The Abyss is a gigantic vertical cave, which is the only untrodden region by humans after having already explored and searched all over the world. Strange and peculiar creatures, and invaluable relics that modern humans can never be able to create, are to be found in this extraordinary deep and huge hole. The curious figure of the Abyss, with its fullness of mystery, captivates people and drives them to the adventure to the Abyss. People started to refer to adventurers who have tried to dive down the big cave as “Tankutsu-ka”. An orphan girl named “Riko”, who lives in the town called “Orth”, surrounding the Abyss, dreams to be a great “Tankutsu-ka”, like her legendary mother and solve the riddles of the Abyss. One day, when she explores Abyss, she comes across a robot who has a human boy figure and escorts him back to Orth…
Made in Abyss is a Japanese animation series based on a comic series of the same name, written by Akihito Tsukushi. It has 13 episodes and each episode is 30 minutes long (except for the final episode, which is 60 minutes), and developed by Kinema Citrus, a Japanese animation studio. It is a story of two main characters Riko and Reg, who go through a breathtaking and thrilling adventure to dive into the Abyss, a spectacular fantasy world. It aired on Japanese TV channels in the summer of 2017, and is streaming on overseas online platforms as well.
Famous high-profile creators from the Japanese animation industry gathered for this animation series. It was directed by Masayuki Kojima from Kinema Citrus, a veteran of TV animation series who directed titles such as The Record of Boy Hanada and Monster when he worked for Madhouse, one of the globally famous Japanese animation studios. Hideyuki Kurata, who wrote scripts for many popular animation titles like R.O.D -READ OR DIE- and GUN×SWORD, was in charge of the whole structure of the stories in the series and wrote the scripts of seven episodes. In terms of the visuals of the series, one of the star animators from Production I.G. (one of the top Japanese animation studios, which has developed a lot of great animation, including a film Ghost in the shell directed by Mamoru Oshii), Kazuchika Kise was welcomed as the character designer, and Osamu Masuyama, who drew a lot of background art for Studio Ghibli’s works and Makoto Shinkai’s films, joined as the artistic director.
Animationweek could have a precious opportunity to hear behind the story of the series from Akihito Tsukushi and Masayuki Kojima. We are happy to share their words with you.
Interview with Akihito Tsukushi (Author of the original comic)
and Masayuki Kojima (Director of the TV series)
Hideki Nagaishi (HN): Where did the initial idea of the story of Made in Abyss come from? How did you develop the universe of the Abyss?
Akihito Tsukushi: I really love orthodox fantasy video games, like diving into dungeons and battling with swords and magic. I had worked for a game company for ten years, so I had been having a strong passion for writing a realistic orthodox fantasy story like Made in Abyss.
I am getting chances of coming up with ideas for the story and universe from various things. For example, when I read a comic series titled Silver Spoon, which Hiromu Arakawa (she is best known for Fullmetal Alchemist) is writing, I got an inspiration for the structure of the story. It is a story of a student of an agricultural high school, and there are many things I didn’t know even though it is a story about the real world that I know. For instance, there is an expression: “When I rode on horseback, I felt that I was integrating with the earth, and I got the strange feeling of my entire body itself becoming taller.” And I felt, when I read this expression, that this sounds like a fantasy story for me, and thought that I can write a fantasy story if I use this style of storytelling. I mean that a story has many different meanings behind it, so that when I create one thing for the universe of the Abyss, I would gather the threads of its story by considering the reason why it exists here now. That is how I have written the story.
In terms of the design of the universe of the Abyss, I got an idea of how I will build it when I saw a big tree, which was exhibited at National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno (It is an area in Tokyo, Japan where there are many National museums). In the description of the tree, there was one sentence saying, “Tens of thousands of creatures are living inside this tree”. I thought that such a huge number of creatures are living in the micro-world, so that I could create an interesting new world, not by expanding the world by designing materials of it one after another, but by stretching the understanding of the one vertical cave, the Abyss, like the tree and designing it in detail.
Masayuki Kojima: In that way, all kinds of unknown realms (for us) of a story, can be fantasy for us, isn’t it? Regardless of what kind of story it is, even if it is a story of an agricultural high school or a story of a parallel world, if audiences do not know the universe of the story, it could equally be a fantasy for them.
Akihito Tsukushi: Yes. If I can make audiences think “Hmmm, I see” about something in our real world through the story I wrote, I think that it would be a good quality fantasy story for them. So, what I would like to write is a persuasive story, which enables the audience to think like that, if the information in the story is fabricated fact, which doesn’t exist in our real world.
HN: I would like to ask both of you. Could you please let us know your first impression when you heard about the TV series project at the first time?
Akihito Tsukushi: If I remember right, it was around April 2015 and I was writing the story for the fourth volume of my original comic, when I heard about the project of the TV animation version of Made in Abyss. To be honest, I thought that it would be a 5-minute short animation series when I heard of it the first time, but it turned out that in the project, each episode is 30 minutes long. Then I thought, “Insane! Are you serious?”, because if it will be a 30-minute TV series, it means that this scene and that scene from my original story will be animated*1, so I thought it was probably difficult to get the project off the ground. Hence, I was really surprised when the project was greenlit.
*1: Characters in the original comic series of Made in Abyss have several very hard and tough experiences, which are really demanding mentally and physically. It means that these scenes in the original comic could be too shocking and difficult to animate for a general TV series to broadcast.
If the animation project were decided officially, I need to get my pace of writing and drawing up for publishing a few new volumes to stock enough story to make a 13-episode animation series before starting production of animation. So, one more thing I thought when I heard about the TV series project was that I started to worry about that, thinking “Oh, my god! What am I going to do?” (laughs).
Masayuki Kojima: In my case, Muneki Ogasawara, a producer of a company named Kinema Citrus, which I belong to, gave the first volume of the comic to me saying, “This is the next project we are thinking. How about directing this?” And actually, I thought, “This story will be absolutely interesting. I want to do it!” Soon after, when I just saw the cover illustration and the first page in the comic, which is a color illustration printed on the facing page (Comics in Japan are generally in black and white), I replied to him: “Yah, I will think of that”, at that time (laughs). Anyway, the illustration has a persuasive universe, so I could imagine how it will be if we animate this comic story and move them. Then, when I started to read it, the story was more interesting than I had imagined.
Akihito Tsukushi: Now, the director said that he wondered how it would be if he animated it. I was completely fascinated when his words became reality and appeared in front of me as a storyboard, which he drew. It was so great. And I also thought that it was insane to animate this storyboard as a TV animation series (laughs).
Masayuki Kojima: At that time, I said to animators at Kinema Citrus, “This original story is amazing. We definitely want to animate this one, don’t we?” And some of them agreed with me, but some said, “It would be really hard work” (laughs)
HN: What is your first impression after seeing the completed animation of the first episode, Mr. Tsukushi?
Akihito Tsukushi: I was amazed with the quality of the visuals, which easily went over my expectations from the storyboards drawn by the director, after seeing the first episode for the first time. All drawings are beautiful, and even the farm animals, which I designed after being asked, were drawn in detail accurately and moving. In addition to the high quality of the background music composed by Kevin Penkin, the sound effects is all so wonderful, so I was touched, I had never seen such great visuals! Actually, the director told me at the first meeting, “We will draw everything written in the comic”, and I knew that it was real after seeing the first episode.
HN: How did you get involved in the animation, Mr. Tsukushi?
Akihito Tsukushi: I prepared references and illustrations, which could be a base to design various new things for the animation series, that were not originally drawn in my original comics. The way I worked was more of answering to questions and requests made by the production team. For example, we discussed what kind of fuel that people use in a town named Orth where people live around the big hole of the Abyss. I gave the idea of people using affluent trees as fuel. Then I got feedback from them: “It seems like more than a thousand people live in the town, so they would probably run out of trees in a few years. It would be difficult to live sustainably if trees are a main source of fuel”. Then we talked about a new alternative idea: “What about, they locate relics of the Abyss at pivotal points of the town to generate energy, and people use the energy for their daily lives?” We all agreed and decided to use that idea, as there is not going to be fire if they are using the relics. Another example is that Takeshi Takakura (He designed various props for the animation series) invented a new method of horizontal locomotion by using Reg’s stretchable arms, because if Riko moves upwards within the Abyss, a mysterious malady called “the Curse of the Abyss” affects her and her body receives fatal damage. We call that method of locomotion as “Reg’s ropeway”. It is actually drawn in episode 5.
Masayuki Kojima: There are creatures in the animation, which were not described in the original comics. Tsukushi newly designed all of them. I think that the animation production team came up with the tons of questions, because the universe of Mr. Tsukishi’s original comics is well grounded. And the reason why we could add new settings for the animation series in the way Mr. Tsukushi answers to our questions and requests is due to a solid foundation of the original universe of his comics that can accept these new things.
Akihito Tsukushi: They checked the setting of my original comics’ universe very much in detail, such as what thread profile is used in Orth, to design the “art setting”. I think that is the reason why the animation visual is persuasive and the animation series has more realism. Actually, even the texture of plaster of each building is drawn in the background art.
Masayuki Kojima: How amazing of Mr. Tsukushi, that he can answer to those kinds of questions instantly. So, I realized that he thought through and designed the universe of the story, even if those elements never made an appearance in the original comic. I was really impressed with that.
Akihito Tsukushi: It is probably because I have intended to have the cause-and-effect of the things in the story worked out as much as possible when I write the story.
HN: Mr. Tsukushi, you are still writing stories for your original comics. I mean, the original comic story is still ongoing, it has not met its ending yet. How did you deal with the relevance of the storyline between the story of the comic series and the animation series? Did the story of the comic series receive any influences from the animation series?
Akihito Tsukushi: In terms of the link between the story of the original comics and the animation, when I read the plot of the animation series, which had a good storyline to the last episode, I found some small problems of consistency with the storyboards for my original comic, which I had finished writing at that time. Those inconsistencies may be just small things, such as whether Riko sends a telegram by flying a balloon up to Orth from the depths of the Abyss at the first time or not, and whether to show the situation of Orth for a little when the telegram arrives at the last 13th episode. Actually, these scenes are not written in my original story yet. But I really liked the idea of the scenes in the plot of the animation, so that I thought, “Let’s show these scenes first in the animation in advance of the original comics.” And then I rewrote the storyboards for the original comics to make it have no contradiction with the story of the last episode of the animation series.
Regarding influences from the animation to the original comics, it’s a lot. The designs of the characters by Kazuchika Kise are really great and I’m reflecting what I felt and learned going from his visuals to my drawings. Background art in my comics also received many influences from the beautiful animation background art, such as the finely drawn sceneries of Orth.
HN: Could you please let us know what you got hung up on, in terms of the music?
Masayuki Kojima: Speaking of the music in this animation series, first of all, one of the characteristics of this animation series is the music composed by Kevin Penkin. Actually, it was not easy to use his music in the animation series, because he composes by taking a different approach from the general Japanese animation music. But when it fits with a scene, it becomes very stylish.
Akihito Tsukushi: It matches well with the visuals of my stubby characters.
Masayuki Kojima: Yes, it is strangely apposite . Kevin is an Australian composer and Ogasawara-San, a producer of Kinema Citrus, introduced him to me. And I told Kevin that I would not like to make this animation associated with a particular ethnic, but have it be a stateless work.
Akihito Tsukushi: I feel the atmosphere of the music is stateless for sure. At first, I thought that it would become like Celtic music.
Masayuki Kojima: I asked him to please read the original comics first, and compose the music based on his imagination when he finished reading them. Then, he composed a few number of musical pieces, and the music we used for the opening song in the first episode was among them. The opening song for the first episode is different from the other 12 episodes’ opening song. Actually, Kevin prepared a different number for the opening scene of the first episode, but I liked a different number, which was in the first demo tape and suggested to him that I want to use this number. Then, he arranged the number to match my storyboard for the opening scene: “After the opening title appears on the screen, the sceneries of Riko and Nat’s backward journey from the Abyss to the town of Orth are projected onto a screen one after another with a camera angle, which keeps looking across the characters. Next to a few different sceneries of the town, a panoramic view of the town by telephoto lens spreads across”. The number had only a chorus, but Kevin made it as a vocal song. It was good that we could prepare music, which fit my direction of the production, because Kevin is a very collaborative person.
HN: To animate the spectacular fantasy world, Abyss, what kinds of things did you focus? What sorts of difficulties did you faced?
Masayuki Kojima: My starting point was my strong passion in expressing the fantastic universe of the original comic series in animation. So, how to transform the comic to animation, which is a different medium, was the most important task for me as the director. For that, what matters was sharing the final visuals among the production staff through detailed storyboards, which I refined as much as possible with a lot of time and care. It was exactly how I could make the best use of my expertise and know-how, which I accumulated in my long career, so I drew storyboards of nine episodes among the total of thirteen episodes carefully. It was really lucky that the schedule of this project had enough time to do that.
Another one is background art. The artistic director of this animation series is Osamu Masuyama, who worked for Studio Ghibli. Actually, his first image boards were already fantastic and enormously beautiful. And despite the tight production schedule due to it being a TV series, Mr. Masuyama maintained the quality of the background art at a very high level throughout the series. Beautiful background art is one of the highlights of this animation.
HN: Could you please let us know your favorite or recommended scenes of this animation series?
Akihito Tsukushi: I especially like the first three episodes. When I re-read the opening part of the first volume of my comics, I felt that the structure made it a little difficult for me to catch up on the storyline, so I had told the director that there would be nothing better than to brush up that part of the original story and make it more engrossing in the animation, if possible. And he really arranged it to make it more fun.
For example, in a scene in the second episode, at a festival, children cheered when a Kodanshi*2 introduced a White Whistle holder*3, including Lyza (Riko’s missing mother) in a play about the Abyss and “Tankutsu-ka”. That scene is an animation original. I was impressed that the children’s loud voice is almost like a scream from excitement. I think that if stories of Tankutsu-ka’s adventure into the Abyss are the only entertainment for the children, it would happen like that.
I also like scenes in which the music matches a lot. For instance, the scene in the third episode, Jiruo said to Reg, “You also go to a bathroom, don’t you? You should go with Riko.”, and pushes Reg’s back.
*2: It is a Japanese word, which indicates a professional story teller, who read out stories such as fairy tales and folklores for a public audience.
*3: “Tankutsu-ka”, who dive into the big cave, the Abyss, and discover relics, are ranked into five different categories according to how deep they can dive into and return alive from Abyss. Tankutsu-ka of each category get different color whistle. Only some legendary adventurers can get the White Whistle.
Masayuki Kojima: The story structure of the first three episodes was arranged by Kurata. For example, the opening part of the original comics explains about the big cave, the Abyss, but with the animation series, it starts from the explanation of characters. This is one of the differences between the animation and the original comics.
In terms of the scene with Jiruo and Reg, actually, I just told Haru Yamada, the sound supervision, the music I selected, and didn’t tell her any more. Then she changed the timing of modulation in the music from the original to fit the music with the scene and said, “Mr. Kojima, you want to do this rendering, don’t you? So you selected this track, didn’t you?”
Akihito Tsukushi: Episode ten is another favorite of mine. From the episode, the atmosphere of the story changes dramatically. It has a shocking scene, which the audience might be unable to watch again, I think. The visuals of the scene in the animation has an impact greater than the comic. And the last episode is also my favorite.
HN: How about you, Mr. Kojima?
Masayuki Kojima: I had directed every episode at full force with confidence, so it is difficult to pick up some scenes or episode and say: “In particular, I love this.”
In terms of the first episode, we changed the structure of the story a lot from the original story, so I had an anxiety about how the audience would evaluate it. So, I remember that I was nervous at the premiere of the first episode and I could be free from the anxiety when I saw that the audience showed a good reaction during and after the screening.
Akihito Tsukushi: You were saying, “I was exhausted!” after the event.
Masayuki Kojima: Yes. I was really tired at that time. In that sense, the first episode is greatly in my memory.
Akihito Tsukushi: Not only the first three episodes, there are some other parts which also have a different structure of the story from my original comics, and I really like all of them. For instance, a flashback scene for Ozen, in episode 8, is so good.
Masayuki Kojima: The idea of that scene is also coming from Mr. Kurata. He told me that he wanted to make the structure of the eighth episode like that. I really like that, too.
Akihito Tsukushi: I needed to show the flashback scene for Ozen within a limited number of pages in the second volume of my original comic series, because I had to bring a scene that attracts readers and make them want to read the third volume. On the other hand, in the animation, a scene where Lyza asked Ozen to look after Riko, which is the most emotional scene in Ozen’s flashback, is overlapped with a scene of Riko and Reg saying goodbye to Marulk. It is a really good structure, I think.
Masayuki Kojima: The original story for episode 9 is a roughly 10-page short story. Then, Mr. Tsukushi, Mr. Kurata, and I expanded the short story for one 30-minute episode, so that almost half of the story is original content. For that reason, the ninth episode is also impressive for me. Actually, the number of drawings (key frames and in-betweens) we’ve drawn for the episode is larger than any other episodes.
HN: The story of the original comic series continue. Do you have a plan to make the sequel of this animation series?
Akihito Tsukushi: Episode 13 ends in a really good scene, so that I myself want to see the sequel of the animation series. For that, I think of doing my best in writing the original story to see that.
Masayuki Kojima: Actually, I haven’t thought of completing the story in 13 episodes from the beginning of the project. The original story has not ended yet, so that there are still mysteries, which haven’t been unveiled. In that situation, I think that there are some limitations in completing the story with an original story in animation. So, the story of Riko and Reg’s adventure doesn’t end with episode 13, but we made the last scene in the episode as an agreeable ending as an animated TV series. Hence, if I could have the fortunate opportunity to make the sequel of this animation series, I would like to continue the story from the last scene in episode 13.
Akihito Tsukushi: We discussed whether we make the last episode as a clear and feel-good story, or a disturbing open end, and we selected the latter. I think that kind of story is more interesting.
HN: Could you please let us know what kind of message do you want to deliver to the prospective audience through this animation?
Akihito Tsukushi: It is very rare to meet an interesting adventure story with the same quality as this animation series. I personally feel that l have never seen such a fun adventure animation. So, when you watch this animation, don’t forget to enjoy with the intensity of coming across such a great adventure! (laughs) This is an animation in which you can have the true “Waku Waku”*4 and “Doki Doki”*5 experience.
*4: “Waku Waku”: A Japanese onomatopoeia, meaning “being excited about something, which has not yet happened, with positive expectations such as fun or happiness”.
*5: “Doki Doki”: Another Japanese onomatopoeia, meaning “heart is pounding due to excitement or fear or expectation for something”.
Masayuki Kojima: I feel that Tsukushi’s original story is very pure. I think that only that kind of pure stories can make us go “Waku Waku Doki Doki”. “Waku Waku Doki Doki” is quite a common marketing copy (in Japan), but I think it is not easy to achieve that in animation. So, we tried to do our best for expressing that feeling of the original story, which can give audience a “Waku Waku Doki Doki” experience, in animation. I hope the audience can feel that when they watch it.
Akihito Tsukushi: I think that adventure animations tend to have feelings like “Yeah! It’s so thrilling! It’s exciting”. But, I think that actually, adventure would not make exciting entertainment. When the Japanese write “adventure”, we use two Chinese characters. The first Chinese character means “difficult and hard to do”, and next character has the meaning of “venturing intentionally into something risky”. This is an animation, which expresses what “adventure” is as the meaning in Chinese.
The production of the sequel of the animation series was officially announced, and a new official promotion video was uploaded on YouTube on 26th November 2017.
All visuals in this article: ©2017 Akihito Tsukushi, TAKE SHOBO/MADE IN ABYSS PARTNERS