Hey all, and welcome to the new season! We’re still only a few days into the season proper, but strong new premieres are already dropping left and right, and I’ve already found myself stunned by the phenomenal first episode of A Place Further Than the Universe. The show’s unique premise and talented director Atsuko Ishizuka already had my interest piqued, but this premiere went above and beyond to sell Universe as one of the shows to watch this season. So today on Why It Works, let’s celebrate the high points of one of this season’s new stars, as I count down five of the unique strengths of this Antarctic expose!
#1: A Painful Portrait of Adolescent Uncertainty
Universe’s heroine Mari Tamaki dreams of truly achieving things with her life, of going on adventures and accomplishing great deeds and generally living a life she can look back on with pride. But when she wakes up on the first day of her second year of high school, she’s presented with a diary that contains only that: the phrase “get the most out of youth” followed by blank pages, the empty indicator of a year spent going through the motions. From there, Universe’s reflections on Mari’s fears, and the counterbalancing fear of failure that keep her from acting, are portrayed with sensitivity and acuity, giving a sense of universality to the story’s human drama. There is a fear of inaction and a fear of failure in all of us, and Universe’s articulation of that push and pull makes it hard not to root for poor Maki.
#2:Tremendous and Hilarious Character Acting
While Mari might be plagued by anxieties about not living her best life, A Place Further Than the Universe is certainly not all doom and gloom. Mari’s attempts to expand her horizons are as funny as they are sympathetic, and Mari’s own visual expressiveness make her an easy character to follow. When Mari is introduced to the Antarctica-obsessed Shirase, Shirase’s own absurd expressiveness makes her personality clear in moments. By the end of this episode, we arrive at sequences where the bonding of these two girls is so clear in their body language that we don’t even need to hear what they’re saying. Universe’s premiere consistently demonstrates the ability of well-animated character acting to bring characters to life.
#3: A Somber Yet Beautiful World
Atsuko Ishizuka has already made a clear name for herself directing shows like No Game, No Life and Hanamayata, but I feel A Place Further Than the Universe may be her prettiest show yet. Forgoing the consistently wild colors that defined much of her earlier work, Universe’s reserved greens and warm yellows convey a sense of a world just waking up, a perfect compliment to Mari’s own feelings. From compositions that initially leave Mari stranded in vast, imposing spaces, the episode builds to gorgeous sequences of her pursuing her own dreams, her buoyant spirits echoed by the beauty of the world around her. Wherever Universe goes from here, it’s already demonstrated a world worth exploring.
#4: A Filmic View of Light and Sound
Ishizuka’s approach to visual storytelling goes far beyond Universe’s appealing colors and dramatic compositions. Her love of intense lighting and dramatic post-processing techniques means A Place Further Than the Universe often feels more like a theater film than a television series, with scenes like Mari’s first introduction to Shirase making strong use of variables like a train’s screaming approach. Soft focus offers a sense of heightened, dream-like reality, while upbeat insert songs add transcendent impact to her most triumphant moments. If Universe can keep expanding its aesthetic vocabulary like this, it could be one of the most visually striking shows of the year.
#5: A Story Told Through Every Detail
Yet, even putting aside the show’s plentiful character animation and post-processing tricks, the fundamental visual storytelling present all through this episode give me great hope for the show to come. I’ve already mentioned how the show’s compositions work to echo Mari’s feelings of alienation, but the dramatic shift of her resolution to chase Antarctica is also illustrated in all sorts of other ways. Early on, Mari’s cluttered room both offers plenty of character-building details and also reflects her own place in life, her lack of focus and complacency with a sedentary life. When Mari first tries to break free, her failure is framed as a reflection of the rain, and her lowest moment comes as she stands in the cold at a lonely train station. By the episode’s end, both of those motifs are paid off; Mari’s determination to act is accompanied by her home faucet match cutting to that old train station, and her actual exit is underlined by the reveal of her now-tidy room.
Little tricks like that might not seem like much, but they reflect Universe’s understanding that stories aren’t told purely through dialogue. Every element of Universe works hard to bolster this compelling story of a girl who’s not sure what she wants, and the friend who draws her towards Antarctica. I’m thrilled by the strength of Universe’s premiere, and excited to see where this beautifully articulated story goes!