It’s on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite find the words. It’s no great distance away, and yet the closer you move, the further it retreats. It’s only separated by a window, a doorway, a photograph, but those barriers somehow present insurmountable hurdles. It’s somewhere inside you and all around you, close to your heart and separated by oceans, the most familiar of feelings and the most mercurial of truths. Regardless of our feelings, regardless of the difficulties, we must seek that intangible thing. Perhaps there is nothing else; perhaps it is what gives color to all else. It is a place further than the universe.
A Place Further Than the Universe’s title doesn’t literally apply to Antarctica. Antarctica is ultimately reachable, after all; our heroines have to work hard and scramble to latch onto an Antarctica expedition, but in the end they are only separated from their destination by a couple measly oceans. But Antarctica means more than just a physical space in Universe; it is the representation of a deeply held dream, a dream that is different for each person, and that often truly is more difficult to achieve than crossing the universe itself. It is those dreams that inspire Universe’s title, and those dreams that guide its heroines.
For Mari, that dream is ambition itself. Mari wasn’t attached to Antarctica specifically; she was simply unhappy with her mundane school life and wanted to achieve something she could be truly proud of. Occasionally in the pursuit of our dreams, we experience moments of sheer exhilaration and release, where for just a moment we are suddenly aware and proud of all the steps we’ve taken, and humbled by the steps still before us. Mari is an ideal protagonist for Universe because her goal is that feeling itself – she embodies striving for a more glorious life as a goal in itself, not simply as the natural result of pursuing any specific end. Mari wants to feel like she’s truly lived; that is the place where her journey ends, a place far more distant than Antarctica’s cold shores.
In contrast, Shirase’s dreams are directly tied to her own life story, and representative of all she has experienced. It is Antarctica or nowhere for her – that is the place her mother reached, that is the place her mother stayed, and that is the solace she must content herself with during lonely school days. Early on, Shirase’s passion for Antarctica seems driven almost by obstinance alone: “they said I couldn’t do it, but I’ll show them!” But eventually, Shirase’s feelings regarding her mother’s absence gain texture, and it becomes clear that she can’t truly say goodbye without seeing the sight her mother once witnessed. Shirase’s distant, universe-crossing goal is peace with her mother’s death, and it too is a goal that puts Antarctica to shame.
A Place Further Than the Universe often digresses from focusing on these dreams, catching itself up in the bustle and joy of the girls’ various preparations, or the exhilaration of the trip itself. For Yuzuki and Hinata, these moments of idle fun could well be their own destination; after all, Yuzuki’s destination is “a happy life with friends I can believe in,” while Hinata seems to be seeking the almost mundane youth her own life has denied her. But no matter where their adventures take them, that sense of intangible yearning, of seeking a goal beyond words, carries through. After all, many of Universe’s finest moments take place without words entirely, as music takes hold and our heroes laugh and run, caught up in the joy of their company and the exhilaration of the striving.
The destinations of Mari and Shirase don’t exist on any map, and it’s not clear whether even they will know if they ever arrive. But A Place Further Than the Universe seems to see something beautiful in that, believing that goals beyond our grasp are even more worth the seeking. Expedition captain and lifelong dream-seeker Gin possibly puts it best, when she describes the beauty of clouds as something you “can’t grasp, but that is always there.” Like Shirase, Gin is terrible at putting her feelings into words, but standing together, the two share a dream that eclipses language. Shirase’s mother waits for them, applauding their journey, somewhere over the horizon. Her old light-up stickers may well be her final map for Shirase, left like a heartfelt letter on the top of her bunk. The journey’s end may seem farther than the stars, but when you reach up, there they are, shimmering in your grasp.