desire to break away from the island that he sees as more of a prison than a haven, and it’s easy to see how someone would come to feel that way as they count down their limited years seeing nothing but the same bleak wasteland. Lykos is a cipher by necessity, but the elder’s reactions to her presence make it clear that we’ll learn more in time. Even though those elders know more than they’ve let on, their actions don’t seem malicious, and it’s nice to see people in a position of authority that are neither beneficent saints nor scheming authoritarians.

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While its characters may not jump out initially, Children of the Whales does offer a very interesting world from the outset. Citizens of the Mud Whale habitually try to keep their emotions in check, mainly to prevent themselves from being overcome by grief when 90% of their population dies well before reaching middle age. It also seems to be a way for the Marked to control their powers more efficiently, though this may just be my impression after seeing how the clumsy Chakuro was able to protect himself from Lykos. In any case, despite keeping a lid on their feelings, the characters are clearly passionate, and it serves as an intriguing cultural facet rather than an ironclad rule. There are plenty of other cool setting and environmental details to watch out for, though listing them here would take far too long.

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No idea yet if the symbols and colors mean anything, but I hope to find out

Overall, the show seems to be as much about the world as it is about the characters, and I think that’s what put it high on my list for this season. I love some good world-building, and Children of the Whales is certainly delivering that. It combines well-trod elements competently to create a solid foundation for us to experience its plot, and so far, I’m more than intrigued enough to keep going. Topping that off, there’s nothing in it that annoys or frustrates me (so far), which is a rarity. I can generally look past minor annoyances like dumb character affectations or occasional fan-service, but not having to deal with them at all is a welcome departure.

Summary:

Children of the Whales opens with a rock-solid episode that provides a good jumping-off point for the rest of its story. The world is melancholic, but the characters within it are doing their best to live their lives in spite of a difficult situation. There are hints of many mysteries to be unraveled, and the potential for both high adventure and introspection as our cast braves the sand sea in search of places beyond their home. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where they end up.

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Rolling Review – Made in Abyss (13)

Oh…

Oh God, folks.

If you caught the end of last episode then you’ve probably already gathered that this season isn’t ending without some serious heart-wrenching. And gut-wrenching. Without further ado, then – spoilers ahoy:

Episode Synopsis:

Nanachi explains to Reg via extended flashback how she and Mitty came to be where they are. The White Whistle Bondrewd recruited them from poverty on the surface for an experimental foray into The Abyss, and the “experimental” aspect ended up being using them (and a large number of other orphans) as guinea pigs to test devices that could theoretically manipulate The Curse of The Abyss. Turns out: they kinda can. Subjected to a process designed to force the effects of The Curse from her to Mitty, Nanachi was transformed into a furry but retained her faculties, while Mitty’s fate included the apparently common symptom of being turned into a mindless blob of flesh with the added bonus(?) of becoming functionally immortal. Having observed what remains of her friend being permanently injured only by a weapon similar to Reg’s incinerator, Nanachi convinces him to fulfill Mitty’s last intelligible request and free her spirit from its wretched prison.

And he does.

Riko regains consciousness soon afterwards, and recounts the dream she had while comatose wherein she could sense the presence of someone whose description fits Mitty. While recuperating, she asks Nanachi to join her and Reg on their descent, and Nanachi accepts. After a montage of preparing for their journey, the trio head once more unto the breach.

Review:

We were warned – at least, I was warned. At the very least, I had picked up whispers on pre-season comment threads that the source material for Made in Abyss went dark, dark places (I’d like to thank anyone who contributed to such threads for keeping them spoiler-free). When I became the primary voice in favor of considering the show for our rolling review, I communicated what caveats I had found, but the overall quality of its first episode was simply unmatched by any of its competitors, and so we started our descent.

I feel like I have a relatively high threshold for this sort of thing (notably, I own all of the books and the DVDs for both Alien 9 and Bokurano), so I feel a little guilty for taking the rest of the Con Artist crew and our readers down what has indeed become a pretty disturbing path. For my role in this, I apologize, but it still seems like a very well-put together show, and, hey – variety is the spice of life, right?

::weak laughter::

Anyway, let’s start with offhand questions and comments:

Did we not recover Blaze Reap after diminishing the orbed piercer?

I gather that Bondrewd’s name is Anglicized the way that it is because the kana for it are kind of ambiguous, reading something like bondorudo, but it sounds to me like the emphasis is on the first “do” rather than the “ru”, which would look more like Bondord. I suspect that cases like this are rare enough that trying to get emphasis readings of weird names from the creators for localization purposes is something of an afterthought (although I guess I don’t know if anyone involved in the actual anime production said the name in the author’s presence or if everybody’s just winging it). Plus it’s a total crap-shoot as to whether you end up with Japanese people who only think they know enough about English to decide for themselves.

Also on the subject of obtuse linguistic pedantry: after a few episodes of listening to Nanachi speak, I decided to look into the pronoun she uses for herself. As far as I can tell, it’s “oira”, which is a colloquial pluralization of “ore”. She’s always used it – it’s in the very first line of her extended flashback – and if any of our readers have a good idea of what connotations it’s supposed to have, please drop us an email or a comment or something.

Also: if you think we’re making more than one detailed drawing of this hell-hole, you’ve got another think coming.

The fact that Nanachi now joins the other leads in singing the ED makes me happy (the fact that
Tama-chan/Orby has been there the entire time, less so). Tangentially, the music – and the art, for that matter – in this show continue to be top-notch.

I find it odd that The Curse is deformed by Reg’s consciousness but has no effect on his body. I suppose the whole thing really is artificial (which isn’t terribly surprising, given its resilience to other forms of damage), which raises a handful of questions – including: Is Reg still susceptible to the degradation of sanity that Ozen mentions to young Lyza in episode seven? (not that I expect the story to last long enough for those effects to manifest) How – and why – was Reg’s body made to carry his spirit? And why does it have such a high level of, uh, verisimilitude?

Speaking of which…

I feel, uh, similarly
Off-screen: Riko and Reg in waist-deep water without clothes on

Are we really doing this dance? In fairness to Riko’s perplexity over Reg’s anatomy, sex ed is probably not a priority topic in the orphanage’s curriculum for children her age, but, come on, show – dial it back (here, and regarding her interaction with Nanachi’s personal space issue).

That having been said, a couple of weeks really made me forget the kind of positive energy that Riko brings to the show. There’s something about her irrepressible optimism that’s, you know, subtly disturbing, but refreshing. Nothing keeps her down –

You are too cute for this world

– and the rest of us got pretty low before she woke up.

There’s a little more contrivance in this episode than usual, but Nanachi and Mitty’s story still hits like a truck, and letting it breathe by giving the finale an hour-spot is a big help. Bondrewd is one of the best kinds of antagonist: one who truly believes that he’s acting in the interests of the greater good – and who almost is, save for his complete and total disregard for the lives of his test subjects. Between him and the horrific nature of The Curse below the Sea of Corpses, the two girls are trapped in a world of suffering. Even after Nanachi carries Mitty out of the facility (and I actually like the idea that none of the staff bother to lock any of the doors – she’s the only other person there, and what is she gonna do? Just walk out into the most hostile environment ever drawn on a map?), she is only further convinced that she is powerless to alter the unspeakable fate of the first person to ever approach her as a human being.

The goodbye scene is a tear-jerker and no mistake, but I think it might be the scene immediately prior that I was struck the hardest by. In between Reg’s conversations with Nanachi about why he should accept her request, we’ve seen him observing her. Nanachi has spent no small amount of time devoted entirely to Mitty, and, judging by her halfhearted initial response, his condition that she promise not to commit suicide afterwards was probably not completely unnecessary. “How cruel…” she says, after Reg demands, with tears in his eyes, that she go on living after there is finally nothing left of her only friend, her treasure.

How cruel.

I seriously thought that we were going to revisit this issue when she left the room after Riko recalled her coma visions, leaving Reg with the words “This time, make sure you really protect her.” Honestly, though, it’s the visions that tie this whole affair together. Riko comforting Mitty while she also hangs between life and death, and, more to the point, witnessing Mitty’s spirit transmigrate, really adds a level of power and/or beauty to the story that would otherwise have been very difficult to achieve.

Striking out from the hideout after the prep montage is also a fine place to end a season – a show like this really does need to go out on a hopeful note (but not… too hopeful – watch to the end), and setting up the fresh start of the ::crosses fingers:: next season instead of ending on some twisted cliffhanger (and this is a show that could pull off a pretty good literal cliffhanger) is a choice I want to see made more often.

Summary:

I’m pretty pleased with how this one turned out. The kids are sexualized a little too much (read: they are sexualized A Little, which, by virtue of being a greater quantity than Not Really At All, is too much), and the pacing got a little wonky in the Seeker Camp, but pretty much every other aspect of the show is rock solid and right up my alley (well, one of my alleys – people can like different kinds of things). It’s dark, but not totally grimdark; it’s a good mix of wondrous and heartfelt and ominous and brutal. Might make for good Halloween watching if you’re looking for an excuse to introduce someone to it. I’m definitely gonna be keeping an eye out for a physical release, and for another season – I wanna see if this elevator goes all the way to Scarytown.

Did we…
Did we go out on a visual comparison between the hut façade and Mitty’s disfigured face?
I didn’t see that one coming.

Previous

 

Rolling Review – Made in Abyss (12)

 

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Episode Summary:

Riko spends another episode unconscious and recovering, making this a dialog-heavy episode primarily between Nanachi and Reg.  Oddly, we also spend a while back on the surface, as Leader tends to one of his small charges as they fight off a fever.  The episode ends with a fast-paced action sequence in which Reg saves a Black Whistle from the orbed-piercer, and gives him a message to deliver back to Leader that they’re still alive and pushing onward.

Episode Review:

Sometimes I’m not really sure where this show is going, and the beginning of this episode is a prime example.  Back on the surface, Kiyui is fighting a deadly fever.

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This little guy

We spend the first few minutes watching Leader talk to a pharmacist from a trading fleet as they try to save him.  Leader goes quite in depth describing the “Birthday-Death Disease”, an increasingly prevalent illness that exclusively kills orphan children on their birthday.  As soon as Kiyui is brought to the trading fleet’s ship, he recovers almost immediately, leading to the unspoken conclusion that something about being near the Abyss is causing it.

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And then we cut away back to Reg, Riko, and Nanase without further explanation.  Now, I appreciate worldbuilding as much as (and to be fair, probably more than) the next guy, but it’s hard for me to understand why we had this sequence.  Unless Riko is going to mysteriously die on her birthday while deep in the Abyss (as opposed to dying from the multitude of horrors down there or from the random “maybe you’ll suddenly stop” effects of the Curse-Repelling Vessel), I can’t see what we gain from this other than a needless confirmation that humanity isn’t really welcome near the Abyss, and that life is especially unfair for people in this show.  Oh well, at least there was a shot of a really cool ship.

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Nice boat

Seriously, that thing wouldn’t look out of place in a Miyazaki film.  Moving along, we’re treated to an explanation by Professor Nanachi as to how the Curse functions on a mechanical level.

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…Why do you have so many pre-prepared, handmade bulletin board thingies?  Those can’t be easy to make.

Simple and effective, Professor!  The Curse is like an ever-increasing set of pieces of cloth that let you through easy but hurt when you push through them on the way up.  It’s apparently caused by the same force field that allows light to make it all the way from the surface to down here, and as with so many things in the Abyss, WHY WOULD YOU MAKE THAT?!?  Why.

We’re also treated to a few light moments when Nanachi makes her patent-pending Netherworld Stew.

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Does everyone have a trademark stew in this show?  Reg, you gotta get started on yours!

Described as both looking like and having the texture of mud, it’s nutritious, filling, and almost completely unpalatable to poor Reg, who shoots a look at Nanachi that’s equal parts accusation and pity.

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It’s one of those moments when you chuckle, but it’s tempered by the crushing knowledge that once Riko awakens, she and Reg will leave this oasis of safety and continue on to places of almost impossible danger.  So, good job making these scenes of levity feel precious, show.

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Thanks, Nanachi, you really know how to – did you say “predict the future”?  Oh come on!

The show makes sure to maintain a sense of “everything is wrong just below the surface” with a shot of (what I assume is) Riko’s unconscious mind that is… quite unsettling.

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Yeesh, I don’t even know what I’m looking at and I’m unhappy.  They’re a talented bunch, the guys making this show.

The relatively easy-going episode ends with a shocking request from Nanachi to Reg, and a tiny flashback of Nanachi’s past that serves as a warning of what might lie ahead, clearing the way for a final episode that’s all downhill, both literally and figuratively.


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Rolling Review – Made in Abyss (11)

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EPISODE SYNOPSIS:

Nanachi takes Reg and Riko back to her hut so she can tend to Riko’s arm and drain the poison out of her system. Reg goes hunting for items and later, begins to hear voices in his head that sound awfully familiar. The mystery of the Abyss continues to deepen as Nanachi reveals herself as a Hollow.

Review:

After the soul breaking Episode 10, Episode 11 is surprisingly tame. Nanachi sends Reg on a mission to collect ingredients to help cure Riko’s poison. He’s also collecting Nanachi’s dinner, but hey, he was out anyway so why not?!

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Well duh, delivery boy!  Of course you’d pick up dinner on the way home!

If I had to guess, I am going to state that I think the writers of Made in Abyss are poising themselves to roll out tragedies in a strategic manner. I think they realize if all you do is pump out tragedy, the audience eventually becomes immune to it. Giving people a break and then handing out another set of pain is more effective for drawing out emotion.

Nanachi’s introduction as an “acidly sarcastic” individual lets us all take a breather from the sickening sequences we experienced last episode. Watching her playfully torture Reg into doing what she wants is very entertaining and I appreciated the show’s choice in her character design. Given her adorable bunny body it would have been easy for the creators to make her cutesy and poised to be the “moe soft toy sell” of the show. Instead she’s like an old lady who’s seen too much sh&t in her life and knows a thing or two.

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Whatcha starin’ at kid?!

This episode is more on the edge of what Scott’s been getting, where not a lot happens but the show still crams meaning into it’s 20 minute run time. We learn more about the Abyss and its creature. We also gain some insight into the eco system of the Fourth Layer. I desperately want a water bear, by the way. Just look at these little cuties!

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They have widdle mustaches!!!

I really admire this show’s attention to detail and desire to showcase the Abyss as a living, breathing, biome of sorts. It’d be very simple to design the show to just be a series of downward trials where super deadly monsters live, akin to a “Pit of Trials” in an RPG. Instead the show wants you to know that there’s beauty, peace, AND danger lurking here. Some parts of the Abyss even look like a paradise. I mean seriously…who doesn’t want giant hot tubs practically everywhere you go!

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Hot Tub Time Machine!

If I had to complain about one thing, it would be the show’s random dives into perversity. These are short moments but they are just…out of place and bizarre. I admire that the show candidly does what it needs to do (in the beginning of Ep. 11 Reg just gives Riko mouth to mouth, without that stupid anime-nonsense of “Oh my God, it’s a kiss!!” *blushies*), but this gets undone when Reg is blushing like a summer rose everytime Riko needs to get naked or some manner of bodily function is mentioned. It’s weirdly atonal.

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Really…show…really?!

Now, it’s back to my first comment; Rolling out tragedies slowly and giving you a break in-between. In the midst of the peace of this episode, we get the next painful hook set up. Reg overhears a noise and Nanachi reveals that it’s her roommate Mitty. When Mitty is revealed there’s an instant recoil. The show has given me Episode 10 with no holds barred, so my mind is aflutter with horrible thoughts as to how Mitty came about. Nanachi makes to no bones about explaining that Mitty and herself are Hollows aka victims of the Abyss’s curse. She also says some things that are very curious. Needless to say, I am eagerly awaiting this weekend to learn more.

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No sarcasm here.  This genuinely scarred me a little…
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Curiouser… and Curiouser..

SUMMARY:

Made in Abyss takes a little break to get poor Riko patched up and drop us some more mysteries. The show really seems to know how to layer in pain and it’s likely that the last two episodes of this show are gonna cause more heartbreak. Regardless of that, the show’s incredible art direction, attention to detail and well realized world keep me eager for more.


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