The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide
A Place Further Than the Universe
How would you rate episode 1 of
Place Further Than the Universe ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
Every season we get another batch of shows about four moe high school girls who band together in pursuit of some vague gimmick that isn't quite enough to separate them from the other ninety-million shows about high school girls delivering lukewarm 4-koma punchlines that will hopefully sell at least four pieces of merchandise per fan. You've seen it all at this point: the genki girl, the studious young lady, the kuudere and the tsundere will gather around a love of photography, bug collecting, unicycle hockey, or some other godforsaken thing that ensures we get about four episodes devoted to that hobby, a dramatic non-climax in the last 2.5 episodes, and a beach episode and a hot springs episode in the middle somewhere. If these shows are going to have a gimmick, I demand a gimmick worth animating, dammit!
Enter A Place Further than the Universe, a title desperately in search of an abbreviation that thankfully seems to know exactly what it's doing otherwise. Rather than learning traditional dance or shogi, these girls are going to Antarctica, and they're not treating that daunting goal lightly. We've only met two of the four so far, but this episode is fully focused on exploring their character traits in-depth as they affect their personalities and desires, instead of as silly quirks to set up tepid jokes. They're still pretty cutesy-poo in action, but at least it seems more in service of injecting the series with a can-do attitude and heartening tone that female viewers can relate to, instead of giving them shallow marketable traits to deliver a fantasy to a male audience. (I guess I'd call it a little more Love Live! and a little less Love Live! Sunshine in its level of plasticky cheer.)
The sympathetic character writing, unique production aesthetic, and slight bent in favor of adventure over iyashikei give A Place Further than the Universe a definitive edge over most cute girls doing cute things shows. Even if this isn't normally your genre, (I'll admit to not being in the mood for this sort of thing right now), this is the good stuff, starting off its story with heart, ambition, and a refreshing lack of artifice compared to its peers. I'd give this series a chance just to see how it's going to get these girls to Antarctica and what they expect to find there. (Could it be friendship and irreplaceable memories? Nah, probably just penguins.)
Wow. I'll admit, my expectations for A Place Further Than the Universe weren't exactly sky-high going in to this first episode, mainly because I found the premise to be a bit ridiculous. Many minds have gone to great lengths to put adorable high-schoolers in just about any situation imaginable, but to think that a gaggle of anime girls might go on an honest-to-goodness scientific excursion to Antarctica was just too much of a stretch for me, or so I thought. Not only have I changed my tune completely, but this premiere was so gob-smackingly good that I watched it twice in a row, just for the joy of it.
In fact, upon finishing it again I was immediately reminded of Made in Abyss' opening episode, in that this is a stunningly confident and exquisitely crafted production on every single level. Studio Madhouse's crew is turning out some positively lush animation that blends well with the photorealistic background art, especially with the delightfully expressive character animation given to our two heroines, Mari and Shirase. The music is soft and appropriately moody when it needs to be, and a well-timed musical interlude near the end of the episode is note-perfect. There's and end-credits montage in this episode that manages to pack more charm and whimsy in just a couple of minutes than many series can muster up over the course of dozens of episodes.
That Atsuko Ishizuka and Studio Madhouse would turn out a lovingly produced series is no surprise, but what ended up being the most effective in this episode is the achingly heartwarming script. Instead of piling on a series of contrivances to get its cast out and improbably exploring the frozen wasteland of Antarctica, A Place Further Than the Universe ends up taking its time to tell a coming-of-age story that is precisely about the joy and fear that comes with chasing a dream that snarky adults like me will write off as an impossibility. Mari wants nothing more than to be the kind of person that can go on any kind of adventure, and she ends up finding the perfect partner in Shirase, who has dedicated her entire life to pursuing her dream of traveling to Antarctica, even if it means saving up a million yen on her own, and being rejected by her peers as an eccentric outcast. That Shirase is doing all of this to try and pick up the trail of a missing mother that by now must be long dead is simply another layer of heartfelt melancholy that this episode balances out with the sheer ferocity of its earnest optimism.
It is nothing short of astounding that A Place Further Than the Universe can so quickly and joyously establish Mari and Shirase's characters, their friendship, and the necessity of their quest in just a scant two-dozen minutes. Before diving in to this premiere, I scoffed at the very foundations of this show's premise. Having gone through this absolute joy of an episode twice now, I can safely say that if Mari and Shirase don't make it to Antarctica, I'll be the first one out there to lead the inevitable rioting in the streets. The new season of anime has only just begun, and already A Place Further Than the Universe has set a ridiculously high bar. The other Winter shows are going to have to work mighty hard to measure up.
The premise is the stuff of classic young adult adventure stories: a girl who yearns to do something different but has long been too timid to carry it out finally finds the inspiration she needs in another girl, who has a compelling reason to go on a seemingly-impossible journey and the will to make it happen. In this case, the heroine is only taking her first steps toward this journey by the end of the first episode, but that's fine. Given where she and her new friend are planning to go, preparing for the journey could be as interesting as the journey itself.
Even if I don't follow this series to the end, I will at least check out the next couple of episodes, as I am quite intrigued to find out how the girls wind up in Antarctica. After all, that's not exactly a place that you can normally go for a casual vacation, field trip, or work study, and this series doesn't seem to be fantastical in nature thus far. Willpower alone won't get you to Antarctica. Perhaps Shirase's mother having been a researcher there will give them an opportunity? However it happens, the icebreaker featured at the end of the episode and the opening theme will apparently be their ticket. How the cashier girl and the other girl get pulled into this also remains to be seen, although this could be a case where a singular strong will sets everything into motion.
The first episode is well-constructed in its setup, portraying the characters and their crises convincingly without getting too serious, and the budding friendship between Mari and Shirase already looks promising. It still looks like it could go down more of a slice-of-life route than an adventure story, but given that the girls will eventually be in Antarctica, I'm willing to cut the series some slack on the lead-up. It also looks fairly sharp, though I don't see the appeal of outlining characters in white, similar to last year's Tsukigakirei. The music is spot-on too.
Overall, this series looks like it has significant promise, which combined with IDOLiSH7 makes for a stronger-than-normal start to the season.
Adolescence is the edge of a precipice. On the other side is adulthood, full of nine-to-five routine and responsibility. Mari is quickly approaching the end of her youth, and like many of us, she's finding that she was so busy being comfortable with the everyday that she forgot to have an adventure while she still has the freedom to do it. There's the fear of change of course, but underlying that is her fear of failure. It was this revelation that immediately endeared Mari to me.
Initially the episode presents her like an optimistic if somewhat lackadaisical protagonist, all set to skip school for the first time in the name of low-stakes youthful rebellion. In most anime, she'd spend her Wednesday shopping in Tokyo and catching a movie, maybe even having a fateful meeting with a romantic interest as reward for shirking society's rules for an afternoon. I once skipped Biology to walk down the road to the nearby Dairy Queen and snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to meet a boyfriend (spoiler: I was caught). Mari's never been caught, because the very idea of not getting away with it is too nerve-wracking. So Mari keeps her laces straight and resigns herself to sleeping until noon as a way of letting loose.
Mari's foil is Shirase “Antarctic” Kobuchizawa, who is straight up a breath of fresh air. She's the series “eccentric loner” but in a way that feels entirely more grounded than this usual character type. She's single-minded in the pursuit of exploring Earth's final reaches, a goal that sounds completely nuts to her peers and opens the door for bullying. Once she and Mari are together, it's like magic. Suddenly, Mari has a clear goal and Shirase has the supportive friend she's always wanted. Obviously the cast will expand to include two more, but I'd be content just with the initial duo.
What helps sell the show is just how endearing its cast is immediately. Madhouse establishes this in the show's opening sequence, which is a very specific kind of cute that won me over with its sunglasses wagging and silly photo ops. This kind of silly humor permeates the rest of the episode; just keep an eye out for tongue-in-cheek signage semi-hidden in Kusanagi's beautiful backgrounds.
I don't know if Mari and Friends will make it to Antarctica, but I really hope so. By the episode's end, I wanted nothing more than for these two kids to have the most fulfilling, youthful adventure of their lifetime.
It isn't often that a preview guide gets to begin on such a promising note. The original anime A Place Further Than the Universe, despite its somewhat silly premise of schoolgirls planning to head to Antarctica, looks like it might have that magic combination of a good heart and an exciting adventure. In part this is because its central plot is based not on any sort of contrived excuse to put cute girls in arctic snowsuits, but on a very solid emotional core: one of the lead girls lost her mother in the Antarctic when she was in middle school. Right now it isn't clear whether Shirase's mom was a scientist or a photo-journalist, but we do know that she went missing a few years ago, leaving Shirase with a lot of unresolved emotional baggage. She tells Mari, who looks to be the main character, that her mother left her very little, and it's very clear that this is driving her need to go to Antarctica to find her. This firm emotional footing provides a much clearer reason for the story's action and development than I was expecting, so that even if the girls never actually manage to get there, the idea of Antarctica is enough to move the plot forward.
The episode is largely shown from Mari's point of view. She's a believable kind of emotional mess, prone to extreme emotions and simultaneously upset by her anxiety and kind of grateful for it since it gives her an excuse not to do scary things, even if she's then upset by the fact that she can't do them. (In other words, a seventeen-year-old just figuring herself out.) She can be irritatingly loud and shrill, but she still comes off as genuine, a kid who knows what she's “supposed” to be doing as a teenager, but she's very conflicted about it. It isn't so much Antarctica that appeals to her as Shirase's adherence to the idea of going to it: she admires her sense of purpose. It's what Mari herself feels she's lacking, so she's all set to latch on to someone else's dream if that's what it takes to motivate her.
The art is predominantly anime character designs on much more realistic backgrounds, which seems to be working out thus far. There's a nice fluidity to the animation and the realism of the ship Mari and Shirase go to see (interestingly also named Shirase) helps lay the groundwork for what they want to do – it would really be a detriment to the story if the scientific portions and the “how to get to Antarctica” parts were too unrealistic. The music is sweet and lovely, which balances the show nicely, reminding us of the emotional center of the whole thing. On the whole, this looks like it has a lot of potential, even if some of that is for a bittersweet ending.
I was a little worried about what I'd find to watch going into this season, but if A Place Further Than the Universe is anything to go by, I think this season will turn out just fine. This first episode was a basically perfect premiere, selling its world, its heroine, and its thematic heart in equal measure. Executed with visual grace and aural aplomb, this episode establishes one unlikely antarctic expedition as a story to watch for this season.
I had at least some expectations going into this, on account of Universe's director Atsuko Ishizuka. Ishizuka has always struck me as a brilliant director in search of her first worthy project. Though she's done distinctive work on shows like No Game, No Life and Prince of Stride, she hasn't really had the chance to elevate writing that matches her visual strengths. Ishizuka possesses a love of vivid color, a strong sense of visual pacing, and a clear understanding of lighting's diverse powers, but there's only so much those can do to bolster a script that can't bear the weight. So far, Universe's understated but emotionally rich storytelling seems perfectly capable of matching her talents.
Story-wise, this episode is mostly dedicated to establishing our heroine Mari Tamaki. As a second year high school student, Mari is plagued by anxieties about not living her life to the fullest. Universe's reflections on Mari's fears, and her articulation of the counterbalancing fear of failure that keeps her from acting, feel unusually sharp for a slice of life, and give this episode a real sense of emotional weight. By the time a potential trip to Antarctica is introduced, that trip already possesses a significance that extends beyond its appeal as an adventure. Antarctica represents an embracing of your true self, a breaking free from the tethers that keep you chained to your routine. Universe's consistent layering of this thematic point gives this episode's early sequences an almost painful poignancy, and its later scenes a profound emotional punch.
This engaging narrative is significantly elevated through Universe's altogether phenomenal execution. Even from the flashback cold open, it's clear that Universe possesses a restlessness of direction and emphasis on strong lighting that sets it apart from your average show. As the episode continues, gorgeous little highlights emerge left and right, from the lived-in messiness of Mari's room to the buoyant splash as she runs through a puddle while planning her first escape. Antarctica impetus Shirase Kobuchizawa is introduced through a train station sequence that combines the harsh train lighting with well-used soft focus to create a sense of magical import. Personalities are established through expressive character acting, and relationships through the physical interplay of close friends. Shirase's dreams are accompanied by beautiful long shots of the surrounding town, while Mari's early feelings of helplessness are underlined through compositions that consistently dwarf her in the plane. When Mari's final turn comes, her emotional shift is illustrated first through a match cut of her home faucet echoing her earlier failure, and then through the reveal of her now-tidy room, an equally well-established motif representing her initial complacency. Universe's visual storytelling is beautiful, purposeful, creative, and incredibly consistent.
Even the sound design of this episode works hard to impress. Not only does the show possess a vast array of uniquely orchestrated melodies, but it also understands the value of silence and purely diegetic moments. Mari's big finale is accompanied by not one, but two separate vocal insert songs, the second of which compliments a train ride that sells Mari and Shirase's developing friendship through character acting alone. Universe's premiere is an embarrassment of riches in basically all respects.
If I have any complaints about this episode, it's that the show's reliance on filtered real-life backgrounds felt a little too noticeable in a couple key moments. But that's an almost trivial complaint in the face of everything this episode did well. I'm not sure what the rest of the season will bring, but if you have any tolerance for slice of lifes or coming-of-age stories, A Place Further Than the Universe is absolutely worth your time.
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