When you’re young (and hey, when you’re not-so-young, too), the greatest highs and lows come from platonic relationships rather than romantic. It’s always a sweet surprise to find a series that gives legitimate weight to friendship, and embraces the potential within for drama and hijinks in equal measure. It’s wonderful to see A Place Further Than the Universe taking this route, showing that making new friends can produce as much euphoria as falling in love for the first time, and that losing friends can cause as much heartache as any bad breakup. So this time, let’s talk about friendship, and all its ups and downs, and how it’s functioning as the emotional backbone of the show—and not just in the cute new friendship that’s formed between our main cast, either.
Now that we’ve officially met Yuzuki, the quartet of travelling girls promised in the opening credits is complete… but, heartwarming as that it, there are also some quieter machinations in the background setting up other platonic relationships and the conflict therein. There’s Mari’s bespectacled classmate Megumi who has been progressively demoted from “best friend” to “voice of reason” to “side character”, which is something it’s implied she’s not happy about. And now that the captain of the Antarctic expedition has introduced herself, there’s also a parallel group of four exploring adult lady friends… with the dreadful exception that the fourth member was Shirase’s mother, who, as we know, never came home from their last adventure.
As much as Mari’s bubbly enthusiasm is infectious, that sense of seriousness, and dare I say it melancholy, is always thrumming in the background. But the reason Yuzuki doesn’t want to go to Antarctica—the reason she finds and introduces herself to the gang in the first place—actually has nothing to do with the potential dangers. As a young celebrity, she’s been contracted to travel to the frozen south and give peppy and adorable reports on the expedition, something it quickly becomes clear she has no heart in. Her mother-manager emerges as a bit of an ominous presence and reminds her that it’s her job, dashing the haphazard plan for Shirase to go in the teen idol’s place. Seeing how keen the girls are, however, Mother-Manager offers them a place on the boat if they can convince her daughter to go.
Let me tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Zany Scheme transform into something genuinely heartfelt so swiftly. It helps that Yuzuki sees through the gang’s efforts immediately, with a deadpan sensibility that implies this isn’t the first time her mother’s pulled this sort of emotional manipulation with her career in mind. Yuzuki’s career has always come first, after all, starting from her days as a child actor and keeping an iron grip on her life up to the present, and keeping any chance at a normal teenaged existence at arms’ length—including having normal friends.
Yuzuki hasn’t had much luck in this department. Any bonds she does form inevitably fall apart (as shown in the silent and heart-shattering moment where she simply sees that her companions have left their group chat one after the other, without a word of goodbye), or are tied into the fact that she’s famous. No one has ever just liked her for herself… until Mari, dear overflowing bubbling pot of joy Mari, swoops in and instinctively gives Yuzuki a hug after hearing all this.
Yuzuki acknowledges aloud that the whole Antarctica escapade is ridiculous, but her subconscious says otherwise: that night she has a dream that Mari and co. are climbing to her hotel room window to spirit her away to Antarctica—together. That’s the spellbinding word here, not the call of the continent itself but the concept of being invited somewhere by a friend, of having someone reach out to her with sincere happiness and unconditional support. Yuzuki shrugs this off as a silly dream, again deriding her own yearning for connection, aaaand again is betrayed by her own reflexes when the gang arrive on her doorstep and Yuzuki bursts into tears.
And then there were four, each with her own reason to seek out Antarctica, all bonding together on that shared sense of adventure and purpose and companionship. The ending of episode three is downright magical, a montage of the gang roving through the polar exploration museum in Tokyo, ending with Yuzuki delightedly thinking that she could just die right now… repeating her words from the start of the episode, but in an infinitely happier context. The show gets us inside Yuzuki’s head and heart with expert precision over this short amount of time, so much so that I was cheering for and practically blubbering after only knowing her for about twenty minutes. Though that could just be that I’m a sucker for stories of platonic love, and of lonely people discovering true friendship for the first time.
Yuzuki’s life has been essentially manufactured since she got her first acting gig at four years old—it’s clear as soon as you meet her that her sparkly idol persona is branding rather than her actual personality, and this only goes deeper in the following episode as you see her dressing in much more casual, tomboyish clothes, confirming that her adorable frills are just another part of her all-important image. Her mother cuts a foreboding figure as the one who’s always leading her away from potential friendships with her peers, both in the present day and in flashbacks to childhood. Is she her manager or her mother first, you have to wonder? It seems inherently cruel to mould your child in such a way, from an age where they’re far too young to really consent. But it makes Mari’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity stand out even more.
Mari’s bubbliness crosses over into ditziness on occasion (and gets her into trouble with her strict mother, who comes down on her like a tonne of bricks when she finds out about the whole Antarctica scheme… though in a way I feel is meant to be played for comedy whereas Yuzuki’s strained maternal relationship is played for drama), but I have a feeling it’s going to make her the heart of this quest to the frozen south.
She fumbles her way through training for Antarctica, and wants to stay up telling spooky stories and goofing around when the gang is practicing camping out. But she’s got her heart in the right place even if her foot sometimes ends up in her mouth, and just as her sunshiney attitude helped Yuzuki, it seems to leave an impression on the stoic crew captain. And, as always, serves as a heartening motivating force for Shirase, who appears increasingly dour and conflicted once she’s among her mother’s old friends… the friends who came back from Antarctica alive, when her mother did not.
It’s going to be interesting to spend more time with the adults—the previous generation of adventuring friends, if you will. The parallel that’s being slowly set up between the two sets of women has me a little worried, honestly (what if something terrible happens or nearly happens on this trip to mirror the tragedy of the older group?), but I think there’s also potential here for a narrative of healing: this time, the four travellers will stay together, and their enthusiasm and friendship just might help to give the captain and her crew some closure and hope for the future after they lost their own co-explorer. Interestingly, we’ve yet to even hear of Shirase’s dad, so the grief driving the story is primarily familial and platonic.
We’ve got female friendship as a force for good, complicated friendships as a source of heartache and genuine drama, and a spectrum of mother-daughter relationships (hopefully soon we’ll meet Hinata’s, and then we’ll have a full set as well as maybe understand a little better where she’s coming from). And at the centre of all this we have Mari, who’s found a direction in life and is determined to help the new friends around her get where they want to go as well. The Power of Friendship is fuelling this expedition in multiple ways—literally, it was befriending Yuzuki that pulled the strings to allow Mari, Shirase and Hinata to join the crew; but also it’s what’s keeping the gang together and motivated, and perhaps serving to motivate the captain and her group as well. And in the backdrop we have poor Megumi, nursing her platonic heartache in the scene after the credits…