Anime Review — A Place Further Than The Universe (Madhouse)

Pitbull would be so proud of these girls.

One of the highest ranked shows on anime ranking sites. Top five on most popularity charts for that Winter season. Impressive blu-ray sales in Japan. In fact, I heard that when the penultimate episode aired, Japan loved it so much that it placed really high on Amazon’s pre-order rankings for a time. Like ninth place or something. The bottom-line is that people love A Place Further Than the Universe. And it wasn’t the sort of love that peopled showed Re: Zero or Madoka Magica either. It wasn’t even the same acclaim that “highly popular but MAL wasn’t quite on board and it’s sort of faded over time anyways” series Girls Und Panzer received. A Place Further Than the Universe’s acclaim is actually on the same level as The Tatami Galaxy and Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu in that it achieved great critical acclaim, decent but not outstanding popularity, and very few memes making up the substance of the praise. In other words, a series that stood out based on the writing and animation alone.

Well, that and appealing to people who have a travel fetish – which I have discovered is quite a lot of people. Seriously, if you go to any dating site, you’ll see that travel and food is something that accompanies a lot of profiles, male or female.

So yeah, this anime was really overdue for discussion on this blog, wasn’t it? If you’re wondering why this review is coming out about six months after the show ended rather than during the emotional high that all of Japan felt during its conclusion, it’s because I don’t have a travel fetish and thus needed enough distance from the series’ hype so I can gauge if there was appeal beyond that. While I understand the appeal of weekly watches and rebelling against Netflix’s binge-watch policy, I’ve always been one of those people who have been a tad allergic to hype, and these days it seems like anime fans are conceding too much ground in regards to considering a series good as long as the characters appeal to them and whatever story is on the horizon looks interesting. Crunchyroll isn’t helping either. I like Hero Academia too, but quit shoving that series in my face like it’s the only action show that matters.

Anyways, what really surprised me about A Place Further Than the Universe when it ended, and what motivated me to finally give it its own review, was that it kept its high ranking amongst fans several months after the conclusion. Believe me, that’s pretty rare even amongst the most popular and acclaimed series of today. Megalo Box fell out of favor with a good chunk of the fandom after its conclusion. The Ancient Magus’ Bride went away pretty quickly following its ending to the point that I never see it discussed anymore. Violet Evergarden is a strange case in that I see a lot of people saying it was overhyped, and yet it still maintains almost as much acclaim as the Madhouse anime that you’d think KyoAni would be associated with. This is why I prefer looking at anime after time has passed. Because at the end of the day, an anime can’t be good if the moment it’s over, you forget everything about it. And since we’re apparently not going to be forgetting A Place Further Than The Universe anytime soon, that’s all the proof you need to know that this is something that actually deserves a spot on Crunchyroll’s Anime Awards.

To be fair, it’s not like the show doesn’t have known talent behind it. The creators of this series are the same people who made No Game No Life in terms of production team and studio. However, the funny thing about that team is that it’s really hard to remember their actual names. Despite being a female director with a unique visual style who has worked on several acclaimed series over the last few years, Atsuko Ishikuza has never really broken into the mainstream the way Naoka Yamada and Rie Matsumoto have, and I’m not really sure why. The series composition guy, Jukki Hanada, has been around forever with a lot of KyoAni shows and other high-profile projects, including the currently airing Steins;Gate 0. I’ve always found him to really struggle when he tries to go original, so seeing that he actually wrote something not based on any source material that many people adore is quite the accomplishment for him.

The premise however, doesn’t really lend itself to an inherent amount of excitement on paper. It’s about girls wanting to travel to Antarctica. I’m sure there are people who would watch a series based on that description, as Yuru Camp also became a hit during the season this came out and it was basically an anime about girls going camping. But is it a premise that inherently lends itself to becoming one of the best anime of all-time? I would say no, but to be fair, anime fandom has changed a lot over the years. In fact, at the recent Crunchyroll Expo, Ishikuza had a panel discussing this series and it turns out a lot of people were drawn in by the premise’s originality. Okay, originality is overrated to begin with, and it’s true that there aren’t many sisterhood premises where the girls go on a big trip, but the idea of a big trip itself isn’t exactly new territory in the world of fiction y’know.

Still, I feel like any real criticisms I could make for this show will either get swallowed up or immediately countered by the waves of positivity it’s enjoyed throughout the months since airing. My colleagues who still enjoy the weekly episodic blogging thing have explained what makes each episode work in excruciating detail. For christ’s sake, Gigguk and Mother’s Basement already made really popular Youtube essays on the show’s appeal that I bet most of you guys have already seen. So I’m just going to say this about the narrative: it pulls a lot more punches than I’d expect for a drama series that’s well-known for being more of an adventure than a slice-of-life.

The way this episode resolved itself was so freaking stupid.

For such an acclaimed anime, there’s a shocking lack of big moments throughout the narrative. Obviously, you can’t just throw them at the audience without establishing context, but I didn’t think it’d take 3/4 of the series to establish the actual trip to Antarctica. The preparations for said trip aren’t bad in terms of developing character and getting into some complicated human psychology, but it’s treated a lot lighter than I’d prefer. Lots of training and explaining the requirements needed to make such a long journey. Some personal drama that’s mostly just there to make the characters interesting whilst contributing little to the actual story, like how one of the main girl’s friends is jealous that she’s not going to Antarctica with the group.

It’s only during the last quarter where we actually get a lot of the interesting character drama. Stuff like people bullying you for your talents, only to turn around when you actually accomplish something because they want to ride on your coattails. Or what it means to actually be friends rather than just someone tagging along. That’s the kind of conflict I want to see when I watch these kinds of tales. The kind of conflict that makes the characters question themselves and is resolved more through determination rather than “oh I done goofed”.

I never really saw the point of this character. She felt really extraneous.

But that’s just my problem, as there’s a big market for happy anime, especially when it involves Japanese sistahs. Cute girls doing things has ironically gotten more popular than ever now that the moe boom has died out thanks to Love Live and series in the vein of Girls’ Last Tour/Land of the Lustrous in that they combine their giant female casts with impressive substance (to the audience. Not necessarily to me). Hell, one of the most popular anime to like right now is a series about cute girls fucking each other over like they’re auditioning for a Japanese version of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And while the entire cast is diverse, let’s not forget that the main leads in RWBY are all female.

Not to mention, the creators have flat-out admitted that the series is not meant to be a complex look on talent and what you can and can’t do. The main characters are based on the director’s actual girl group right down to Shirase being the animated version of her, and apparently she’s of the mindset that you should never listen to Nagito Komaeda from Danganronpa 2 and always strive for whatever you set your mind to so you can rub it in other people’s faces. Even if I think a series like Sound Euphonium does that concept better because it showcased how trying to achieve your dreams can sometimes interfere with other people who have similar dreams, if I dismissed an anime just because another anime surpassed it, I’d have to dismiss something like My Hero Academia. Because trust me, there are a lot of superhero anime from Tiger & Bunny to Darker than Black that I’d rather watch instead of that, several made by Bones themselves.

However, there is one big aspect of A Place Further Than The Universe that I don’t see brought up too much and what I think is the main appeal of this series: the way it looks at sisterhood.

Now you’d think a series with an all-female cast would be about sisterhood by default, but that’s not actually the case. Or at least not the definition of sisterhood that I use. Now the basic definition of the term is that it’s the bond between two girls, but do you know how many cute girl anime actually try to sell itself on the bonds between its female cast? That make it a core part of the narrative? Surprisingly very little.

A lot of the times, the bond is either just there and given token acknowledgements once in a while, or it devolves in an exploitative yuri mess. There aren’t many anime that really use sisterhood as its main selling point the way brotherhood is utilized in Fullmetal Alchemist and a ton of Shonen Jump sports shows. And while I’m definitely not female, I can actually get pretty engaged in sisterhood tales when they’re executed with the respect that the genre definitely does not get in America, but has a welcoming place in Korea. They go by a different set of rules than I’m used to, but the overall emotions that can come from sisterhood are universal in the same way that lot of males can relate to a badass female action star as long as she has the charisma of Sigourney Weaver.

The thing about sisterhood when done well is that it’s a great way to provide characterization to females without having them become dependent on men. Females growing as a result of their interactions with male characters is a good way to characterize them as well, but there’s nothing quite like interacting with your own sex at the end of the day. Especially since too many fictional writers are in love with the idea that males and females can’t interact with each other without it turning into romance unless at least one of them is gay. And I’m starting to realize more and more that the reason I don’t like a lot of monogender anime to the point that I mostly ignore them unless told otherwise is that they never really take advantage of the fact that they have an all-female cast or an all-male cast for more than just a cynical marketing ploy.

But Sound Euphonium appealed to me because the girls do actually grow in important ways through their interactions and band struggles. Around half of Shirobako is focused on the relationship between Aoi and her former female classmates, and people liked that. One of my favorite Korean movies is Sunny, the 2011 big hit that’s still being remade to this day because of how good it was. That film was about a young girl joining a gal group and the various ways she and the other members grew into adults of varying success, only to look back on their childhood and what has become of them as a result of one of the members dying. And what sold me on the movie wasn’t just its mixture of personal drama and hilarious set pieces. The fact that all of the women ended up in various places different from how they envisioned certainly helped, but that’s just a result of the film’s strong characterization. Spoiler alert: while there are males characters in that movie, they don’t interact with the female cast much.

And A Place Further Than the Universe is rife with using sisterhood as a means for characterization from the very beginning, which is probably the real reason why it got so much acclaim from the very start. I know that initial reviews mention the interactions as part of the series’ charm, but I don’t think I saw one that went into specifics regarding why those interactions carried the anime. Yes it’s female friendship, but female friendship is everywhere in anime, and a lot of boring anime at that. Why does it stand out here?

Well the first thing that any anime should do is start off with a clear hook for all of these positives to circle around. In this show’s case, it’s the dream of going to Antarctica and the motives behind said dream. Why are we supposed to care about this trip the characters want to do? Well the initial lead, Mari, is doing it as one last hurrah before her high school life is over while the next main character, Shirase, is doing it because she’s searching for her mother. They’re joined by two other girls whose initial motives honestly escape me at this point, but I do recall it having to do with their talents and the false friends they made with them. The bottom-line is that we now have this group of four who want to go on a vacation that’s honestly hard to get approval for due to permissions and training, and they all have their own established motives whilst being united by a common goal.

The characterization truly starts to come when the girls start learning about each other and whenever one of them runs into a personal problem, the other girls support them with their own personal beliefs. And without getting into any real specifics, that’s pretty much the main strength of A Place Further Than The Universe on a narrative level right there. It may not sound like much when you say it out loud, but you’ll be surprised at how much anime forgoes the simple nature of just giving the leads some personal philosophies and having said philosophies interact with each other. Of course, there’s the question of whether the characterization that results from this is enough to make a masterpiece. Well masterpiece might be too high an achievement for just strong characterization alone, but depending on how much you gain from this show’s characterization, I can somewhat understand why it manages to rank so high amongst anime fans.

Doesn’t scenery like this make you feel enraptured?

One big advantage in A Place Further Than the Universe’s favor is that it’s short, so everything is in it that needs to be in it. When coupled with the characterization and great animation style, you’ve basically got the gender-flipped version of Ping Pong: The Animation. The settings themselves are varied and beautiful for the most part as well, which is very important considering this is an anime where the main draw is the vacation. Fun fact, the creators of this show couldn’t actually visit Antarctica to faithfully recreate it, because the producers or whoever was in charge made it clear that they had to stay in Japan whilst doing research. But even with that handicap, I’ve got to say that the anime’s depiction of Antarctica is pretty damn good on a visual level. Maybe people who actually go there will complain about the ice not looking right, but whatever. I’m not expecting anime to be 100% realistic at any time.

I need to be honest on one thing though: I did not cry or feel all that sad when a certain tragic reveal was made. Part of the reason for that is due to how the fanbase couldn’t shut up about that part of the story so I was aware of it long beforehand. Part of that may be because I’ve recently been indulging in some Mother 3 and I’m sort of full on devastating losses for a bit. But the main reason is because, well, I didn’t really expect a certain someone to be alive at that point in time, and it never felt as major a part of the story as it probably wanted to be. Yes it did take up a large chunk of the author avatar’s arc, but it felt like the longer the show went on, the less important it was to the narrative. Kind of like how the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents motivated him to become Batman, but because he fights crime for so long, said murder stops being a valid excuse to justify his actions or keep him interesting.

The use of silence in this scene though was amazing.

However, it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day since I very rarely cry or feel too sad at fictional stories to begin with, so I generally don’t use it as criteria in regards to liking something. And honestly, when it comes to A Place Further Than the Universe, I don’t think it really matters if I actually like it. Yes the same could be said for Fairy Tail and Crunchyroll’s current #1 hated anituber, but I don’t mean in regards to how “so many people love them that any criticisms I and a lot of other people have will be silenced by the insular fanbase”. I mean in the fact that I don’t see much wrong with the series, and it has good writing and animation, but how much you like the good parts is entirely up to you, and I’ve made my decision regarding how much I enjoy them. I do think A Place Further Than The Universe is better than Devilman Crybaby and Violet Evergarden in terms of Winter 2018’s anime selection for the record. Certainly better than Darling in the Franxx.

It all depends on what interests you at the end of the day. But honestly, I hope most people are interested in sisterhood, because it’s something we really need to start pushing for more of if you want me to start taking cute girl anime seriously. None of that gimmicky “we’ve got tanks” stuff in Girls Und Panzer. No “we are doing cute girl shit except we’re assholes” jokes like Asobi Asabase and Daily Lives of Highschool Boys. I’ve never seen Blend S, but I’m fairly certain I don’t want any of that either. I want there to be a good reason for why your protagonists are girls. I want said girls to experience hardships and grow as characters. And I want them all to stick together through their personal arcs, even if said relationships can get tested at times. We do all of that, maybe I’ll starting taking this genre more seriously. And maybe that Japanese remake of Sunny will actually be good.

If you’re one of those moe-hating folk who doesn’t care for sisterhood in general, let alone what A Place Further Than the Universe has to offer, you might as well just continue to ignore this genre. Because the alternative is to act like a certain controversial figure who demands that Crunchyroll stop licensing horrible anime and giving him only what he wants (also, let’s not forget that Crunchyroll co-produced this anime). Imagine if I did that and actually succeeded. There would only be like, a hundred anime on that platform at best, some of which a lot of people hate, and it would exclude Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Yeah I’m not a fan of that show, but why would I want one of the most influential anime series around to not be legally available for its huge fanbase? And also, why would I deprive myself of that glorious “Is that a Jojo Reference” meme?

======================================================================

  • A Place Further Than The Universe can be streamed on Crunchyroll or VRV.
  • For the record, I know there are other complaints against Crunchyroll than just what they stream. I just don’t think them getting the simulcast rights to, say, Bakabon should be one of them.
  • Yes, SoraYori is the preferred way to call this anime, but I really don’t like that nickname.
  • Question: how many people can actually remember what happened in every episode of Megalo Box as of right now without looking it up?
  • God this review took a long time to write up.

8 responses to “Anime Review — A Place Further Than The Universe (Madhouse)

  1. Wow that’s one hell of a review! This wasn’t even on my radar, but now I’ll definitely check it out. I trust most Madhouse shows anyway, but I think I’d probably really enjoy this show’s writing as well.

    • As someone who actually wholeheartedly enjoyed it, I’d definitely suggest to do so. I think it can work even for people who aren’t usually into moe, in fact, though of course the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so if you absolutely positively HATE the notion of cute girls doing reasonably cute but also somewhat badass things, maybe it’s not your cup of tea.

    • This review took so many hours to write because sisterhood is really hard to discuss regarding why it works and when it doesn’t. It’s more of an emotional thing than something you can quantify.

  2. I can still remember what happened in at least half of the episodes of Megalo Box, but that’s just me being an outlier from anime fandom consensus.

    Before this review I was just lumping Further than the Universe and Yuru Camp into a single series-of-tropes show in my head. Now I’m actually considering watching the show, so thanks for that!

    It’s rare to see you offer primarily positive praise for a show like you did with this one. You made it clear that it’s still not perfect, of course, and I’m glad for that. When you’re praising a show it legitimately feels like a show worth praising.

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