In anime A Place Further than the Universe, a girl with long black hair drops an envelope containing 1,000,000 yen on a train platform. Unremarkable high schooler Mari Tamaki picks it up and, recognising the girl's uniform, tracks her down in the bathroom of her local high school.
Shirase Kobuchizawa, the envelope's owner, has a reputation: the freak who doesn't talk to anyone because all she can think of is getting herself to Antarctica. Tamaki returns the envelope to this strange creature, tying their fates together.
In deep friendships, the time when two people were strangers living in discrete worlds can fade away as new, stronger memories take its place. What makes people mean more to each other? Is it possible to define the moments that bond people? A Place Further than the Universe is a poem to the tender steps we take toward friendship set on a continent that, in Shirase's words, "strips everything bare."
The 13-episode feel-good drama follows Shirase's mission to get to Antarctica and find her mother, a famous scientist and explorer who went missing there three years ago. After falling in with Tamaki, Shirase meets a sardonic high-school-aged convenience store clerk named Hinata Miyake and, later, Yuzuki Shiraishi, a celebrity actress with a quiet, calm personality.
Yuzuki was assigned to stream online updates from a mission to the icy continent and, unwilling to go, tries to dump her task on the three weirdos who are desperate to get to there. Those weirdos, she finds, are in the budding stages of friendship. After a lifetime in celebrity isolation, a jealous Yuzuki accepts her role as their ticket to Antarctica in exchange for their company.
Late at night during their first tent sleepover, Tamaki babbles to the three other girls, "Want to tell scary stories?" "I could just kill you right now," says Yuzuki. Tamaki babbles on until Yuzuki warns, serious, "Please shut talking now."
Slowly, the girls' quiet sleep faces melt into stifled giggles: "What does 'shut talking' mean?" Tamaki teases. "Shut talking!" These are the slice-of-life moments that leak out of the mind as a friendship's years go on.
A lot happens in the short series. The girls strategize their way out of high school. They go to Singapore for a layover. They ride an ice-breaker. They're seasick. They're chefs, task rabbits, amateur scientists, media professionals. They're big fans of penguins. And, yes, they get to Antarctica.
None of it feels rushed. Emotions run high, with the girls pushing each other away and pulling each other closer as Antarctica's raw landscape liberates them from high school regrets.
It takes a long time for the girls to trust each other. Even in Antarctica, Yuzuki, who is offered a job on a TV drama, asks the girls to sign "friendship contracts," apparently a carry-over from her time in acting. "This way, even after our adventure is over, and we're not around each other as often, I know we'll be fine."
Her friends shut her down. Mari begins to cry. "You don't know, do you? You can't know, can you?" A contract isn't how this works. You're uncertain until you're certain.
What makes A Place Further than the Universe's great female friendships so special is that these girls aren't just blank pages for the viewer to project personalities onto. Nobody is forgettable; they're full, vivacious and stubborn in their ways. As the show went on, I was constantly surprised by how consistent and special each girl was.
Personality clashes and rude quips made it clear that their relationships were strong enough to survive small fractures. It's a winning mix of heartbreaking and easy-to-watch that, every episode, nourished me.
A Place Further than the Universe is, first and foremost, a wholesome story of good girls who want something and work to make it happen. It's easy to think at first that the "wanting" ends with Antarctica.
What becomes clear is that they want to know what friendship means. It's corny, a little, but it's easy to forget how corny those moments can feel when we're on the other end of them.