Have you ever wanted to go to a place where there is literally nothing? Me either, but A Place Further Than the Universe is all about four girls who do just that. Shirase Kobuchizawa’s mother is an antarctic researcher who went missing during the last exploration. Years later, Shirase is determined to reach the place her mother loved so much, especially armed with the assistance of a bored classmate worried she isn’t getting the most out of life, a high school dropout too proud to be helped, and a child actress who can’t name a single friend in her life.
Shirase Kobuchizawa is defined by her drive to get to Antarctica. People at school call her “Antarctica.” She sneaks into information sessions about the next civilian trips. She raised over ten thousand dollars to bribe the captain to take her. Determined is the nice way to describe her and obsessive is perhaps the more appropriate word. She is proud, stubborn, and single-minded. Her plan is the only plan and you are going to follow it or get out of the way. This wasn’t always bad though. When Hinata loses her passport, she would hear no other option than waiting the three days needed for all four girls to fly out of Australia together. Shirase is terribly camera shy and that makes the reporting that she does with Yuzuki all the better as she stumbles over her lines, script in hand or not. While the journey is about all of the girls collectively, it is hard not to have one eye glued to her and the reconciliation she goes through in following her mothers footsteps.
Mari Tamaki (a.k.a Kimari) is the happiest dunce in the show. She is messy, a tad immature, a complete hoot, and paralized by the idea that she isn’t getting the most out of her youth. My favorite line from her was, “We will stay there for 3 months! That is 90 changes of clothes!” Which prompted sighs from all her friends. Mari realizes that she has effectively wasted most of her youth by doing little to nothing. Her goal to get the most out of her youth in the second year of high school.
Side note: I learned that they only have three years of high school in Japan. Crazy, huh? I might have felt like I got the most out of my youth solely if I didn’t have to spend a fourth year in high school.
Clearly in order to get the most out of her youth, she must travel to Antarctica, right? Forget running a marathon, traveling to Italy, or cross country trips to Mt. Fuji. Penguins are where peak youth is at. Little does she know this until she meets Shirase though. I really enjoy Mari because of her fierce loyalty, happy nature, and willingness to make a change. She is the character that provides the most satisfying change over the course of the show.
Hinata Miyake was hands-down my favorite character (entirely aside from my favor for girls who do track, which has been in my blood since my high school days). Hinata is a high school dropout who joins the journey because she works with Mari as a store clerk. She is aggressively independent and always hiding any kind of negative emotions from those around her. Hinata develops a special relationship with Shirase by the end of the show — that’s mostly given by how they are both so stubborn about hiding their emotions and their appreciation for each other as friends. Beyond the deeper emotional moments, I just loved how Hinata was ready at any moment to call out all of Mari’s bullshit. Mari would start talking and suddenly Hinata would enter the frame with a look of, “Say it, but we all know this incoming backhand is aimed right at the back of your head.”
Yuzuki Shiraishi is the saddest character in the show. Yes, sadder than the girl who traveled to the ends of the earth for closure with her mother. Yuzuki is the most sad because she seems to have no real relationships with anyone before meeting Shirase, Mari, and Hinata. She has lived her whole life as a child actress, and stardom has kept her away from spending any meaningful time in school. People want to be around her for fame and her mother uses her like a money printer. Yuzuki learns that her mom promised the three girls the ability to go to Antarctica if they convince Yuzuki to do a reporting job down there. How could she trust them if that was the case? Yuzuki’s character is all about learning what friendship is, how it works, and how to trust someone after so many people in her life just used her. While she isn’t my favorite character for no reason other than I liked the others better, her story is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
I won’t lie, I was never going to watch this show. My friend Randy, a Lotad Gang member, insisted that we watch this show around New Years and I had an opening on my January anime calendar, so I said, “What the hell, I’ll just review it.” I kept hearing how great the anime was and how inspiring it was for him. He told me about how he always watches it around the New Year to remind himself to make the most of life, but I came in skeptical. I cannot really tell you why I felt that way. I think partially to dampen my own anticipation as to not overhype the show and partially because I can just be contrarian like that. But he was right. I don’t think the emotion of the show rang true to my heart like it did with him, but it still sits on my mind like the girls I’ve met that agreed to go on a date, but the conversation went cold after we never settled on a time or place.
At the point of writing this, I have watched two more anime series since and I still find myself revisiting the scenes, the colors, the tears, and the triumphs of these four girls. This is the true New Years movie for me. Not because it is the emotional sugar cookie that leaves me hungry a week later, but because it is the mental meat and potatoes of evaluating where you are and who you are in life before you take on a new year. That said, I wonder if the show would have the same value for me a second time around. A Place Further Than the Universe asks good questions that made me think, but I think that the emotion behind the resolution was more of one that made me nod my head and say, “Okay, that is a decent way to end it” instead of “Wow, that was THE way to end it.” A New Year’s anime for sure and all around solid, but not hitting as true as I wished.
Problems are like assholes— everyone has them. But you would never know that given how anime normally works. A Place Further Than the Universe does a great job of doing something that feels elementary, but widely ignored by most writers. Not only do all four of our main girls struggle with their own personal demons, but each character that is given much of a highlight at all gets some sort of personal struggle that helps define their character. Each of the other ideas that I will mention are actually the issues that the girls struggled with, but this show boldly takes on the idea that everybody has their own battle to fight with grace and charm.
Out of all the girls’s problems, there was one demon that stuck out for me: getting the most out of your youth. Mari was convinced that she was not getting the most out of her youth, and instead of smoking cigarettes or listening to experimental indie music like most normal high schoolers, she ended up seeking out adventure like the Antarctica trip. I had a point like this in my life. It’s a point where you look in the mirror and the colors aren’t as bright as they should be, and if someone asked you if you were proud of your life, you would think about it for a moment before answering. Seeing Mari go through the same thing was nice from a standpoint of relatability, but also nice because so many of the stories we hear and consume start for any reason other than the protagonist simply wanted to. I think more people should think about this. I hear about and know a lot of people who do what they do for a variety of reasons, except for that they simply want to. I see two communities of people: those who have passion in life and those who exist in life. I hope that those who watch A Place Further Than the Universe find themselves inspired to do what makes them passionate, something I didn’t think was a complex idea, but life has shown to be difficult to execute.
Friendships can also be complex. Some click together easily like puzzle pieces and others are a collection of stumbles and mishaps, like hammering a jigsaw puzzle of state birds because I swore that that cardinal was the one in the top right and not the one in the bottom left like my brother said… it was the bottom left. I think there are moments where love for a friend and your own selfish interests mesh together to create a toxic condition where you aren’t quite sure if you are propping up a friend or holding them back. Knowing what this situation feels like made it so much more impressive that the tension of the situation in the show was executed so perfectly. Not only is the thought behind this idea deep enough that the questions that both parties ask themselves are truthful, but the execution of this idea is done so flawlessly that the emotion feels sincere.
What does it mean to be friends? While this is the least fleshed out idea in the show, the fact that there is no solid answer makes the idea deeper in and of itself. Why? How the fuck would I know? If I had the answer of what it means to be a friend, I would write a book about it, be on Oprah a few times and become a millionaire on those sweet book royalties. That said, so would these writers. But it’s the fact that they brought it up that means so much. It’s the fact that they asked the question, forced their characters (and us by extension) to sit with this question and think. Maybe you agree with their answer, maybe you don’t. But I think that they show what it means to be friends far better than they can ever put into words.
A Place Further Than the Universe plays a risky game. I love good character development, but I know my schedules. I have run the models. I have mapped out all the tropes and found all the connections and pinned them on my wall like I am the main character of a Law and Order spinoff. Conclusion: a great success. But it made me nervous. Our four main girls take their sweet time resolving the main issues they enter the journey with, but the spacing between the resolutions is distanced enough that you can appreciate the magnitude of each struggle before resolving the next. The show never felt slow or fast, but I wondered occasionally between episodes how things would be resolved — in a good way this time.
I kept waiting for something to really jump out at me visually. It is pretty clear to me that the animation here is better than the average animation that you would see in a show and I really enjoyed the art style, but nothing really jumped at me. This was really disappointing given how into the emotion of the show I was. I wanted some of the arctic scenes to be more awe inspiring, I wanted the sea to be more dynamic and beautiful. Overall, the characters are drawn well, but the scenes just aren’t in the same realm as top tier sceneries that would be deserving of a canvas on my wall. Still, more favorable than not.
“Marshal, they traveled all the way from Japan to Antarctica, so surely the world has to be top tier, right?” You would be right, my friend, but not for the reason you are thinking. Yes, there is travel. We see the girls’ lives in Japan a bit and we visit Australia with them. Each of these places are interesting and have their own details that help us learn about the girls, but the most interesting places were completely barren, which is a difficult feat to pull off. We spend most of the show in the ocean and on the great sheet of ice. Here, we get to see the details of the ship and the camp shine through. Where the art of the scenery is lacking because… well, there is nothing there… the details of the world are put on full display. From the glow in the dark stars painted under a bunk bed to explaining that the running direction around the ship changes daily, the details are important and highlighted to give the environment life. Where the scenery is not the main focus, I always look to the simplest elements for an interesting world and A Place Further Than the Universe delivers on that front.
The first thing that I noted about the music was that it reminded me of… wait for it… Laid Back Camp. This is ironic because they originally aired at the same time and failed to share a director, production studio, and director. I think what A Place Further Than the Universe, like Laid Back Camp, does well is find a tone and enforce it with their music. The notes embodied the emotions of cheer, hope, pain, and growth that we were supposed to feel. Looking back, the tone being coordinated with the emotion is largely where the Laid Back Camp comparison has to stop. A Place Further Than the Universe relies a lot more on vocal performances, bouncy strings, flutes, and xylophones. The vocals are awesome and really steal the cake for me. This is a feat because I normally am very critical of vocal play over dialog because I think it can be a distracting underscore that drowns out important conversations, but the artist they chose does a great job at flying under the dialog while still enhancing the mood.
|Category||Points Given||Points Possible|
|I am interested in the characters in the story||5||6|
|I liked the emotion the story made me feel||4||6|
|The story brings up interesting ideas||5||6|
|I felt the pacing of the show was appropriate||4||4|
|The animation in the show is beautiful||3||4|
|I am interested in the world that the story takes place in||3||3|
|I felt that the music added to the story in a meaningful way||3||3|
As my friend Randy put it, A Place Further Than the Universe is the perfect New Year’s time anime. A story that starts off about getting a place colder than any sane person would wish to go ends with a story of closure, fulfillment, appreciation, and trust. The brilliant pacing carries the ideas to a great place that forces you to really consider your life and what you are doing with it. This anime is not for the faint at heart and certainly for penguin lovers.