A review of A Place Further Than the Universe

Man, now this was a series that took a while to get through. Not because it’s long, however. Not because it’s bad, either — just the opposite, in fact, but this is another one of those “it’s complicated” situations.

A Place Further Than the Universe is a 13-episode original anime series that aired in 2018. It feels like it’s been around longer, however. I’ve heard it brought up so often in must-watch anime lists that it seems to have reached classic status more or less instantly. Part of its high profile might have to do with its makers: Madhouse is another excellent anime studio, responsible for some of my absolute favorites like Kaiji. Between being a Madhouse production and its general reputation as a great story, I had very high expectations going into A Place Further Than the Universe.

And while those expectations were absolutely met and even exceeded, again, this is a complicated series for me to sort out and write about. A lot of that probably has more to do with me and my own feelings about life than about the series itself, so warning: I might get a bit personal this time. But if you’ve read this site for a while, you know what to expect from me. And if you’re new — welcome, thanks for reading, and I hope you’re okay with some personal griping. It’s part of what I do.

Enough of that shit for now — on to the show itself. Serious massive ending spoilers warning this time; A Place Further Than the Universe isn’t the most plot-heavy show ever, but the plot it has is pretty damn heavy and it’s hard to say anything meaningful about the show without addressing that aspect of it. If you prefer to go in raw, go ahead and watch the show because I recommend it without qualification, but more on that below.

Our story opens with Mari Tamaki a.k.a. Kimari, a high school student who’s desperate to do something interesting with her life before she graduates and enters the dreaded real world. The trouble is Kimari doesn’t have any particular interests and seems too timid to take any kind of risk. She can’t even bring herself to cut class to take the train to Tokyo one day, simply taking the train going in the opposite direction right back to school, where she meets her classmate and childhood friend Megu with a defeated feeling.

That changes when Kimari has a chance encounter with Shirase Kobuchizawa, another one of her classmates. Despite them being in the same grade at the same school, Kimari doesn’t know Shirase very well. Nobody does, in fact, because Shirase is shrouded in mystery. After she accidentally drops an envelope full of money on the train platform (a million yen, less than it might sound to some — about $9,000 as of this writing, but still a massive amount for a high schooler to be carrying around) Kimari recovers it and returns it to Shirase.

Get used to more emotional outbursts as the series continues

Partly out of gratitude and partly because Kimari is now privy to her situation anyway, Shirase tells her that she’s saving money to go to Antarctica to find her mother Takako, a researcher who was lost there a few years before and hasn’t been heard from since. And to Shirase’s surprise, Kimari asks if she can go along — this is just the adventure she was looking for. A little more of a commitment than taking the train from Gunma to Tokyo, as Shirase warns her, but Kimari is determined, and the pair start working on their plans. Along the way, Kimari and Shirase find still another girl to join them, more or less by chance. Hinata, Kimari’s co-worker at a convenience store, overhears her conversations with Shirase about their plans and expresses interest in going as well, saying she doesn’t have much else to do anyway.

The final addition to their team is the least likely, but also the most helpful in some sense. After being refused a spot on the next civilian expedition to Antarctica staffed by Shirase’s mother’s researcher colleagues, the now-trio of girls stumbles upon Yuzuki, another high school student who also works as a pop idol. Yuzuki actually has a spot on the same expedition that Shirase and friends were trying to land, part of a marketing scheme arranged by her agency, but she doesn’t want to go. After becoming fast friends with the group, however, she’s moved to tears by their kindness and decides to go — but only on the condition that Shirase, Kimari, and Hinata can join her. Following some arm-twisting she gets her way, and the four friends are now on the long and hard path to Antarctica.

Yuzuki and Hinata. I skipped over a lot of details, but it’s pretty much the power of friendship again. But not quite as usual.

A Place Further Than the Universe feels like a prime candidate for one of those “what I watched/what I expected/what I got” templates. What I expected was a cute, nice slice-of-life kind of series about four girls going to Antarctica. Normally I don’t go in for slice-of-life by itself, but this series is highly regarded enough that I wanted to give it a shot. Aside from that, I also have an interest in Antarctica, though I’ll probably never get to go myself. There’s something about how isolated and far from civilization it is that appeals to me, though it’s apparently not exactly “unspoiled” the way it’s sometimes talked about (see Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary Encounters at the End of the World for more on that — it makes a nice companion piece to this show.)

I did get all that from watching this, but while the show is about four girls going to Antarctica on the surface, that’s not quite what it’s about at its core. I didn’t pick the above screenshot randomly: Universe really is about friendship. And of course, that might elicit some groans — another anime that talks about the power of friendship, how original.

Sightseeing in Singapore on the way down, but it’s not all good times

To its credit though, Universe gets a bit deeper into the subject than you might expect, exploring not just the nature of solid friendships but also that of fragile ones. Just before Kimari leaves for Antarctica, her friend Megu confesses that she’s been spreading ugly rumors about her and Shirase, about how they were able to get the resources and money to go on their trip. But it’s not quite out of jealousy that she can’t do the same — Megu is really upset because she now feels useless to Kimari, who used to rely on her heavily but is now standing on her own. After confessing to her vile acts, Megu declares that they can’t be friends anymore and turns away from Kimari.

And then the show subverted my expectations, but in a good way. Instead of returning Megu’s bitter feelings and letting her walk away, Kimari hugs her from behind, rejects her “break-up”, and runs off, with the implication that they might be able to rebuild what they had after she returns. Megu is left in tears, obviously feeling like a massive piece of shit, likely all the more so because instead of the mutual rejection she was probably expecting she was shown love instead.

Kimari really doesn’t let much get to her.

That kind of subversion might not always work, but it worked for me because it’s consistent with Kimari’s character. Throughout the series, the bonds between the four main girls are also tested in various ways, and while there are a few arguments and plenty of tears (a whole lot of tears, in fact) they come through it all the stronger and more closely bound.

These emotional moments aren’t the cheap eye-rolling kind, precisely for the reason that they’re pretty well earned. Universe does a great job at building well-developed characters quickly — a must considering how much it tries to do in its short 13-episode run — and as a result, all the ups and downs they go through are backed up by the proper context. I never once wondered while watching this series why the hell Kimari, Shirase, Hinata, or Yuzuki were doing, saying, or thinking something, or at least not once their reasons were revealed. I read a review shortly after finishing the show that accused it of cheap emotional pandering, but this is my response — everything that happens in Universe has the necessary context, and I didn’t even find the many crying/outburst scenes all that excessive.

There really are a lot of them, I can keep posting these screenshots all day

It’s also important to note where Universe didn’t subvert my expectations, but again to good effect. From almost the beginning of the series, Shirase expresses her desire to go to Antarctica to find her mother, carrying the book she wrote about her travels with her (titled A Place Further Than the Universe, a nice title drop there.) For a while, nobody brings up Takako’s almost certain fate — not even her friends and colleagues in charge of the expedition who end up supervising and mentoring the girls — but eventually reality has to be faced.

This is where Universe really proved its worth to me. When I saw the title to the second-to-last episode — the same title as Takako’s book and the series itself — I knew what I was in for, but the way the show executed the revelation of her fate and Shirase’s response to it was just about perfect. I don’t even want to spoil it here, even though I gave that urgent spoiler warning above. All I’ll give you here is an admission that it moved me to tears.

That’s not a light statement coming from me — I’m normally like one of those Easter Island stone faces; I hardly ever cry at anything. I don’t say that to imply that I’m a real tough guy, but rather that I’m kind of unromantic and emotionally cold or at least extremely guarded. Yet this show managed to break through that armor and get to me.

So unless my bullshit and sappy nonsense detection meter is completely out of wack now, I don’t think there’s anything cheap about Universe or the feelings its characters express and share. It’s a well-done coming-of-age story about four girls finding themselves and learning what it means to truly be friends and to cope with loss.

Again, that really is the core of the series. Most of it doesn’t even take place in Antarctica — it takes our protagonists about a third of the show to even leave Japan and another third to actually make it down to the continent, and there are plenty of slice-of-life-style bits throughout, all the way up to the last episode when the girls return home.

Shirase even takes some time during a party with her adult colleagues to beat their asses at mahjong. This looks just like a still from Akagi, in fact — maybe because Madhouse also produced that show! Is this a subtle reference?

The only issue I think some viewers might take with Universe is just how quickly it can turn from cute girls doing cute things slice of life messing around to intense drama and emotion and back again. Several of its episodes have this kind of roller coaster quality to them, with some serious lows and highs. A couple of those “high” scenes early on got to me in a bad way, as full as they were of youthful optimism for the future — exactly the kind I’ve more or less lost as a bitter, depressive adult (coming off of my stint as a bitter, depressive teenager, but at least I did have more wonder about the world then than I do now, or more than zero anyway.) But I won’t hold that against the series; it’s entirely on me.

And I can really relate to Hinata’s feelings here.

I’ve seen people suggest Universe as a good “relaxation” sort of series, but while it is beautiful-looking and has some light elements to its story, I don’t know if I’d recommend it as a light watch myself for the above reasons. Most of these episodes had a lot to take emotionally speaking, which is part of why it took me a while to get through the whole thing despite only being one cour long.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. I highly recommend A Place Further Than the Universe to just about anyone. It’s well-written, has compelling characters going on an intense and difficult journey, both physically and emotionally, and it looks amazing on top of all that with just the kind of quality work you’d expect from Madhouse. Do yourself a favor and watch it.

It also has penguins, because what kind of series about Antarctica would miss out on penguins? Apparently they stink, though.