Many say that the best time to travel is when you’re young. If you still live with your parents, you don’t have to pay for boring cash-sucking things like rent or groceries, and can save up for holidays more effectively. If you’re not locked into a full-time career yet, you have the time, especially if you take a gap year or jet off in the regular breaks between semesters. Some schools even offer exchange programs or class trips that can take you overseas within the curriculum! They’re a great opportunity. And you wouldn’t want to miss such a great opportunity, right? Not when youth is precious and the crushing monotony and relative lack of freedom of adulthood is looming??
It’s this anxiety about missed opportunities that plagues the lead character of A Place Further Than the Universe, and it’s this theme of direction and ambition that I want to talk about in this post. Sixteen-year-old Mari is lazing away one day when she finds a journal from middle school, containing a grand to-do list filled with things she hasn’t done. Distraught that she’s “wasting her youth”, Mari puts together a harebrained scheme to Have An Adventure, just like she wanted to when she wrote that journal. Yeah, she’ll skip school one day, and get on a train going Anywhere Else But Here! She’ll be a free agent, she’ll be throwing the stuffy confines of her ordinary life to the wind! She’ll be spontaneous and cool and have the Best Time Ever!! And… ah, no she won’t, because she chickened out at the train station and came to school anyway, mumbling the excuse that it was raining.
The conflict between Mari’s itchy feet and Mari’s cold feet is relatable no matter what age you are, I think, but especially relevant in a coming-of-age story. Fittingly, coming-of-age stories often take the form of journeys, to give physical form to that weird and bumpy symbolic road between childhood and maturity. But what if you can’t set foot on that road? Mari’s caught in a weird liminal place, wanting to dash forward and be independent and adventurous like an adult, but spurred to this by the idea that she has to embrace what remains of her “youth”. Her ambition to Have An Adventure, and the timidness that overtakes her at the last minute, are both childish sort of things, and she knows this, and hates it. She’s stuck in this in-between place, but not rooted to the ground–it would be more accurate to say that she’s adrift, so in love with the concept of flying away that she can’t possibly return to the nest, but unsure where exactly to go now that she’s aiming for the sky.
The problem is that Mari’s motivation is wafty—she doesn’t even have a destination in mind, just the vague notion of being spontaneous and freewheeling. This internal conflict is why she’s so interested in Shirase when she meets her and learns her story. Shirase, by contrast, is a sixteen-year-old who has her sights set on the sky, but very much has a destination in mind. To the point where it’s become the whole focus of her existence, the thing that defines her… for better and for worse, since her laser-focus on this goal gets her ridiculed by classmates and side-eyed by adults. To be fair, it’s a bit of an unusual dream for a teenager: Shirase wants to go to Antarctica. Her mother was an explorer who disappeared there, and Shirase is determined to get to the icy continent and try and find her.
As becomes clearer in the second episode, Shirase’s travel ambitions are just as lofty and in many ways as childish as Mari’s empty-headed notion of Having An Adventure. But Mari is fascinated by this girl who has so much drive and direction in her life, jealous but not maliciously so. Everything about that first shot where Mari and Shirase cross paths is epic, momentous, almost… holy, in a weird sense; the way the world slows down and Shirase’s hair flies out and all the light in the universe seems to bend and centre around these two girls as their lives intersect, each never to be the same. It’s a moment of destiny. Shirase drops a packet full of money, but it’s not the spontaneous retrieval of cash that changes Mari’s direction, but the girl who it belongs to.
When Mari offers to help Shirase achieve her dream, it’s partly out of genuine kindness and support, but it’s partly for herself, too: magnetised to that idea of pursuing a real, concrete dream, to finally have a destination to set her sights on, both in terms of a literal place (Antarctica itself) and a personal goal (helping Shirase find her mother). Mari is no longer drifting through youth but is doing something. She feels mature, she feels purposeful, and thus she feels good. And Shirase, having mostly been motivated by spite against her naysayers and bullies up to this point, also experiences a shift in perspective when Mari joins her. Neither girl is alone anymore, and their goal becomes that much more viable once they’re heading towards it together.
This sense of grandeur doesn’t last awfully long. If the opening credits are to be believed, the girls will get to Antarctica, but it seems a long way off at the moment. That’s the unfortunate thing about travel, you see: the idea of a grand adventure into the big wide world is all very well, but making your goals a reality means laying your dream on the cold, hard floor of the real world. A trip requires careful planning, coordination of all sorts of things, and, ugh, money. And that’s just all the normal stuff—their plans get increasingly complicated as the logistics of getting to Antarctica (a bit of an unorthodox destination) rear their heads. And they get even more complicated when it’s revealed the exploration crew have refused, repeatedly, to bring Shirase along. No, not even her half-assed and bizarre scheme to sweet talk one of the male crew members into sneaking the girls aboard can help (the scene where they try and fail at this is slapstick more than suave).
So by the end of the second episode, the pedestal that Shirase stands on has been chipped and scratched somewhat. She tuts over Mari’s motivation simply being To Have an Adventure, as well as new companion Hinata (Mari met her through work, because turns out you need to have a job to earn money so you can travel)’s similar declarations about wanting to live the best youth possible, and to “not blend in with the crowd”. But Shirase’s ambitions are equally rooted in childish ideals—after all, it’s been four years since her mother disappeared. That fact alone, especially paired with the flashback to her co-crew members distressedly shouting her name into a blizzard, doesn’t suggest much hope. Shirase is, for all intents and purposes, chasing her mother’s ghost.
So we have these three kids all caught between childhood and adulthood, launching themselves into the void for their own personal reasons: Hinata to be daring and different, Shirase to prove that she can to those who thought her idea was dumb, as well as get some closure with her mother, and Mari, who simply doesn’t want to waste the opportunity. Each character has one foot in independent, adult ambition, and the other in the idealism of childhood. It’s a strange place, this hover-space in between leaving the nest and reaching the open sky. But the journey is more important than the destination, so they’ve taken the important (if wonky) first steps.
Again, if we believe the opening credits the kids are going to get to Antarctica somehow… which case, what will they all find, in a place further than the universe? And will it be what they thought they were looking for?