[Short on time this week, so I’m leaning on floaty quotes rather than original writing. A Place Further Than the Universe is excellent, but in the same way I’ve struggled to connect with other triumphs of animation like Spirited Away, it hasn’t clicked with me somehow. Plus, Yuzuki’s far and away my favorite character in the series, perhaps making my concerns here more a matter of disappointed expectations than a genuine story misstep. And I dunno, I’m also a big fan of failure, so maybe I should take it as just another of the series’ good points]
Man, I don’t much often watch good anime anymore. I think I subconsciously avoid it, out of an odd irrational anxiety that if I consume the best too fast, I’ll run out — for good. So, between the masterpieces, I usually content myself with rank garbage …because, yuck, I seem to like it better anyway (and you never know when you’ll find a diamond in the muck!).
Given my preference for trash then, I surprised myself when I watched A Place Further than the Universe (Japanese: Sora yori mo tooi basho, apparently it’s abbreviated Yorimoi?). A friend had recommended it to me and I’ve seen nothing but praise for it online. It even made the New York Times’ list of best television shows from 2018! An anime drawing acclaim from America’s most mainline newspaper? Probably pretty good, right?
Yes, very good. Yorimoi is excellent in just about every way. Buuut… with pessimistic me, there’s always a but. I found it a little maudlin, a bit boring. Yorimoi has a strong coming-of-age message about putting “youth in motion,” explored through an extraordinary journey to Antarctica and captured by one of the highest quality television anime productions I’ve ever seen. But! As the show’s relentless positivity ground down at my pessimism and all adversity collapsed under cathartic crying sessions in the name of f-r-i-e-n-d-s-h-i-p, I began to lose interest. Yorimoi is a startling success. But uhhh… hmm… bleh. I much prefer failure.
I hate to quote Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran again, but he’s too topical (and funny!) to ignore here: “Failure, even repeated, always seems fresh; whereas success, multiplied, loses all interest, all attraction.”
To the extent that success aspires to some fixed ideal — becoming popular or wealthy, having a respected career, achieving truth or virtue or even just simple contentment — good successes all begin to look alike. Just think about the students at Ivy League universities with their immaculate academic records, stalwart extracurricular leadership experience, and identical spiritual epiphanies earned on mission trips to Central America or wherever. Maybe good life choices, but eh… Boring! It’s youth in motion, just on a fixed path towards a stop.
By contrast, a preference for failure opens consideration to everything else life might offer. All of those students have blemishes, no matter how well they hide them in their transcripts and applications. And that makes them so much more interesting. I wrote my own not-good-enough-for-Ivy application essay on my habit of oversleeping before school while half-listening to NPR weather reports on my radio-alarm clock. It didn’t impress any admission committees, but I’m glad to have failed on my own terms rather than conceding to the proper path. Failing sidewise, where will I go? I dunno! Neat. (and… ugh. scary.)
With those thoughts in mind then, I want to focus on what I consider Yorimoi’s greatest failure: the conclusion to Yuzuki Shiraishi’s character arc. Yuzuki enters Yorimoi’s narrative as a lonely, discontent child actress trying to resist her mother’s unwelcome management of her inauthentic career …but then ends the story a passive actor, again acceding to social pressure to take a role in a drama that she doesn’t seem to want to do. Though Yuzuki finds friendship on the journey to Antarctica, in the coming-of-age story, I don’t know if she asserts her youth in the same triumphant way as Kimari, Hinata, and Shirase. Unlike the other girls, who move so fast that it becomes difficult to keep up, Yuzuki… doesn’t. Instead, by the end of the series she’s still charted on that same path towards her mother’s idea of success, into an acting career Yuzuki herself doesn’t seem to enjoy.
Ah, a failure of youth in motion, and all the more interesting in an animation that exalts movement for its own sake! Let me explain where I think Yuzuki came to a stop…
First, a rapid plot summary:
Yorimoi works through a few common coming-of-age arcs, with four girls struggling to make an improbable journey to Antarctica. For happy-go-lucky Kimari, the trip gives her an opportunity to escape the stagnation of her humdrum high school life. For shrewd and worldly Hinata, it’s a chance to reset her past and make a fresh start. And most importantly, for serious and stubborn Shirase, it means fulfilling an inherited purpose by finally confronting grief after her polar-explorer mother’s icey death in Antarctica.
But then the last girl, the cool and cynical child actress Yuzuki, becomes an interesting foil to the others — she doesn’t want to go:
Would you go to Antarctica in my place? … Put simply, I don’t want to go.
Perhaps even more than Shirase with her dead mother and absent (?) father, Yuzuki presents an awful case of lonely tragedy. Though she has 38,000 followers on social media, she’s an artificial phenomenon: her most recent post only received 2 likes and 0 comments despite practically begging for engagement with the pathetic, manufactured hashtag #IFollowEveryoneWhoFollowsMe (a citation where due, credit to this excellent post from atelier emily for noticing the subtext behind Yuzuki’s social media use).
Worse though, Yuzuki has no meaningful social connections off the internet either, because frequent travel for film shoots never give her time to make friends:
But because I was so busy, I hardly had any time to play with friends.
Even her own family seems lacking. Yuzuki often fights with her impersonal mother, who tellingly introduces herself as “Yuzuki’s manager” before breezing past the line “I’m also her mother” when Kimari questions their shared last names:
Mother: I am Yuzuki’s manager. My name is Shiraishi Tamiko.
Mother: I am also her mother.
Yuzuki wishes that she could go to high school and make friends like a normal girl:
So once I got into high school, I decided I had to make friends, no matter what. I’d go to clubs, get a part-time job, buy sweets with my friends after class, do karaoke…
But as always, her time-consuming acting career makes it impossible to settle with potential friends. She has some good initial luck: unlike the socially ostracised Shirase, Yuzuki meets some girls who show genuine, earnest interest in hanging out even in spite of her intimidating fame (for example, taking pictures of her and sharing them via text message violates “likeness rights”). For her part, Yuzuki demonstrates a real eagerness (and lack of social experience) with the awkward opening line. “Would you be my friends?” However, work forces Yuzuki to delay the meet-up for repeated weekends until the girls lose interest and leave the message group:
Yuri-chan: How about next Sunday?
Yuzuki: Sorry… I don’t know just yet…
Yuzuki: Sorry, maybe next time.
Aina has left the group. Yuri-chan has left the group.
Yuzuki’s mother promises that she will have more free time in her second year of high school. But given the strong emphasis on first impressions in cliquish Japanese schools*, that’s too late. On the inadequacy of staring her social life late, Yuzuki says:
First impressions are important, aren’t they? I need to start working hard to form them right now. Proper relationships and groups… You’re basically establishing who you are.
* (Illustrative aside: my middle school has tried to integrate two transfer student boys this year. However, neither seem to have made good friends despite joining mandatory sports clubs. One has struggled so much that he stopped attending class, though he’s still enrolled and comes to school to collect assignments. The other told me just today that he still wants to make friends, even though he’s already lived here for a good three months. This is in a tiny village school, perhaps in many ways a best-case scenario for integration because no one can get lost in the crowd and close adult supervision prevents bullying. Imagine how much worse Yuzuki would feel in a large, anonymizing urban school)
Yuzuki doesn’t even seem to like her acting career. Her hit new single, absurdly titled “The Follow Backs Don’t Stop!” to recall her inauthentic social media presence, makes her so embarrassed that she drops her catchphrase “I could just die right now.” But she doesn’t seem to enjoy her basic film shoots either, feeling that her idolish public image conflicts with her authentic self with the critical line “It’s really not ‘me’”:
I just look awful in that cutesy stuff, anyway. It’s really not “me.” I can’t stand that “Look at me, I’m a girly-girl!” junk.
Unlike the other girls then, for Yuzuki the trip to Antarctica conflicts with her true desires. She’s already traveled the world; Antarctica is just another job in a career she dislikes. As a result, when we meet her in episode three, she rebels against her mother by trying to trade places with Kimari, Hinata, and Shirase, reasoning that any high school girl should suffice to make an amateurish travel series for the web. However, Yuzuki’s mother gives her no choice:
Yuzuki: “I keep telling you, I’m not going.”
Mother: “But you have to go. It’s your job, remember?”
Because Yorimoi needs some contrivance to bring four high school girls on an implausible adventure to Antarctica, Yuzuki’s mother makes a deal with Kimari, Shirase, and Hinata: if they can convince Yuzuki to take the job, they can go to Antarctica with her. Through the intervention of the other girls, most importantly in a dream and in a polar exploration museum, Yuzuki develops a creeping hope that she might make friends on the trip after Kimari suddenly hugs her:
It’s the first time anyone’s done that to me. Having friends… Is that what it feels like?
For Yuzuki then, the trip to Antarctica becomes the challenge, not the goal. On her quest to make friends, she will need to endure her dislike of cold, fear of heights, and frustrations with the cramped travel conditions. As the most cynical character, she will always notice problems with the expedition first and complains far more than anyone else with that line again: “I could just die right now” (…or sometimes when Kimari annoys her “I could just kill you right now”). By the time the boat sets off, she still doesn’t want to go but shows a willingness to take the chance if it means becoming friends with Kimari, Hinata, and Shirase:
I ended up on this boat for work. The truth is, I really didn’t want to come… but I came here wanting to do something with other people.
Of course, in Yorimoi’s relentless optimism, she becomes fast friends with the other girls even though she doesn’t fully realize it until they throw her a cute Christmas-plus-birthday party at the base. To assuage Yuzuki’s fears about her demanding career ruining their friendship, Kimari explains how they can remain long-distance friends via a spiritual connection similar to the one she feels when texting her friend Megumi:
Kimari: Right before I headed out, [Megumi] said she wanted to break things off, but I still think of her as a friend. … Somehow, I can tell, when I’m watching the screen and it pops up with the little “message read” sign … I can just tell how she’s feeling. I think that’s what friends are for me.
Kimari’s spiritual conception of friendship resolves Yuzuki’s anxieties about losing her friends after the trip. She can always count on Kimari, Hinata, and Shirase no matter how little time she has to spend with them. As she says, “We’re good friends!” (the maudlin strikes again…), regardless where the girls go after the trip.
However, that ending doesn’t settle Yuzuki’s two other problems: her apparent dislike of her acting career and her mother’s suffocating micromanagement of her life. While at the Antarctic base, Yuzuki receives a message from her mother informing her that she had passed an audition for a morning drama. The text begins with “It’s decided,” as if re-emphasizing that Yuzuki doesn’t have a real choice in the matter. For her part, Yuzuki seems reluctant because the job will mean losing time to be with her new friends:
But when the drama starts shooting, I’ll have a lot less time. We won’t be able to hang out together like this anymore!
By the end of the episode, Kimari’s idea of spiritual friendship assuages Yuzuki’s anxieties about time (anxieties which she had codified in the absurd friendship contract!). However, Yuzuki still does not seem enthusiastic about the role. When Kimari muses about staying at the base for another year, Hinata mentions Yuzuki’s drama as a reason to go back to Japan. Yuzuki’s first impulse is to then say “Well, I do understand not wanting to go back…” as a reason to stay in Antarctica, as if she doesn’t really want to do the drama. When she announces that she has agreed to take the part, she gives this lukewarm justification:
I gave it a lot of thought, and apparently some people here [at the base] may be looking forward to it [the drama].
There’s a bit of a saving grace in that Yuzuki will play the “best friend” character in the drama to apply her new understanding of friendship. But she never mentions that as the reason to take the part. Instead, she repeats the sentiment from before in the final episode, when she notices that one of the members of the research team wants to watch the drama.
There really are people looking forward to it…
That’s a reason, sure… but doesn’t it seem so weak? She does nothing to assert her independence from her overbearing mother and then adds even more social pressure from expectant fans. And then there’s the important issue of Yuzuki’s happiness: in taking the role for the drama, she hasn’t brought her acting career more in-line with something she considers “really me.”
At the end of the series, Yuzuki asks “Do you think we’ve gotten a little stronger?” I think for the other girls, yes. Their youth moves: Kimari escapes her stagnation, Hinata finds her fresh start, and Shirase settles her grief.
But I can’t find the same sort of motion for Yuzuki. Yes, she finally made real friends. But she still caves to her mother’s authority, and in a show that tries so hard to depict the importance of authenticity, she’s still working in a career that embarrasses her. In an ironic way, she may even have the odd distinction of ending the story weaker and less independent that she began. During her introduction in episode 3, she at least had the will to rebel against her mother’s harsh careerism. But when she discusses the drama in episodes 10-13, she’s driven by extrinsic motivations: she fears disappointing her mother, disappointing her fans, and even disappointing her new friends. She “gave it a lot of thought,” but she still lacks an intrinsic, emotional drive to leap into motion like Shirase had with grief or Kimari had with sheer wonderment.
If you’ll allow a little more pessimism, I’m even skeptical on conclusion of the friendship arc. Like Hinata suggests, might the girls slowly drift apart after the trip like Yuzuki’s almost-friends from high school had? Because she already has plenty of superficial digital connections in her role as an artificial social media star, Yuzuki shows a desire for physical relationships: friends she can play with and hang out with and even fight with. She wants genuine emotional closeness, like she had found in the cramped conditions of the icebreaker and arctic base or like she had felt when Kimari hugged her. But now that Yuzuki knows how the real thing feels, might she want more than Kimari’s spiritual friendship going forward? Kimari’s faith is admirable, but I don’t know if it is sufficient. I worry that Yuzuki will return to her acting career even more miserable than before.
A friend of mine suggested an interesting rewrite: instead of Yuzuki accepting the part in the drama, she could have instead leveraged her acting skills to work for herself. For example, with her friends’ support, she could have declined the drama role to pursue her own projects, like I dunno, becoming a genuine social media star without any of that “follow-back” desperation. Such a solution would have allowed her to resist her mother’s authority, have more time for her friends, and most importantly, express her authentic self.
But as the story concludes in the anime script, Yuzuki looks like the only girl to have missed such youthful motion. Of course she makes friends. But as a personal matter, she starts on the unhappy path to success as a child actress and ends much the same. It’s sad… and so much more interesting for it. Unlike the stubborn, saccharine optimism driving the other characters forward, Yuzuki perhaps presents evidence that life-changing adventures sometimes… aren’t.
For me that makes Yuzuki the most relatable character in A Place Further than the Universe. It may sound terrible, but seeing Yuzuki fail makes me feel less lonely in my current youth, wasting away my opportunity to explore Japan by writing inane blog posts about bad anime. So, uhhh… three cheers for failure!
Bleugh, I should stop.