A Place Further Than the Universe takes an out-there premise and injects it with a passion rarely seen in modern anime.
Anime loves a good slice-of-life/girls-doing-cute-things story any day of the week. Be it through sports, starting a band, camping in the woods, hunting for buried treasure, making an anime, driving World War II–era tanks, or simply exploring a post-apocalyptic wasteland, countless animated teenage girls have their found their place in the world while pursuing a goal, no matter how out there it may be. For the girls at the center of A Place Further Than the Universe, that goal happens to be going to Antarctica. For Shirase Kobuchizawa, specifically, it’s about finding her missing mother, who disappeared on an expedition to the frozen land mass several years ago.
This single-minded focus, not to mention a drive to save up as much as she can to travel to Antarctica, drives away most of her high school peers, with the exception of Mari Tamaki, who joins her on her quest out of a desperate desire to make the most out of her youth. And they’re not the only ones in this; they’re soon joined by Hinata Miyake, a high school dropout who just wants to rub it in the face of everyone who goofs off in high school, and Yuzuki Shiraishi, a child star who has developed quite the mental age due to working when she was young. Of course, from there, they quickly find that putting together a plan to go to Antarctica is so much easier than actually putting said plan into action.
This is the beating heart of A Place Further Than the Universe, an original 2018 winter anime directed by Atsuko Ishizuka and animated by Madhouse. You might remember Atsuko Ishizuka from her previous role as the director of visually exciting anime adaptations like No Game, No Life and The Pet Girl of Sakurasou. (Everyone has to start somewhere, right?) Right away, the premise is a pretty big draw; true, we’re so used to anime girls doing just about anything nowadays, but what other anime can you say had a place like Antarctica at the center of its story (and no, Neon Genesis Evangelion doesn’t count here)? The phrase “further than the universe” actually refers to two things: both the ambition of traveling to Antarctica and the plausible location of Shirase’s mother, which, as the anime goes on, is slowly implied to not actually be Antarctica.
Ironically, for a show that’s all about Antarctica, a large bulk of the plot in A Place Further Than the Universe—about two-thirds of a 13- episode cour—actually occurs outside of Antarctica, and it’s easy to see why. Simply starting a journey like this takes a lot of work: earning money to go on an expedition, finding an expedi- tion, getting said expedition to accept them, and actually training to get a feel of what the expedition will be like are all huge hurdles to clear, and those are just the things you need to do before you get on the ship and start barfing day after day with no end in sight. It’s absolutely refreshing for an anime like this to give all of these details appropriate weight—yes, even the barfing—in the story, rather than just dropping the girls in Antarctica right at the beginning.
A Place Further Than the Universe has a knack for regularly swaying between being a cute-girls- doing-cute-things story and a unique, coming-of- age youth drama. Nonetheless, this voyage is at its best when the characters outshine the actual voyage. All four members of the central quartet feel fresh and fleshed out, and never like bland archetypes with predetermined quirks and catchphrases. Each girl gets introduced pretty early, and each one has a distinct personality and her own particular motivations for wanting to take the trip: Shirase wants to find her mother (as well as tell everyone who doubted she could to suck eggs), Mari wants to make the most of her youth before her time in high school comes to an end, Hinata wants to stand out from the rest of the faceless masses, and Yuzuki, who was actually going in the first place thanks to her celebrity status, stays onboard because she thinks this is the perfect opportunity to make friends.
Even the archetypes they’re based on have a little bite to them. Take Hinata, for example; at first she fills the archetype of the fun, energetic girl pretty well, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s done a lot of work to carve out her own path in life, even going as far as to drop out of high school just to pull it all off. Shirase, mean- while, has plenty of moments of clumsy enthusiasm to counter her normally capable and dedi- cated wise-beyond-her-years attitude; she yearns to go to Antarctica more than anything, but trying to talk into a microphone makes her freeze (no pun intended) like a deer caught in the headlights. And all of these girls have one thing in common; they’ve all rejected the concept of living completely normal lives and blending in with regular society. Traits like these end up turning Antarctica into more than just a symbol of impossible dreams; now it’s a paradise for out- casts who have rejected normalcy and want to do their own thing.
And with great characters comes great humor. Ishizuka’s distinct form of directing helps a lot of the comedic timing stand out and makes some of the more familiar punchlines feel fresh, and it can successfully pull a grand emotional state- ment out of even the silliest of scenes. It’s a fas- cinating balance—making scenes that are sin- cere enough to resonate with people, while simultaneously not being so overbearing that they start to become excessively sentimental. The anime respects the aspirations of its charac- ters. At the same time, however, it’s not afraid to remind us that these girls are still teenagers try- ing to find themselves, that none of them are prone to thinking things all the way through. In A Place Further Than the Universe, serious and passion are presented as equals. And helping out these particular moments is the anime’s art direction, which is pastel-esque in execution; Madhouse does a fantastic job when it comes to conveying expressions and body language—I point to Mari pretending to be “sexy” in the sec- ond episode as a great example. While the char- acter designs as a whole don’t really seem to be all that colorful or original, this actually makes them perfect for the show’s realistic premise and grounded atmosphere.
A one-cour series currently streaming on Crunchyroll, A Place Further Than the Universe ultimately proves to be much more than “Cute Girls Doing Cute Things: Antarctica Edition.” What Ishizuka ultimately delivers is a unique coming-of-age dramedy that takes great care with the small details and real-life concerns of such a trek, all while delivering big when it comes to crafting emotional statements and strong characterization. As of this writing, the four main girls have finally approached the edge of Antarctica with their host expedition crew. What will take place from here on out is anyone’s guess, but if the execution of past events is any- thing to go by, it’s safe to say that it will all be a very cool (no pun intended) journey.
A Place Further Than the Universe is available from Crunchyroll.
This story appears in the August 2018 issue of Otaku USA Magazine. Click here to get a print copy.