A Place Further Than the Universe is, at its heart, yet another slice-of-life anime starring cute high school girls with charmingly relatable personalities. Rather than follow these young women as they navigate the struggles of Japanese high school (saving their club from the Student Council's ax of revocation and studying for midterms are perennially popular topics for this sort of show), A Place Further Than the Universe takes the "cute girls doing cute things" trope and catapults it into uncharted territory, specifically the desolate, icy wasteland of Antarctica. The show is a celebration of female friendships, proving that all you need to get to Earth's southern continent is a bunch of friends who believe in you.
Also, a heck of a lot of luck.
Mari Tamaki begins her second year of high school in the throes of an existential crisis, or in as much of an existential crisis as a plucky Japanese high schooler can fall into. All she does is go to school, get decent grades, and hang out with her friends, and she's come to the realization that she's done nothing completely for herself. Her entire life has been nothing but familial and societal expectations, and for once, just once, she wants to be selfish. But she can't find an outlet for her burgeoning egotism. All she knows is that she wants to do something more. That "something more" comes in the form of a surprising find: an envelope containing 1 million yen, which is around $9,000. Mari's determined to get the money back to its owner, and through some keen detective work, she tracks down Shirase Kobuchizawa.
Shirase, a stoic, melancholy girl, is known as the "Antarctic Empress" by her classmates, who bully her because of her fierce obsession with Antarctica. Shirase's mother, Takako, went missing there, and while the world insists that Takako's dead, Shirase has never given up her belief that her mother is still somewhere out there in the frigid wastelands. Shirase took up a number of part-time jobs and saved up enough money to buy her way into the next Japanese-led expedition to the continent. Now all Shirase needs to do is convince the expedition's leaders to let a high school girl onto the next Antarctica-bound icebreaker so she can go searching for her mom.
Rather than tease Shirase for her bizarre plan, Mari decides to help Shirase fulfill it. The clincher for this is a book that Takako left behind, a chronicle of her experiences in Antarctica titled A Place Further Than the Universe. A single photograph is all it takes for Mari to agree to help Shirase:
Some might view the photo as a portrait of loneliness, of isolation.
But Mari is inspired.
Mari and Shirase strike up a friendship which puts a strain on Mari's relationship with her childhood bestie, Megumi. Mari tries to convince Megumi to join her and Shirase, but Megumi, whose witnessed Mari's flights of fancy blow up in her face time and time again, is terrified of watching her best friend fail so spectacularly with something so serious. Mari could, after all, easily lose her life. Megumi even goes as far as sabotaging the plan, and when she tearily confesses her selfish actions, fully admitting that she'd be okay if Mari broke up their friendship, Mari still forgives her.
Because they're still besties.
Mari and Shirase are soon joined by another girl, Hinata Miyake. Hinata is a clerk at the convenience store which Mari and Shirase frequent, and she's eavesdropped on their energetic conversations about Antarctica. Hinata abandoned her high school academic career because of bullying, and she took the Japanese equivalent of the GED. Now she's readying for her college entrance exams, but overhearing the other girls' enthusiasm for Antarctica inspires Hinata to join the group herself.
Rounding out the group of four (because, with anime, it HAS to be a group of four) is Yuzuki Shiraishi. Serious-minded and mature, Yuzuki is a child actress with a slightly waning career. Her mother/manager (I KNOW) wants her to take a new job which would definitely give her fame a boost: hosting a documentary on the next Japanese civilian expedition to Antarctica.
This is, as they say, destiny.
Yuzuki's manager comes to Shirase with a proposition. If she and the other girls can convince Yuzuki to do the documentary, then the film crew will allow the rest of the girls to join her, as having a group of high schoolers going to Antarctica would make Great Television.
Of course, they convince her.
All four of these girls are searching for something. Mari wants to give her young life meaning. Shirase is seeking her missing mom. Hinata, unable to attend high school, wants to be a part of a close female friendship circle again. And child star Yuzuki wants independence to do what she pleases, even if she has to do it in front of a film crew. If Antarctica didn't exist, they would never have become friends. As the four of them bond over the course of traveling south (first to Singapore and then to Australia), their friendship becomes unbreakable. And by the time Shirase finally discovers her mother's fate, her raking sobs aren't just mournful. It's a moment of pure catharsis for all the girls. That moment is when their expedition is complete.
A female-led world of citizen-scientists
The Japanese expedition is officially called Antarctica Challenge, a privately funded company headed to Antarctica to build an observatory. Supervising the expedition is Gin Toudou. She got to know Shirase's mother in high school, and the pair soon decided that they both wanted to someday travel to Antarctica. Without any scientific or military training, they, along with Kanae Maekawa, basically pulled together the ill-fated Antarctic expedition where Takako goes missing. Gin blames herself for Takako's disappearance and feels even more guilt for abandoning Shirase.
Although depicted as a fashion-conscious woman with meticulously coiffed hair and perfect makeup, Kanae is probably the smartest person on the expedition. She's responsible for seeking out the all-important funding and sponsorships, and she's also a logistics queen, capable of juggling the travel itineraries of the dozens of people assigned to the expedition. While Gin is the de-facto leader of Antartica Challenge, Kanae is undeniably its foundation. The entire odyssey would collapse without her.
In many anime series focused on high school girls, older female characters are relegated to comic relief roles, like the homeroom teacher who can't quite land a man and endlessly complains about her faily dates. Instead of whining about their relationships, Gin and Kanae are heading an enormous undertaking which only a handful of humans on this planet are able to do. This entirely female leadership is invigorating, inspiring, and rare. Usually, men are still viewed as leaders and women are relegated to supporting roles.
Incidentally, Kanae can't keep track of all the dudes who are into her and Gin is entirely a career-focused woman whose one true love was probably Takako.
At least, that's how I'm interpreting their relationship.
A Place Further Than the Universe transcends its gimmicky premise by placing focus on its young female characters and their deeply held friendships. The girls aren't shown as perfect. They're often selfish and blind to each other's needs. They fight and yell at each other. Sometimes the struggles of Antarctic life are nearly too much for the girls to handle. But they're struggling together, and that makes all the difference. Plus, these girls have an older group of female characters who shared a similarly intense relationship. Gin, Kanae, and Takako serve as a portal to Shirase, Mari, Hanata, and Yuzuki's future. Together, women can overcome anything, even the bone-chilling wastes of the South Pole.