A Place Further Than the Universe #11 and #12: The Ends of the Earth

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I think it’s pretty safe to say that the theme of this fortnight’s writeup is “catharsis”. Emotional buildup is no good for anyone, whether it lasts over days, months, or years, and sometimes you just have to let it all out. But Universe emphasises that you don’t have to do this alone.

I’m still sniffling as I type this up. Bear with me.

First, in episode eleven, we get exactly the information and closure regarding Hinata’s backstory that I wished for in episode six. The gang has the opportunity to say hello to the folks back home via a live camera feed, leading to Mari dying of embarrassment as her family mocks her unfortunate goggle-shaped facial tan… and to Hinata being uncharacteristically camera shy. Following nicely on from their conflict and resolution in episode six, it’s Shirase who attempts to investigate what exactly the problem is between Hinata and these old classmates who are calling up. Shirase soon discovers that Hinata is basically the “this is fine” dog when it comes to dealing with messy and negative emotions. She bottles it up behind a cheesy smile in public, but when she steals a moment alone she kicks the hell out of a snow drift and yells the “piss off!” she can’t otherwise voice into the white wastes of Antarctica (presumably startling a few nearby penguins, but otherwise keeping her turmoil a secret).

Eventually, with some meddling and minor privacy-invasion on Shirase’s part, the truth comes out. Hinata insists that it’s a dreadful and boring story, but her new friends are sincerely curious and worried about her. So she lets them know the reason she left school: the track team wanted her to talk down her own achievements and miss opportunities she wanted on purpose, to boost the ego and increase the chance of success for other members. Hinata, understandably, was too self-motivated to listen to these punks, and leapt at the chance to compete when she was offered it. The team turned against her for her lack of team spirit—how’s that for irony?—and began spreading rumours about her, leaving Hinata stranded in a sea of petty bullying until she decided quite rightly that she didn’t have the time or energy for this nonsense. And so she cut ties and never looked back, laughing the whole thing off in the retelling like it’s no big deal.

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Hinata is not a fan of dealing with negative emotions, it seems, and would rather surge forward with a smile and get the best out of life (for a moment here she reminded me of Minorin). A positive attitude is all very well, but we also have to consider that this girl has leapt on a mission to literal Antarctica to get as far away from her problems as possible. Which is, though exaggerated, painfully relatable. Hinata has that same dichotomy of maturity and immaturity as the rest of the main cast. Lucky for her, though, she’s part of a group of real friends now—last week Yuzu had The Power of Friendship confirmed for her, leading to a pool of bittersweet tears, and this time it’s Hinata’s turn.

Shirase becomes uncharacteristically not camera shy when the live feed goes up again. She seeks out Hinata’s ex-teammates with military-grade precision and force, explaining that unlike Hinata, Shirase is a jerk, so she’s going to say what dear sweet Hinata cannot. From this, she promptly tells them all to piss off. How dare they ruin someone’s life, then come crawling back years later with a meagre apology? Did it really take these guys this long, and the news that their victim had fled to the frozen edge of the earth, to awkwardly think “hmm, we might have overdone it, lads”? Shirase’s yelling, and Hinata’s happy and overwhelmed sobbing, is our first big and wonderful moment of catharsis.

The second is the end of the even-more-sombre episode twelve, which is about visiting the place where Takako was last seen alive.

Deep breaths, now. This is the thing that brought this whole mission together, that brought these four friends together, that has been motivating Shirase since the very beginning. So much of her life has been built around the goal of getting to Antarctica, to the point where it consumed most of her adolescence, worked her to the bone, and got her ostracised by most of her peers. Most of her peers except Mari, who can’t quite understand why Shirase is so hesitant to visit her mother’s final resting place. Isn’t that why they all came to Antarctica in the first place? Turns out the answer isn’t that simple.

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Yes, “finding” Takako is the reason Shirase worked so hard and came all this way. Which is why she’s terrified now that her goal is actually in sight: because what if it’s an anticlimax? What if the stagnant, grief-sunken haze she’s felt since her mother died does not lift? What if there is no closure, even after this massive journey? What if the place further than the universe is just a place?

Shirase’s reluctance is reasonable, even if it might not make sense on paper. Though I’ve been fortunate enough to never experience something of this magnitude firsthand, I understand that grief is complicated, and I think have just enough of a grasp to know that this story is handling it incredibly well. The entire episode is subtly, cleverly, woven tight with emotional tension, with Shirase subdued but visibly on edge for the entire leadup to the trip (in which she’s trying to decide if she should even go, gripped by that terror of numbness) and the snowcat ride itself. But it’s also tinged with hope and bittersweetness, as always chiefly in the form of Mari.

She may not entirely get Shirase’s hesitance at first, but once they talk it out she’s endlessly supportive. And she’s a very clear parallel, just as I initially suspected, to Takako herself and her dynamic with Gin. Sleepless in the snowcat, Shirase seems to see the ghost of her mother, who is soon joined by a ghostly figure of Gin, the two of them laughing and joking together. As Takako turns around, Shirase hears Mari’s voice say her name, and focus then shifts to her new source of emotional comfort. Shirase narrates a letter to her mother as the journey goes on, telling her all about the friends she’s made, how far she’s come, how she always thought she’d be lonely, yet here she is.

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And then finally the emotional tension breaks. They reach the base, and Mari, Hinata, and Yuzu set off at a sprint to try and find some proof that Takako was there. Shirase seems as numb as before, confirming her own suspicions that she’d feel no different once she got there. But then Mari finds Takako’s laptop. Graciously hands it over to Shirase, because of course it is her right before anyone else’s, because this is the last tenuous connection between mother and daughter that exists. Shirase takes it, and plugs it in when they return to the main base. She guesses that the password is her own name. And finally, finally, finally…

Shirase always knew that she wasn’t going to literally find her mother in Antarctica, and that her mother was never going to come home. But it takes seeing the thousand-plus unread emails in the laptop—all those “dear mum” messages Shirase sent her over the years—to drive it home. As the messages pile up, it becomes clear and concrete that Takako has never, will never, and can never read them, and finally Shirase breaks down and sobs. Outside, Mari, Hinata and Yuzu begin crying too, with her and for her, all clinging to each other.

I already know that I’m a sensitive soul, and in fact before I watched this I’d seen a couple of little spoilers for the episode, various people lamenting into the internet about how this ending had wrecked them. But its sheer impact still genuinely surprised me. I watched those unread emails stack up and felt pure sorrow like a physical weight in my chest, and just started blubbering over my keyboard, completely uninhibited and with no way of stopping. It’s been a long time since I had this strong and unstoppable an emotional reaction to a piece of fiction. I thought “damn, this show is good.” Or I would have, had I not been too distracted thinking “oh you poor darling” watching Shirase sob at her desk (while sobbing over my own desk out of pure sympathy).

In all this, I didn’t even have time to mention that episode eleven confirms that Shirase has two mothers and we will in fact never know or need to care who her dad is:

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A Place Further Than the Universe has my heart on a platter. I’m at once not ready for it to end next week, and completely ready to let these girls lay their sorrows to rest on the ice, and come home ready to heal.

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Filed under Alex Watches

6 responses to “A Place Further Than the Universe #11 and #12: The Ends of the Earth

  1. lowegear

    A slight correction: the password wasn’t Shirase’s name, it was her birthdate – 1101, aka 11-01, November 1.

  2. Mild Lee Interested

    Bravo! You nailed my own experience with your description of the feelings that caused you to risk ruin of your own keyboard with tears. Mine fared little better.
    Have you considered a more nuanced reason for Hinata’s anger? My own impression was that she took the encouragement of her middle year seniors to try for a place at face value – and maybe they even meant it sincerely. It was their betrayal in the face of the seniors reaction that hurt Hinata the most, I think.
    We will never know if the middle year girls deliberately used her to try to score a few points against the final year seniors or if they simply didn’t think it through and then threw her under the bus in a panic to protect their own reputations. Either way, its this betrayal rather than being pressured to put aside her own talent that is the truly crushing blow.
    I think this interpretation also gels with their later bullying – it’s a regrettably common aspect of human nature that we work hard to find reasons to put the blame on the person we have wronged, rather than admit a fault. I wonder if the bullies finally worked this out, but just completely messed up their attempt to do something to rectify their previous behaviour?
    Either way, I definitely had a fist-punching-air moment with Shirase’s “Piss off”!

  3. Zelinxia

    What Shirase endured for so long was ambiguous death: when a person is missing and never found, presumed dead at some point, or a dying person is psychologically not present. No, her mom has no way of surviving if she got swept away in the middle of a severe blizzard in Antarctica. But they could not risk searching for her body, and there was no body to bring home for Shirase to process her mom’s death. The show wrote her denial and grief well, how static her life has been, how she just drifted and waited for her mom to show up at home one day, all while knowing “but it isn’t possible”. It is and it isn’t. No death is easy to cope with, but ambiguous deaths and dying make it so much harder for survivors, because

  4. Pingback: The Fault in Our Starscreams: March ’18 Roundup | The Afictionado

  5. Pingback: A Place Further Than the Universe #13: The Girls Are Alright | The Afictionado

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