(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)
So far in this column, we’ve explored some of the more genre-heavy shows anime has to offer. But the beauty of this medium is its malleability. Animation is still largely considered family-oriented in the West, but in the rest of the world, animated stories set in an alternate world with man-eating giants can be as successful as a slice-of-life drama. Let’s look at a slightly more traditional, if still extraordinary, coming-of-age story.
Studio Madhouse has given us some of the most visually stunning action and fantasy anime of the past couple of decades, from Trigun and Cardcaptor Sakura, to Death Note and One Punch Man (the good season), but they also produced some original TV shows, including A Place Further than the Universe, which is not about space exploration, but is instead a beautifully told and exquisitely animated coming-of-age drama/adventure about doing something extraordinary with your life…and also going to Antarctica.
Mari Tamaki lives in a suburb of Tokyo, and despite having a bunch of plans for what she wanted to do during her high-school years, she hasn’t really done anything. After meeting Kobuchizawa Shirase, the pair decides to join a civilian expedition to Anctarctica, where Shirase’s mother disappeared three years prior while leading the previous expedition. Before they embark on the journey they are joined by Hinata Miyake, a girl who quit school due to both internal and external pressured and resigned herself to watching the world pass by, and Yuzuki Shiraishi, a TV starlet who struggles making real friends. Their journey isn’t fantastical in any way, but it is still the kind of experience that can make you realize what you were missing in life, appreciate what you have, and forever change you in ways that feel almost magical.
What Makes It Great
The single best word to describe A Place Further than the Universe is genuine. From the moment we meet Mari – we see her using her phone to post about her daily life and constantly talk to her friends – the show presents a better portrayal of millennial culture than most movies about teenagers. Each episode begins with what appears to be an Instagram post, and sounds of notifications, emails and texts are constantly ringing throughout the show. The first thing the girls do off the plane? Check their phones. At the hotel? Check their phones. As soon as they step foot in Antarctica? Check their phones, yet the characters also know when to put their phones away because they’re sharing a moment together, or when to take them out to immortalize said moments.
This extends to their lives and to the trip itself. Whether it’s being in a place where they don’t speak the language or getting sea-sickness because it’s their first time on a boat, the show dares to make the voyage to the harsh cold of Antarctica feel real, grounding the harsh realities of the trip while spending time in one of the most unforgiving places on Earth. Yet, given that this is a show about girls who want nothing more than to see penguins, eat shaved ice, watch the aurora borealis and experience the beauty of Antarctica, it should come as no surprise that Madhouse gives us one of the most visually impressive shows of the past decade. The vibrant and restless metropolis of Singapore and the busy ports of Freemantle, Australia are enough to make you want to get up from the couch and see the world, while the beautiful vistas from the vastness of the ocean and the endless frozen tundra are a reminder of the beauty that’s out there.
Though it looks remarkable, A Place Further than the Universe’s biggest strength is the friendship at the core of the story. The four girls don’t start out as friends, and unlike many portrayals of friendships, especially female teenage friendships, they don’t even realize that they’ve become close until one of them simply says “we’re best friends.” We see them slowly start to depend on each other, even if the only thing connecting them is the desire to go to Antarctica. But through little jokes and moments of playfulness, we see them grow into inseparable friends. Even if they go through rough patches, fight, make fun of each other, and sob just as much as they snicker, they still decide everything with rock-paper-scissors, have inside jokes, and most of all, they have each other’s backs.
What It Brings to the Conversation
We have all said we wanted to do great things with our lives at some point, whether it’s wanting to travel and see the world, achieve some great feat, or simply make the most out of life, but we mostly end up letting things get in the way. Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s family life, or simple trivialities, but most people can relate to Mari Tamaki’s frustration over not having accomplished enough things during her high school years. A Place Further than the Universe revolves around the idea of wanting to do more with your life, of wanting to prove that you’re capable of doing great things despite many challenges. Just like Mari wants to see if she can actually skip school and travel abroad, Shirase wants to prove to her classmates that spent years making fun of her desires to go to Antarctica that she can actually make it there.
The friendship between the four girls takes center stage and the show argues that having people to support you makes it easier to make those big decisions, like taking a trip to the edge of the world. The girls don’t only have fun together, but each of them becomes a better person because they are going through this together. They learn to let go of past grudges, to trust in other people, and to cope with grief. Though Mari kickstarts the story, it is Shirase’s quest to reconnect to her mom in Antarctica that drives the emotional side of A Place Further than the Universe. Since her only obsession for the past couple of years was to reach the place where her mother disappeared, Shirase never really thought about what she’d do once she actually got there, and the show poses the question of what we do once we reach the goal we obsess over, resulting in a phenomenal tear-jerker moment of emotional closure.
Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out
A Place Further than the Universe features a story that’s as specific as it is universal. It’s a story about grief, about the need to connect, and about the desire to accomplish just a bit more with your life. Even beyond the gorgeous animation, the friendship at the core of the show is one that feels real and relatable, and it will have you smiling and laughing just as often as it will make you cry. By the end of it, you’ll want to stand up and face everything this Earth has to offer.
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A Place Further than the Universe is streaming on Crunchyroll.
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