Epic battles, near-death experiences, courageous heroes and dastardly foes -- no, A Place Further Than the Universe has none of those. The show instead features four high school girls who join a civilian expedition to Antarctica, focusing on their burgeoning relationships and how the journey helps them grow and move on from failures and losses in their lives.
However, when this original anime from Madhouse slipped under the radar in the winter 2018 season, it caused a complete turnabout in how the show was promoted, suddenly being touted as an adventure story. Despite this, A Place Further Than the Universe is an ideal slice-of-life title and one that deserves to be remembered as one of the greats.
A Place Further Than This Universe Has a Proper Place In the Slice-of-Life Genre
Why was the reception for this anime so cold? A major problem was that, despite receiving rave critical reviews, the show was thrust into a market full of cute girls doing cute things, which unfortunately meant that many people didn't give it a second glance. It was time for a rapid rebranding. A Place Further Than the Universe began to distance itself from its own genre to try to attract viewers while at the same time being the perfect example of it.
Anime like Anohana, Violet Evergarden, and The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. have all embraced the slice-of-life label despite being filled with the supernatural, the steampunk and the psychics. A Place Further Than the Universe is much more grounded in reality, and to sell it as an adventure story neglects its core strengths as a slice-of-life narrative. The show dedicates long moments to appreciating the natural world as well as devoting great chunks of time to focus on the characters and how they develop, creating a story based on the characters rather than simply placing random characters within a plot. Even though the story eventually leads to Antarctica, it depicts the daily schedule of life in an expedition rather than adrenaline-packed adventures, and it takes over half the series to reach Antarctica at all.
Many episodes are devoted to singular problems with no true purpose other than getting to understand the cast and strengthen their bonds. The goal of the story is for characters to reach a place of emotional fulfillment rather than achieving a physical reward for their journey, much like Seishuu Handa's goal in Barakamon was to become a more mature adult through his journey. Finally, in one of the most important aspects of a slice-of-life, A Place Further Than the Universe is extremely immersive, with characters that are easy to connect with and deliver great catharsis through their experiences with everyday problems and relatable emotions.
A Place Further Than the Universe is undoubtedly a slice-of-life anime, but beyond that, it's also one of the best. From the greatly fallible and intensely lovable characters to one of the most impactful anime scenes of all time depicting love and grief, the show is leagues beyond cute girls doing cute things, and deserves a second glance from all who may have skipped right over it. Here are some key ways the show is at the top of its game.
Say Goodbye to Cutesy Heroines In A Place Further Than the Universe
The characters in A Place Further Than the Universe can be straight-up unlikeable at times, but that simply makes their growth and their shining moments all the more important and gives viewers someone more relatable to root for. Shirase seems like a composed and mature high school student but is frantically working every job she can with one intent: raising money to go to Antarctica, the place where her mother Takako died as part of the last civilian expedition three years prior. The way Shirase talks makes it clear she isn't convinced her mother is dead, sending her near-daily emails that never get a reply. She is headstrong and vindictive, ignoring those who mock her ambitions in favor of imagining the day she can laugh in the face of anyone who doubted her. She clings to the book her mother wrote on the beauties of Antarctica and is consumed by her one ambition, to the detriment of every other aspect of her life.
Kimari longs to be spontaneous in the short time of youth she has before graduating high school. However, even a carefully planned attempt to skip school ends with her sliding right into her desk before the bell. She may dream of adventure but she isn't cut out for it. Clinging to Shirase's enthusiasm gives her the purpose she had been lacking, and she falls in love with the idea of Antarctica as well. Of all the girls, she is the type with the most clueless, naive personality that often appears in "moe" shows, but that is not depicted as a positive trait here. In fact, it has led to her forming relationships with friends who validate themselves based on her dependency on them. Those friends fight against her desire to leave for Antarctica and attempt to cut ties when the friendship is no longer what they want.
Hinata has dropped out of school for reasons unknown but is still preparing for college entrance exams. She works part-time at a convenience store and eavesdrops on interesting customers, which is how she joins the group. She is friendly, funny and extremely intelligent, yet lacks friends. With time to spare before the exams, she asks to join the group, though she lacks any real passion for Antarctica at the time. Hinata plays everything close to chest despite also being the brashest and seemingly confident of the group. She is unable to ask for help when needed yet adopts the role of a teacher at times, imparting wisdom upon her 'pupils' with her own quotes. This habit makes her seem very hypocritical and, while well-meaning, also fake. While she gives the impression of being the wisest of the four, her tendency to self-isolate can lead to a lot of trouble, and she would rather run from problems than try to find a solution.
Yuzuki is the youngest of the four, an actress pushed by her mother to do a video series while on an Antarctic expedition -- an idea she absolutely despises and would apparently rather die than have to do. She longs to have normal friends without the pressures of fame. She always has her cellphone within reach, with a scattering of contacts who make plans for after school or parties, which Yuzuki cannot connect to. She is aimless in her own life and sees herself as a victim despite never really making a stand for her own agency.
When plans for Shirase to simply pay her way into the expedition fail, teaming up with Yuzuki is the best way for all of them to reach Antarctica, and it's the first time Yuzuki sees people willing to fight for her friendship and perhaps people to fight back for, even if its only to stave off her own loneliness. She is quick to assume the worst, passive in her own problems, and willing to use people's emotions without true reciprocation.
The meeting of these four young women changes things beyond expectation, beyond the dream of going to Antarctica. Three of the four are unused to having any companions at all while Kimari's friendships have been toxic, so the experience of being together practically around the clock for months on end forces them to adopt a deeper connection that's more like sisters than friends. Their varied personalities lead to conflict and new understandings, yet none are expected to change who they are. Shirase can be self-absorbed, Kimari isn't always the brightest, Hinata likes to keep secrets and Yuzuki tends to whine. They are loved despite these faults because this is not a show about becoming a different person, but of maturing as the person that you are.
If any viewer relates to the more negative aspects of the girls, they are not preached at to become better but shown that these emotions and traits are pieces of real people that can be worked on rather than required to disappear before one can find a place of belonging. It is alright to still be evolving and find love at the same time.
A Place Further Than the Universe's Relationships Are Down-to-Earth and Relatable
The relationships between the characters are both refreshing and heartwarming. The high school girls get into ridiculous arguments that are painfully realistic to true fights between friends, from bickering about who looks most like a university student to squirting water from a bathtub into someone's face to stop their complaining. One episode involves is a frantic run-around in the Australian layover point, searching for a missing item, which ends in the responsible characters being forced to eat the most disgusting food the others can find as punishment (possibly a familiar story for anyone with siblings).
There are plenty of sweet and funny moments as well, such as the repeated attempts to shoot Yuzuki's videos that reveal Shirase's unexpected shy side, and the training exercise where the girls get hopelessly lost and have to redo the exercise several times over, much to the amusement of their trainers. The opening to the show is a montage of small moments, from posing for perspective photography to enjoying a moment in an Antarctic hot spring and showing off some impressive facial tans. The relationships grow in the midst of this appreciation of small moments and the beauty of nature, allowing them to build up over time as opposed to in sudden leaps of emotional maturity.
The time the show is willing to set aside to build these relationships pays off tremendously. One such instance is when Hinata's past finally catches up to her, and the ferocity with which her friends defend her has been built on months of coming to learn and love each other, making the emotional fallout of Hinata finally opening up feel real and relatable. Yuzuki's constant questioning over what exactly constitutes 'friendship' leads to answers that might not be definite, but which explore the way she has been existing in the group without even considering them as friends. Her realizations of belonging have taken months to surface, but the hints of doubt have always been there, waiting to be dragged into the light.
The presence of the adult characters adds layers to the relationships that grant emotional stake and complexity to the girls, as well as lending more mature problems to the mix. Expedition commander Gin and vice-commander Kanae were both members of the previous expedition and close friends with Shirase's mother in a neat parallel to the four girls. Gin and Kanae are returning to the very place where they were forced to listen by radio while Takako was lost during a violent storm. Their relationships with Shirase are bound up in grief as Shirase continues to deny her mother's death, and both are looking for some sort of redemption in returning to the place where they lost their loved one.
Other adults deal with long-distance relationships, a lack of alcohol and the simple dilemma of being cooped up in a small space for months on end. The way they fully rely on the girls to do their part to keep everyone alive, especially in the shadow of Takako's death, allows the girls to discover unknown strengths in a way they wouldn't have without Antarctica, such as having a great way with people or even cooking.
Ready the Tissues for Some Well-Deserved Emotional Impact
Of all the strengths in A Place Further Than the Universe, the handling of Shirase's denial of her mother's death is one of the most powerful scenes of grief and acceptance out there. For the entire show, Shirase has spoken as if her mother is waiting for her in Antarctica, even though Gin, Kanae and the viewers all know better. She has been sending emails to her mother for years, updating her on day-to-day events. Takako is dead, but it takes going to Antarctica for Shirase to be able to accept this. She can look back on the years she clung to a desperate hope and finally break, not just because her mother is dead, but because she denied reality for three years and the weight of that all coming down at once is too much to bear.
Once again, the show pulls through on its potential, taking Shirase's grief and expanding it to anyone who has ever lost a loved one, had their hopes crushed or held onto a futile hope. The truth is that Shirase's mother was never waiting -- that all those emails went unread -- but Shirase can now finally say goodbye. Much like the ending to Anohana or the sadness lingering in every episode of Violet Evergarden, A Place Further Than the Universe uses loss as a way to wrap up the show but then reveals a way in which the characters can keep moving forward.
A Place Further Than the Universe is a show that delivers in every way. The characters, faults and all grow in unexpected directions that leave them poised for their futures, even if those futures diverge. The relationships between them are endearingly realistic, both the rough and the smooth patches. The catharsis granted by Shirase's grief and acceptance nearly feels like a physical weight removed. The show is grounded in the detailed everyday existence of the slice-of-life and deserves to be labeled as such.
It is not an adventure series, but a show that ought to be seen and appreciated for exactly what it is. A Place Further Than the Universe is a triumph of the slice-of-life genre and genuine in everything it does, fulfilling every promise and likely to stir up just a little wanderlust as the girls stare up at the shimmering southern aurora.