If there’s one thing Madhouse Studios knows, and they know a lot of things, it’s how to make an anime with impact. Black Lagoon, No Game No Life, and One Punch Man are just a fraction of the bombastic offerings they’ve put out over the years that get their viewers’ blood pumping and minds racing. Even getting away from the high-octane action, shows like Chihayafuru and My Love Story have a charm and energy to them that make them just as wonderful to watch.
That said, when A Place Further Than the Universe started airing this winter season, I was more than a little skeptical. Not only was this a departure from Madhouse’s tamest of stories, but the studio’s last venture into the “cute girls doing cute things” genre, Hanayamata, was mediocre at the best of times and utterly lacked the spark of creativity that they are known for.
Despite all that, A Place Further Than the Universe has managed to not only differentiate itself from Madhouse’s stellar lineup, but from anime in general. It tells a story so grounded in reality, with emotions so relatable, that you can’t help but become invested in it. What really sets the show apart from the rest, however, is Madhouse’s conscious decision to delay the satisfaction of the viewers, an action as unheard of from the storied studio as it is ballsy.
Making a Carrot On a Stick
From the start, the premise of embarking on an Antarctic expedition has been the selling point for A Place Further Than the Universe. Right off the bat, we’re acquainted with Shirase Kobuchizawa and her fervent goal to join Japan’s Antarctic expedition team after her mother went missing during the last one. Antarctica is a unique concept and locale that has never been explored in anime, and rarely in media in general for that matter outside of documentaries. It’s an interesting hook that gets people curious who may not watch these kinds of shows normally. After watching the first few episodes, though, it becomes apparent that it’s not so much a hook as it is a bait, but that’s not a bad thing.
Despite Antarctica being presented as the driving force of the series, the show takes its time reaching the titular “place further than the universe.” The bulk of the story consists of Shirase and her three friends going about their everyday lives while fervently working towards their Antarctic goal. It’s pretty standard slice-of-life affair with a group of chipper girls never giving up on their common goal. Taken outside the context of said goal, it’s a setup that has been seen countless times and, indeed, it would be easy to feel almost cheated by what the series promised.
While these episodes appear slice-of-life in nature on the surface, however, they each serve a specific purpose to the overall story. This progress is methodical and defined, but most importantly significant, and it’s this significance that keeps the viewer coming back for more despite the rather simplistic proceedings. An early episode about deepening friendships laid the foundation to even get on the expedition. An episode featuring orienteering training in the mountains drives home just how difficult this expedition can get. An episode about coming to terms with inferiority propels one of the characters, Mari “Kimari” Tamaki, into confident action. Each and every episode serves a greater purpose, continuously building and building towards this grand culmination that is Antarctica, and what a culmination it is.
By the time Shirase and her friends finally set foot on the least trodden continent on Earth, it doesn’t just feel natural, it feels earned. Their arrival doesn’t feel like a matter-of-fact occurrence, like some preordained event that was only shoe-horned in there to be different. Not one moment in the show prior had it not been leading up to this moment, and Shirase’s triumphant “In your face!” shout resounded all the more for it. You feel a connection with the girls, like their victory is your victory, and that is something truly amazing for what had been up until this point a slice-of-life show.
The series doesn’t just drop those slice-of-life aspects at this point, however. Instead, it calls back to them, contrasting them against the pure white landscape to emphasize some genuinely astonishing character growth from the girls. Numerous emotional highs hit one after another, but they wouldn’t have reached nearly the heights they did without us having seen everything Shirase and the others had to do to get to where they are, now thousands of miles away from home. These moments are impactful because you feel proud of the girls and what they have accomplished, and that acknowledgment from the viewer is something that had to be earned.
The Risk-Taking Balancing Act
A Place Further Than the Universe doesn’t make much sense on paper. It’s a show about Antarctica, but we spend less than a quarter of the show in Antarctica. The premise is a fascinating one that, on the surface, appears severely underutilized. This would almost be the equivalent of a basketball anime never playing basketball, or a shounen fighting anime never having a fight until the tenth or so episode; it doesn’t make sense, especially coming from a studio that’s hallowed for its instantly gratifying shows. Delaying that hook, and therefore that gratification, would normally be a death knell for a series such as this.
Yet that is exactly what Madhouse did for A Place Further Than the Universe, and it is all the stronger for it. They didn’t want to just throw cute girls in Antarctica doing cute things and call it a day. Instead, they meticulously took their time developing the characters, developing the premise, developing the progression; they made sure everything checked out to create a believable and relatable story, all the while risking losing the viewers’ interests. It was an ambitious tactic for an anime original story, one that has not been enacted to quite this extent in any other show.
This strategy paid off in spades though, and it has cemented A Place Further Than the Universe as a shining example that sometimes, the journey is just as important as the destination.
You can watch A Place Further Than the Universe on Crunchyroll.