When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
I’m opening with a poetry quote. You know this show is starting to mess me up (in the best way).
The episode pair we’re discussing in this post is all about the boat. You could say that the real “leaving the nest” moment happened at the end of episode five when the gang left home with their luggage in tow, but here, faced with the icebreaker ship, they’re faced more than ever before with the physical reality of their trip to Antarctica. And what a reality check it is, with all sorts of dreadful, adult, and not-at-all-dreamy things to deal with.
First, there’s the harsh realisation that the expedition that’s enabling this glorious adventure is only being held together by a few bits of wire and the power of sheer determination. Entering the world of adults, the girls learn that adults are not as powerful and flawless as they might have once believed—a real kicker of a lesson, but one essential for growing up. Safely arrived in Fremantle (which didn’t get the same loving treatment of location shots as Singapore, though we did still get some glimpses of the historic markets), the girls explore the ship that will take them to Antarctica, and get to work helping Yuzuki with her job as “cute reporter”. Shirase gets roped into a performance role too, even though she’s shy and terrible at it (Hinata is giggling at her from behind the camera the whole time, so I can only assume she called dibs on filming duty to push this situation into place). In their efforts to film around the ship, their adorable journalism soon turns to investigative journalism, as the gang notices a few concerning details about the expedition.
The crew seems very small for the size of the ship, for one thing, and media coverage of the expedition is full of ominous murmurings about low funding. Donning masks and spying on a trio of crew members (with perfect stealth and grace, of course) also reveals some worry and dissent within the ranks. When they ask Kanae, one of the leading crewmembers—one of the set that forms the parallel friendship to the main characters—she deflects the question, joking that of course they’re going to Antarctica. It’s not like it’s going anywhere! When the gang don’t accept her blunt optimism, Kanae shrugs and says the team is aware of the difficulties, but there’s no way they’re not going. It seems like the Old Guard—the friends and crewmates of Shirase’s mother—are filled with their own kind of the logic-defying, spite-and-hope-fuelled determination that looked so childish on Shirase.
This gets cemented in the most heartbreaking way possible when we meet Shirase’s mother, Takako, in flashbacks. She was, it turns out, a massive dork, full of pep and optimism and silliness in ways that remind me of Mari. I feel like this isn’t an accident, either, since she and Captain Gin are revealed to have been friends in high school, lounging on the grass in a similar location to where Mari and Shirase first meet up. Takako grins up at the much more reserved and uncertain Gin, declaring that she’d love to go to Antarctica someday, since she loves leaving her footprints in fresh snow. Was this throwaway comment from an effervescent high schooler really the driving force for the Old Guard setting sail in the first place? Hey, it’s basically what sent Mari and Shirase on the same journey all these years later, so why not?
I’ve asked this question a couple of times now, but here for the first time it really starts to apply to the adult characters in a big way: what are they hoping to find, in this place beyond the horizon? In a similar sense to Shirase, it seems like Gin, and the other members of the cobbled-together crew, are looking for Takako. Obviously, they can’t believe they’ll find her—the sweet reel of flashbacks to the original expeditions ends with the gut-punch image of Gin shrieking Takako’s name into a blizzard, presumably from which she never returned. But there’s a sense that they’re looking for closure, looking for hope, looking to continue where Takako left off, in honour of her.
Shirase brings this all together when she finally summons some courage, and tells the whole crew on stage “We’re going to Antarctica, together!” She’s coming back as the next generation, proving that life does go on. The love for Takako that’s holding this whole impossible trip together proves that she’s not really gone. And there are physical signs of this left around the place, too: namely, the glow-in-the-dark stars painted on the roof of one of the ship’s bunk beds. The gang graciously give that bed to Shirase, and she lies there silently looking up at the same stars her mother left there, a wordless moment that speaks volumes and may have just made me tear up.
Takako’s proverbial ghost takes the back seat in episode eight, where the harsh realities of living on a ship kick in for our young heroes. There’s work to do, as well as their reporting duties, and everything runs on a tight schedule. There’s also exercise, rationing, and the horrible logistics of living on a surface that’s constantly tipping and moving. We can safely add “the crushing claustrophobia, exhaustion, and helplessness of seasickness” to the list of things this series has faithfully depicted. But this isn’t enough to deter Mari (of course it isn’t). She rebuts Shirase’s “we don’t have a choice [except to endure this awfulness]” with “this is what we chose”. Through their own decisions, all four girls are now neck-deep in the realities of going to Antarctica, something that was no more than a wild idea months beforehand.
It’s amazing, when she puts it back into perspective. Hinata is so deeply moved that she gets up to… well, we’re not actually sure what she was going to do, because as soon as she moves she needs to go puke. But the inspired sentiment is still there. Through whatever hardships, everyone on this boat is determined to get to that icy rock. Gin glares into the massive breaking waves, and our four main characters defiantly cling to optimism (and the deck’s railing) as they face the ocean and their journey ahead. When morning comes, the sea is flat, and icebergs are on the horizon—they’ve gotten through the night, nausea and confidence issues and all.
The cook’s assurance that they’ll all get landsickness (the poor girls didn’t even know that was a thing) once they arrive is nice foreshadowing that the difficulties of the trip aren’t completely behind them. But there’s still a feeling that the gang has crossed an important threshold. Goodness knows their ordinary lives at home are as far away as they’ve ever been, literally and figuratively. Which perhaps means, for Shirase, that her mother is closer than ever before.
As always, Universe shows its ability to balance deep melancholy with sparkling hope (and tear-jerker moments with wacky comedy) without feeling fickle or whiplash-y. As with the episode that introduced Yuzuki, I have to applaud the way the series has effectively characterised Takako in only a few short scenes—even more effective, maybe, because now I’ve come to love a character who isn’t even here. Which of course guarantees more heartbreak in the future, since this is now the story of the rest of the cast mourning her and trying to “find” her again in the snowy wastes and the painted stars. I have to admit, the closer we get to Antarctica, the more nervous I feel. I’m attached to these characters, invested in their struggles, and genuinely proud when they come good. The opening theme tells us that ‘The Girls Are Alright’, and I deeply want that to be true.