Memoirs from the Abyss

When I first heard that Made in Abyss was getting an anime adaptation, I remember watching the PV and thinking, “This looks cute and interesting.” The staff list seemed promising, and the gorgeous backgrounds in the trailer surely boded well for the quality of the work. Leading up to its airing, I read precious little about the plot, but my curiosity grew as I heard more rumours regarding the dark nature of the source material.

One episode is all it took for me to fall in love with the show, but I had no idea of what I was in for as the weeks wore on.

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“Two kids venture into a dark, mysterious netherworld”

The premise of Made in Abyss reads like something out of a cautionary fairy tale. However, as you’d expect, Reg and Riko are no ordinary children. Reg is a robot with superhuman strength and abilities, and Riko is a trained cave raider who has read all about the Abyss and is fully aware of its dangers.

Yet despite all that, they are undeniably still just kids. Bright-eyed and full of curiosity, the pair venture ever deeper into the unforgiving netherworld. One wrong step could mean certain death, but like most children, they can’t help but let their excitement get the better of them. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and before you know it, they’ve taken you by the hand and dragged you along with them on their journey.

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Meanwhile, the world around them is presented with beautiful, detailed backgrounds and top-notch design work that is more like what you’d expect from a film than a TV anime. The talented staff at Kinema Citrus paint the Abyss as vast and enticing, but also foreboding and mysterious. Kevin Penkin’s outstanding soundtrack also requires special mention, as it provides the perfect atmosphere for this alluring, yet dangerous netherworld. The lure of the Abyss is a concept that crops up throughout the series, but the production team manage to make it palpable even to the viewer. You begin to wish for Reg and Riko to succeed not only for their sake, but also because you want to see what lies at the bottom of the Abyss with your own eyes.

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But just as the dreaded curse slowly envelops the brave adventurers who venture into its maw, the series also slowly becomes more and more unsettling. The pacing starts off slow as a lot of screen-time into world-building early on, but this all changes once the Reg and Riko finally enter the Abyss. The stakes continue to grow with each installment, and ten episodes in you get a glimpse of truly harrowing, soul-crushing despair.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know just how much this episode affected me. It was honestly one of the most disturbing episodes of anything I have ever watched. I had nightmares about it that night, and I could hardly focus at work the day after. Even thinking about it two days later made me nauseous.

Nevertheless, I came crawling back the week after to watch the next episode. The Abyss had got ahold of me, and I was a slave to the same longing that fills the hearts of the cave raiders.

But the Abyss was not done with me just yet, and it had saved its best for last.

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After the hour-long finale episode, I was convinced this anime was truly something special. The final arc was the most disturbing and emotional, but it was also full of hope. The inspiring final sequence, coupled with Penkin’s final track, Tomorrow, summed up just how much of a triumph this production was. Every now and again I come across an anime that is so inspiring that I just need to write about it, and Made in Abyss is the first TV anime for a long time to reach this level for me.

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I’ve already recommended this show to everyone I know, but I do so with a caveat – this anime is not for the fainthearted. While the juxtaposition of childish innocence against the twisted, unforgiving Abyss undoubtedly has some artistic merit, it does make for some extremely unsettling and confronting scenes when things don’t go quite according to plan. However, if you do decide to take a leap down the rabbit hole, you’ll be in for something special:

A truly incredible adventure.


Not-So-Silent Praise for A Silent Voice

Anyone who knows me or follows me on Twitter is sure to have been a victim of my rants about A Silent Voice by now. I regard the manga very highly, and recommend it to people every chance I get. So when the film was announced, I was naturally excited for it, even more so when I saw that Yamada Naoko and Kyoto Animation would be tasked with the adaptation.

This was a match made in heaven; strong source material in the hands of one of the most talented directors in the industry, with equally talented staff supporting her. It was a sure-fire recipe for success.

I re-read the manga in its entirety a few months before seeing the film, so it was still reasonably fresh in my mind. Condensing 62 chapters of manga into just over two hours is not an easy task, and I expected there to be liberal cuts. If you go into A Silent Voice expecting a panel-by-panel rehash of the manga, you will leave sorely disappointed. Although I admit I was surprised at how the story was cut and reframed, I also believe the film was all the better for it.

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As a film, A Silent Voice is much more focused and purposeful in its storytelling. Entire side character arcs and backstories have been cut out, which inevitably causes some minor issues – some side characters seem shallow and out-of-place at times, and there is much less mention of discrimination against the hearing-impaired in wider society compared to the manga. Time constraints aside, this also feels like a very deliberate directorial choice, and the end result is a much more personal and compelling story. Yamada and scriptwriter Yoshida Reiko have enabled Shouya’s development and his interactions with Shouko to take centre stage from start to finish.

But what makes A Silent Voice so special? Surely creative adaptation is nothing new?

Well, if I were to summarise it in one word, it would be “vision”.

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No analysis or dissection of craft this polished could ever do it justice, and its complexity makes it seem foolish to even try. Suffice to say that Yamada’s hand is all over this film – from the camerawork and lighting, to the character acting, and even the sound design and soundtrack. Yamada has always been known as a hands-on director, but in A Silent Voice, her incredible vision for the film exudes from each frame. Every single element has been crafted and put together with meticulous care and precision, with the sole purpose of constructing her vision. Absolutely nothing is wasted as Yamada takes the source material and makes it thoroughly her own.

So much of this film is dedicated to giving viewers an experience in addition to conveying the story. As Shouya struggles to atone for his sins and grows closer to Shouko, we get glimpses of what life is like for her. Much of the sign language is left completely unvoiced, and we are often left to interpret the character’s thoughts through body language alone. Nishiya Futoshi’s characters are animated in stunning detail, and move almost as if they are real people.

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Where sound is used, it adds another layer to the experience. Tracks composed by Ushio Kensuke, featuring dampened piano notes interspersed with noise, accompany the majority of the film. Reverberation is used in certain scenes to create the impression of feeling the sound as opposed to merely hearing it. As the film progresses, we begin to understand Shouko’s pain, her motivations, and her struggles,  culminating in one of the most incredible scenes I have ever seen in an anime.

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It’s rare to see a film constructed so purposefully and meticulously, animated or otherwise. Yet A Silent Voice never imposes itself on the viewer, and at no point does the emotion feel forced. As kVin eloquently describes in his review:

“The manga was so eager to convey emotion it blunted the readers’ senses, and at its most passionate it bordered on histrionic. This adaptation envelops Ishida’s story with tenderness instead, something more coherent with the work’s message.”

In this respect, comparing the manga to the film is like comparing a sledgehammer to a scalpel. Each scene in the film is built up of countless tiny details designed to convey subtle emotion and meaning, something that Yamada has discussed multiple times in her interviews. In fact, there are so many subtle intricacies that I would almost venture to say that it’s impossible to fully appreciate it on the first viewing alone.

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Naturally, I am eager to see it again the first chance I get.

A Silent Voice is truly something that has to be seen and experienced to be believed. It is technically brilliant, incredibly emotive, and beautifully constructed. It’s a story not just about bullying and the difficulties faced by the hearing-impaired, but also about people and their struggle to connect with each other. To quote Yamada, it’s a story that “depicts the softness that lies within the harsh portions of our hearts”.

Every so often you come across a film so good that it needs little praise.

Sometimes the silence in the theatre says it all.

As a bit of addendum, here are some amusing observations of a few people who went with me to see the film:

  • Serial snacker while watching movies – stopped eating partway through and didn’t touch his snacks for the rest of the film
  • Serial mobage player who never hesitates to play mobage anywhere and everywhere – put his phone down and didn’t touch it for the entirety of the film

If this doesn’t speak for the quality of A Silent Voice, I don’t know what does.

The Overwatch Viewing Experience: World of Tanks Edition

Image credit: /u/Horthic

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch and following a lot of pro tournaments. While this blog will mostly be about anime, I’ll probably write the odd post about esports as well. This time, I want to share some thoughts about the viewing experience of Overwatch esports and the current meta.

Competitive Overwatch has always struggled with providing a good viewing experience. To a new viewer, seeing so many projectiles and abilities being spammed everywhere is incredibly confusing and hard to follow. I wanted to write about the current viewing experience a few days after patch hit, but I convinced myself this was just a transition period and it would improve once teams adjusted. Now, one month on, I think we can now agree that it’s the worst it’s been since hero limits were introduced.

Pre-ultimate charge nerf era

Previously, all heroes built ultimates so fast that almost every fight revolved around a combination of ultimates designed to wipe the enemy team. This was more often than not centred around Ana and her Nanoboost or Zarya and her Graviton Surge. As teams were gearing up for a fight, casters would often say things like “Team A has a “big bang” combo available, so they’ll be looking to use that in this fight”, signalling to the viewer what to look out for.

This situation was good for casters, observers, and viewers alike. The predictability of what would be the next “big play”, allowed everyone to focus on a couple of players, making the game much easier to follow. Fights would be decided in a matter of seconds, yet they were dynamic and exciting to watch.

Of course, players weren’t happy with these “ult wars” as it made games very frustrating. Everyone wanted a state that rewarded the mechanical skill of players getting picks without using their ultimates, which often ensured an easy team wipe. That led to the change in ultimate charge time, and the situation we have now.

Be careful what you wish for

The impact of the ultimate charge change was immediate. Fights suddenly became much more drawn out, and it was no longer rare to see teamfights where neither team had a single ultimate available.

However, the viewing experience suffered. Fights were no longer centred around one or two “big plays”, and instead became chaotic messes where casters and observers struggled to follow the action. This was made exponentially worse by the rise of triple and quadruple tank compositions on almost every map, made possible by Ana’s incredible healing output and nerfs to the Nanoboost-based team wipe ultimate combos from the previous patch. This resulted in matches devolving into teams full of unkillable tanks poking at each other around objectives until one team’s Roadhog got a crucial pick needed to push the fight.

At day 1 of MLG Vegas yesterday, triple and quadruple tank compositions made up 96.3% of all compositions played. At IEM Gyeonggi, this number was over 85%. This is what Overwatch has become at the top level.

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MLG Vegas Day 1 Top 10 Team Compositions. Source: Winston’s Lab

It’s time for change

For Overwatch to continue its success as an esport, changes are needed to improve the viewing experience. Montecristo has already provided his thoughts about some sorely needed changes to the observer interface, such as having team-coloured projectiles and so on. There is also an almost catch-22 situation with the different camera modes used to observe. The free camera mode predictably allows for the best view of all the action, but it fails to highlight the mechanical skill of the players. The first-person view is the exact opposite – while we are able to appreciate a player’s skill and accuracy, it’s much harder to get an idea of what’s going on in the rest of the fight. While observers are getting better at managing this, some changes to the interface will help greatly.

But most of all, there has to be changes to the game’s balance. While I agree the ultimate charge nerf was needed from a gameplay perspective, the subsequent rise of unkillable “World of Tanks” compositions is not what anyone wanted. The survivability of tank heroes has to be addressed, beginning with changes to Ana and her healing output. Lucio needs to be revisited and possibly reworked. Some maps should be rebalanced to take into account the nerf to ultimate charge rates, which greatly disadvantages the attacking team (especially 2CP maps). Buffs to some offensive heroes may also have to be considered. A well-executed ultimate combo should be able to wipe the enemy team, and offensive heroes should be able to consistently get picks and not be denied every time by burst healing. This will bring some order back into pro games, and observers and casters can default to focusing on the DPS players that should be the stars of the show at the top level. The flow of the game will improve, and the viewing experience will benefit greatly.

Blizzard is pushing Overwatch esports extremely hard. It’s clear they have big plans for the game. However, these plans will all be for naught if there aren’t changes to improve the flow of the game, and the viewing experience as a whole. I’d hate to see the Overwatch League fail because these issues aren’t addressed before it starts.

Some thoughts about Shinkai’s Your Name

A lot has been said about Your Name recently. Most of it has been praise for Shinkai Makoto, with frequent and perhaps misguided comparisons to Miyazaki that he himself tried to downplay. Despite all the hype and acclaim, I was relatively sceptical of Your Name before I went and saw it. While it’s been hugely successful, it has drawn some criticism from big name industry insiders for being unoriginal and not true to Shinkai’s style. So, were they right? Well, yes and no.

Your Name starts off slow. There is some clumsy exposition, an OP sequence that seems almost like it was an afterthought, and some pacing issues. At this point I was beginning to understand where Egawa Tatsuya was coming from when he said the film “lacks [Makoto Shinkai]’s voice, and it’s just composed of elements that sell.” It seemed uninspired and almost boring, with none of the raw emotion I’ve come to expect from Shinkai’s films. But then, slowly but surely, there is a change. The film begins to find its feet after the first twenty minutes, and Shinkai’s direction really begins to shine.

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Shinkai’s not a newcomer to the scene. His first major project was a solo-produced original short. He then proceeded to write and direct two further short films that were very well received. His first attempt at a full-length mainstream feature was a bit of a disappointment. The Garden of Words, while a solid short film, did not quite mark a return to Shinkai’s best either. Shinkai’s strength has always been films about love and separation. He excels in conveying a crushing sense of loneliness and yearning, a skill honed in Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and perfected in 5 Centimeters Per Second.

In Your Name, Shinkai falls back on what he’s good at. Every one of his signatures is present in this film: gratuitous shots of cloud-filled skies and starry night skies alike, vivid light effects, sweeping 360-degree rotational cuts, and stunning, detailed backgrounds. There’s also the continual shots of trains and train crossings, a common device he uses to convey the physical and emotional distance between characters, and the relentless, never-ending rat race of society around them. The difference is that in this film, these are presented to us in flashes and bursts; he uses them in a much subtler manner to suit the longer running time and the much wider intended audience. The result is quite interesting. This doesn’t feel like a typical Shinkai film through and through, but there’s enough there to convey that sense of separation and longing that he’s known for.


Part of the reason for this subtler approach is that there’s also a much larger focus on supporting characters and world-building in this film, a departure from Shinkai’s usually very inwardly-focused storytelling. In my opinion, this was one of the great strengths of this film. The supporting characters are very relatable, and bounce off the main pair extremely well. While Taki and Mitsuha are a little one-dimensional to start, their interactions with the supporting cast gives them much needed depth.

The soundtrack, by RADWIMPS, has some great vocal tracks that are used as insert songs in the film. The background instrumentals, however, were mostly lacklustre barring a few tracks. Given the similarity of this film to some of Shinkai’s earlier works, I couldn’t help but wonder what Your Name would’ve been like had it been coupled with a Tenmon score.


So, is it worthy of the hype? The short answer is yes. The story and script may be somewhat cliché, but where Your Name really shines is in the execution. Unlike Children Who Chase Lost Voices, this film plays to Shinkai’s strengths, and once it starts to ramp up, it just gets better and better. The climax is emotional and inspiring, and the ending bittersweet yet satisfying. And while this is not a typical Shinkai film, his voice undeniably finds its way through.