Rolling Review – Children of the Whales (05)

ChildrenOfTheWhales_05_00

Episode Synopsis:

Lykos, Chakuro and Masoo have reached Falaina, the strange being at the heart of the Mud Whale. The Council of Elders order its desctruction, but the trio intervenes, and the hunters tasked with killing Falaina in order to sink the vessel lose heart. The Council retreats, reinstating Suou as chieftain and leaving it to the youth of the Mud Whale to decide how they will face the crisis.

Injured in the confrontation, Lykos reveals more about her homeland’s fixation on Falaina, and the existence of other nations besides. Though powerful, the Empire she hails from isn’t invincible, and their rivals may see fit to protect the residents of the Mud Whale… assuming they can survive the oncoming genocide.

Review:

Like my compatriots, I’ve been kind of up and down on Children of the Whales since episode three. I like its melancholy and at times claustrophobic atmosphere, and it presents a uniquely alien world that I’m still excited to learn about. However, the abrupt arrival of the evil Empire (because aren’t they all?) threw a huge wrench into any hopes for a moderately-paced world-building exercise. The Council of Elders’ sudden decision to literally go down with the ship also kicked that dream down the road.

Because of this wonky pacing, I’m also conflicted about episode five. We learn a bit more about the world outside the Mud Whale, but it’s entirely exposition from Lykos, whose shift from heartless killing machine to teary-eyed defender of the downtrodden seems extremely abrupt. With only four days left before the Empire returns to go full Exterminatus on the inhabitants, it feels like the pendulum is again swinging towards another brutal yet unfulfilling massacre. The show has simply loaded so much oncoming disaster into 3/5ths of its episodes that we have no time to focus on anything else. Had this happened after we’d gotten to know our protagonists and seen how they lived for awhile, it would have made Lykos’ returning emotions and Chakuro’s pleas for a chance to save his friends more moving. As it is, I’m just not feeling the impact.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_05_01
It’s been less than a week, dude

This doesn’t mean that the episode doesn’t have anything worthwhile in it. We learn that Falaina is one of nine Nous (Nouses? Nousi?) that control a sand ship, and it is the only one that doesn’t feed on emotions. How it continues to survive and keep the Mud Whale afloat is anyone’s guess, but it at least clears up the reason why the Empire wants to purge it; allowing emotions to run free would endanger the fierce military machine they’ve built up. Lykos’ statement that there are more nations out there that are arrayed against the Empire makes it seem like they consider this an easy win to solidify their power and remove a distraction or potential threat. It may be a clunky way of expanding the world, but at least we’re getting a taste of the larger picture.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_05_02

I’m also enjoying the shift in the power dynamic of the Mud Whale as the Council of Elders pulls back and the young people step up to the plate. Suou is trying to become the leader his people need in spite of his passive nature, and Ouni seems to have the makings of a real warrior. It’s a shame that the bout between him and the eyepatch-wearing Captain revealed nothing except that the Captain is a boring fatalist, but if he gets offed in the upcoming battle, maybe that will give Ouni time to temper his angst with some genuine leadership skills. Meanwhile, off in the wings, Masoo seems to be running up against his Marked lifespan just when his friends need him the most. He’s probably the character I’m most interested to watch at this point, and I hope he gets some time in the limelight, regardless of his final fate.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_05_03
Like this guy here

Summary:

Despite being another oddly-paced episode in an already oddly-paced show, episode 5 does provide some greater context for the struggles we’ve seen so far and the trials on the horizon. The denizens of the Mud Whale now have both short- and long-term goals; survive the oncoming assault from the Empire, and find allies somewhere within the other nations to secure their future. Hopefully the show can give us more reasons to care about the fate of our heroes before the onslaught begins.


Previous                                         Next

 

Rolling Review – Children of the Whales (01)

ChildrenOfTheWhales_00.png

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.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_01.png

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.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_04.png

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.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_05.png

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.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_06.png
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.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_08.png

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.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_02.png
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.

ChildrenOfTheWhales_07.png


Next

Rolling Review – Made In Abyss (10)

MadeInAbyss_10_01.png

EPISODE SYNOPSIS:

Our young adventurers descend into the fourth layer of the Abyss; the Goblet of Giants. This bizarre landscape hides natural wonders and lethal dangers, including a fierce predator that stalks Riko and Reg through misty pools. Though the children narrowly escape the beast, Riko is wounded and exposed to the creature’s poison. To make matters worse, the pair made their escape by ascending towards the upper levels, and Riko suffers nightmarish symptoms. Reg must now race to save his friend, even if it means causing her more pain in the process.

REVIEW:

I’m going to tell you folks something up front; this was one of the toughest episodes I’ve ever watched across many, many shows. If you thought that the secret of Riko’s birth and the brutality of Ozen were Made In Abyss taking off the kid gloves, you haven’t seen anything yet. Episode 10 was agony to watch, and obliterates any concept that our heroes are safe or prepared for their journey.

MadeInAbyss_10_00.png

Before that, however, the episode takes us into another spectacular environment with the Goblet of Giants. We’ve come to expect awesome background art from this show, and we have yet to be disappointed. The fourth layer is in many ways the most alien we’ve seen so far, with enormous plants and vines forming steaming pools high above an unseen surface. It feels right that the Abyss gets less and less familiar as we follow it further down and see places humans were never meant to reach.

One of the reasons for that is, of course, the wildlife. Riko and Reg eventually encounter a large, porcupine-like beast with fearsome poisoned spines and deadly intelligence. While the creatures in the upper levels were clearly dangerous, this one demonstrates a level of cunning and anticipation that makes it far more threatening.

MadeInAbyss_10_02.png

MadeInAbyss_10_03.png

When Riko is struck by the monster’s spine, the episode takes a sharp turn into horror. Reg’s only way to save her is to escape upwards, subjecting Riko to the full curse of the fourth layer. For anyone who forgot what that means…

MadeInAbyss_02_03

MadeInAbyss_10_04.png

It’s much harder to watch in action, believe me. We aren’t spared any detail of Riko’s suffering, and even the hope that the bleeding will purge the poison is proven false. Reg’s desperate efforts to save her are harrowing, and I can’t remember the last time my hand snapped involuntarily to my mouth in shock witnessing something like this. Juxtaposing the characters’ youth and cartoonish designs with the suffering on display makes it even harder to watch. Appropriately sickening sound work rounds out the experience.

MadeInAbyss_10_05
Reg’s reactions to Riko’s suffering are nearly as hard to watch

I often find displays of pain and suffering anime to be ineffective. Wounds and injuries in many shows tend to lack impact and fail to communicate how dangerous they are. This is not the case here. This is not mere shock value; this is the fulfillment of a terrible promise. Made In Abyss is driving home a point it’s been making since it started; this is not a place for anyone, let alone children, to be.

SUMMARY:

With this gut-punch of an episode, I have no idea what’s in store for our characters. Riko is inches from death and Reg is frantically attempting to save her. The introduction of a character that’s been hinted at up until now seems to have saved our heroes, but there is no way of knowing where there journey will take them from here.

MadeInAbyss_10_06.png

If there is one issue I have with episode 10, it’s that there’s an awful lot of exposition about the predator that wounds Riko. By now, we’re used to her spouting off info about the places and creatures of the depths, so it’s not out of character for her or the show. I feel, however, that the episode may have been even more impactful if more of it had occurred without speaking. In spite of that small disagreement on storytelling, the episode is gripping, suspenseful and punishing to watch, and I’m terrified and excited to see what happens next.


Previous                                         Next

Rolling Review – Made In Abyss (06)

MadeInAbyss_06_00.png

Episode Synopsis:

Riko and Reg have reached the Seeker Camp; a haven for cave raiders nestled at the bottom of the Abyss’s second layer. Here they meet Ozen, a White Whistle and former companion of Riko’s mother, as well as her apprentice, Marulk. Ozen allows them to stay the night, but it appears that not everything is well in the isolated refuge. In the morning, their host offers to explain the situation, but also delivers grim tidings of Lyza’s fate.

Review:

After the sobering jaunt through the Forest of Temptation, episode 6 gives Riko and Reg some time to get their bearings and enjoy the relative safety of the Seeker Camp. The structure looks like something straight out of a classic JRPG, built into a massive upside-down tree and sporting an enormous telescope with which to observe the approaches from the rest of the Abyss. Though more claustrophobic than the vistas we’ve been treated to so far, it’s still another beautiful environment in a show that’s already sported a lot of them.

MadeInAbyss_06_01
Most of these locales wouldn’t look out of place in good old FFIX

Unfortunately for our young adventurers, the warden of the camp is much less inviting. Ozen the Immovable is as impressive as she is unsettling. Her character design is fantastically striking, and the show goes to great lengths to make it clear just how strong she is without contriving reasons for her to show it off.

MadeInAbyss_06_02
Nice people don’t get narration like that… just sayin’

If Ozen is impressed that Riko and Reg have made it so far into the Abyss, she hides it well. Her open contempt for these children is strong, but considering that she went just as deep as Lyza, she’s not speaking from a position of arrogance, but one of hard-earned experience. She and Lyza were the ones who carried the infant Riko out of the Abyss all those years ago, and Ozen makes it clear that she thought more than once about abandoning the child. However, there’s a certain way in which she talks about Lyza that shows how much she cared for her, which hints at a much more nuanced character that I hope we continue to learn more about.

MadeInAbyss_06_03
There’s also more going on with Marulk, but I think you should learn about that for yourselves

In the camp, we also get to spend time learning more about the details of cave raiding with Ozen’s apprentice, Marulk. Though she’s only about Riko’s age, she too made it far into the Abyss, and apparently impressed Ozen enough for her to take the girl in (another hint that Ozen may have hidden layers we haven’t seen yet). Through Marulk, we hear more about some of the mysterious relics found in the middle layers, and the role the Seeker Camp plays in exploration and salvaging. It’s more solid worldbuilding through the eyes of children, which is something the show continues to do very well.

Of course, the other thing Made In Abyss does well is feed a sense of subtle yet ever-present dread by reminding us that the Abyss is as terrifying as it is magnificent. When Riko wakes up in the middle of the night, she encounters a nightmarish creature that looks like a rack of ribs grew terrible arms. Though hardly the goriest thing I’ve seen in anime, I found it deeply unsettling. I’m sure that’s partly because it reminded me of the moment Dark Souls made it absolutely clear that it was not messing around.

MadeInAbyss_06_04.png

After Riko’s late-night scare, Ozen offers to explain what she’s just seen. The implication is that Riko will finally be confronted by some of the true horrors of the Abyss and consider turning back. I’m a little dubious as to how that’s going to play out, since she’s already stumbled upon people being devoured and their voices turned into lures for fresh victims (crap on toast, Made In Abyss, that was gruesome), without showing much terror. Still, Ozen also tells Riko more about how she recovered her mother’s whistle, which may put her quest into question in a more personal way.

Summary:

The show continues to be rock-solid in terms of story, world- and character-building, and presentation. We get to interact with some new and compelling characters who I’m definitely interested in learning more about. Frankly, the only complaint I have is that while Ozen’s appearance, dialogue and movements all play into making her seem aloof and dangerous, her voice actress leans a little too hard on the creepy voice. When every line sounds like it’s being delivered by someone trying to spook you at a haunted house, it loses some of the impact when she says something that’s supposed to be truly concerning.

Still, that’s a minor complaint at worst, and I’m nervously excited to follow Riko and Reg as they learn more of Lyza’s fate and the nature of the Abyss itself.


Previous                                         Next

Rolling Review – Made in Abyss (02)

MadeInAbyss_02_00.png

Episode Synopsis:

Riko and her friends manage to get Reg accepted into their orphanage, and for a time, life continues as normal. After three months, a cave-diving expedition returns to Orth with much fanfare, bearing a white whistle; the mark of the bravest and most accomplished adventurers. The whistle belonged to Riko’s mother, Lyza, and its sudden return causes mixed feelings in the young girl. It also appears that the whistle was not the only thing Lyza brought back from the Abyss…

Review:

To shamelessly piggyback off of Brendan; boy howdy, folks! Made in Abyss is flat-out, full-stop gorgeous. Its visual design is immaculate, and its worldbuilding is phenomenal so far. This episode is largely dedicated to stepping back from adventuring and letting the audience take in the everyday life of Riko, Reg and their friends in Orth, as well as explaining many of the concepts that were introduced in episode 1. It’s heavily loaded with exposition, but it’s all handled so well that I don’t mind the show being front-loaded like this.

Part of what helps is that the majority of the cast are children, so we learn much of how the Abyss works from their perspective. Whether it’s the adorable pictures detailing the increasingly worrisome effects of the Abyss…

Or a children’s pantomime about the ranks of cave-divers…

MadeInAbyss_02_05.png

We learn essentially everything we need to know about how Orth’s adventuring hierarchy works and why the Abyss is so tantalizing and dangerous. The city treats it not as a terrifying chasm of death (though they certainly don’t ignore its dangers), but as a place of opportunity. Those who plumb its depths are lionized – the return of Lyza’s whistle is a cause for celebration, rather than mourning.

MadeInAbyss_02_06.png

This brings out a lot of uncertainty in Riko, who has long idolized her mother, but never knew her. Leader’s (real name still unknown) description of her is both admiring and admonishing, painting the picture of a fascinating person. It’s nice to see a deceased family member described with depth and complexity, rather than just a trigger to move the plot forward.

MadeInAbyss_02_07

MadeInAbyss_02_08

That’s not to say Lyza doesn’t accomplish that as well in absentia. Her findings look like they’re going to be driving much of the story in the near future, so I appreciate that the show took the time to get us settled in before tossing us in the deep end. Heck, a full three months passed since Reg was admitted to the orphanage, so it’s clear that Made in Abyss is willing to keep things paced out. It makes the world feel more believable without depriving us of its delicious story-meats.

If there is one thing that bugs me a little about the show, it’s some of the humor derived from examining Reg. We’ve already established that Riko’s tests on his body were pretty extreme, but from what she says in the first part of this episode, they also got… invasive. You can probably chalk it up to compulsive childish curiosity and cultural distance, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. So far, however, it’s nothing that’s going to drag down an otherwise brilliant show.

Summary:

There is so much more I’d love to say about this show, but I feel it really needs to speak for itself. It’s a visual delight to watch, its characters are fun, clever and engaging, and its world continues to fascinate me. It captures the feel of an old-school adventure RPG without blatantly copying the terminology like many game-inspired anime seem to these days, and that’s something I’m quickly growing fond of. I’m beyond excited to see where Made In Abyss takes us next as we dive deeper into its mysteries.


Previous                                         Next