A Place Further Than The Universe Ep. 12: There’s beauty in the breakdown

Shirase remembers the day she first learned of her mother’s death, and she likens the experience to a dream from which she can never wake up. Gin and Kanae tell the girls that they can finally return to where Takako disappeared, but it’ll be an arduous journey; they’ll have to take the snowcat there. Surely, Shirase will jump at the chance, right? Isn’t this why she came to Antarctica? Instead, the girl hesitates. She wants to think about it. She feels as though she’s still living a dream, and if she heads out there, she’ll find something that’ll make her wake up. Unbeknownst to her friends, a small part of Shirase still clings onto that impossible hope that her mother is still alive. Why else would she still send all those emails to her mother? And should she ever confirm her mother’s death, then she would have to give up those emails. Even if her mother can’t respond, Shirase can pretend as though Takako can still read them. This is why she’s still living a dream and not a nightmare.

Naturally, the other girls are concerned about her, but Shirase tells her friends that she’s not feeling particularly stressed or depressed about the situation. This might sound surprising for us to hear, but I believe her. I believe she feels pretty normal, but that’s only because she’s numbed the pain. Even in her flashbacks, we don’t see the girl shed any tears. We don’t see the breakdown that usually accompanies such tragedies. This is because she has been living that impossible dream ever since she learned of her mother’s death. If there’s even the slightest chance that Takako can still read her emails, then Shirase won’t truly believe that her mother is gone. She won’t let go and cry. She’s come this far thanks to this belief. Ironically, her mother’s tragedy plays a large role in fueling Shirase’s determination. It’s not the only factor, but it can’t be denied. She’s known as the stubborn girl who never gives up, but as morbid as this sounds, she has Takako’s death as her source of inspiration. She can accomplish the impossible, because her heart yearns for the impossible dream that her mother is still alive. Unfortunately, there’s almost always a downside: Shirase’s will is stronger than most kids her age, but she also can’t move on. At the very least, Shirase has some self-awareness: “Maybe [I’m feeling] too normal, I guess.”

By numbing ourselves to the pain, we also inadvertently numb ourselves to true happiness: “I was convinced that when I arrived in Antarctica, I would start crying.” You might think she’s talking about tears of sadness, but listen on: “These are the same sights my mother saw. My mother was so moved by these sights. This place is so wonderful, no wonder she wanted to come.” Shirase wants to feel the same joy that her mother felt about Antarctica. She wants to share this connection with Takako. But she can’t. Because she can’t feel the full brunt of the tragedy, she also can’t feel a lot of other emotions related to her mother. It’s not that we want Shirase to have a breakdown and cry like a “normal” person. It’s that the girl runs the risk of sleepwalking through life’s greatest experiences if she never wakes up from her dream: “But that wasn’t what I ended up thinking at all. The most I could muster was ‘Wow, it’s just like in the pictures.'”

Mari reminds her friend how far she’s come and how hard she’s struggled. Shirase never gave up. She pestered the expedition team over and over. She endured her peers’ bullying day in and day out. She worked part-time jobs after part-time jobs just to save up money for this trip. To put it another way, Shirase robbed herself of her youth in order to get to Antarctica, so can she really just abandon her quest now? Can Shirase really allow herself to stop just short of the finish line after coming so far? Mari also brings up the fact that Takako is out there waiting for her daughter. It sounds like a cruel thing to bring up, but when someone’s living in a dream, you sometimes have to play along with their delusions. Is Shirase’s mother still out there? Of course not. We’re not foolish. We don’t need to verify this truth with our own two eyes. But that’s not the case for Shirase, is it? If the girl won’t stop dreaming, there’s no better way to confront the truth than to go out there and verify it with her own two eyes.

But like I’ve said, part of the reason why Shirase’s so headstrong and determined is due to her mother’s tragedy. Once she gets over this trauma, she fears that she’ll truly be on her own, and she’s not sure if she can handle that yet. She’s following in her mother’s footsteps because she’s afraid that she doesn’t know herself what she wants to do with her own life: “But… once we get there, there’s nowhere left to go. It’ll be all over.” Shirase also understands that she might not find anything related to her mother at all. And if she finds nothing, will she keep living that dream? Will she continue sending all those emails to her mother long after she’s become an adult? The girl is smart enough to know that she can’t go on like this; she knows she can’t keep numbing herself to everything. She just doesn’t know what to do about any of this. At the end of the day, Shirase is understandably just a child. Most of us adults can’t even cope with tragedies by ourselves, so it’d be silly to expect a child to do it on her own. And like always, the sensible real life option is therapy, therapy, and more therapy. Sure, not all therapists can help, but not all doctors are saviors either. Nevertheless, it’s the solution that is almost never explored in anime.

Shirase is stuck in Antarctica for the time being, so her next best option is Takako’s best friend. Gin doesn’t mince her words either: “I may not want to believe it, but the fact is that Takako is dead.” Gin also confesses that she’s been in Shirase’s shoes. She, too, came back to Antarctica because she thought that’s what Takako wanted. But that would be Gin selling herself short. Of course Takako’s death played a role, but she also wanted to prove people wrong: “…when we run around on the injustices of reality, make the impossible possible, and allow us to proceed on.” In other words, Shirase shouldn’t sell herself short either. Yes, a large part of her determination is largely fueled by her mother’s death, but she also got to Antarctica through her desire to prove her doubters wrong. Oddly enough, Shirase seems to have forgotten how she yelled “in your face” at her haters when she first got to Antarctica. If she can ever get that feeling back, however, it is something that she can lean on when she finally accepts her mother’s death.

As Shirase journeys closer and closer to where her mother disappeared, the girl keeps asking Gin if she’s seeing and experience what her mother had seen and experienced. She even imagines her mother sitting in a corner, working away on a laptop. Eventually, Gin reveals what had happened that day. They were out in a snowstorm with nothing but a rope to guide them. Somehow, Takako disappeared from sight and no one ever saw her again. Gin got to hear her best friend’s last words, but it almost sounds dream-like: “It’s beautiful… it’s so very beautiful.” As sad as it sounds, Takako was likely just about to die by the time she uttered those last words:

“When researchers recorded and analyzed electroencephalograms (EEGs) of the brain activity of rats during cardiac arrest, they discovered that in the seconds after the heart stopped beating, there was a final burst of brain activity characteristic of conscious perception.

The finding indicates that the source of the electrical activity in the immediate aftermath of clinical death was the brain itself, not an outside or supernatural source.

The assumption is that the brain has no activity at the point after the heart stops—and therefore any vivid visual experiences, such as bright lights or seeing deceased relatives, has to be supernatural in origin or something we just don’t understand.

Our study found the opposite of that assumption: that even after the heart stops, the brain not only still functions but is hyperactive, exceeding levels found during the conscious waking state. The final burst of brain activity lasted about 30 seconds.

After the snowstorm — and Mari’s heartfelt gratitude — we get to hear Shirase narrating what sounds like yet another email to her mother. She tells Takako all about her friends and how much she appreciates them. The fact that she’s still sending an email to her mother shows, however, that she still hasn’t let go.

When the inland team finally makes it to the site where they’ll build the Kobuchizawa observatory, the normally stoic Gin sheds a tear. She gets to have her own mini-breakdown. She’s coped with Takako’s death far better than Shirase, but she still needed to complete this last leg of the journey to truly move past the trauma once and for all. Unfortunately, Shirase’s face continues to wear that numbed expression. She wants to follow her mother and share the same wonderful experiences, but something is still holding her down. She can’t fully let go and wake up from her dream. As a result, Mari, Hinata, and Yuzuki suddenly run off in frantic search for anything that Takako might have left behind. Even if they don’t realize exactly what they’re doing, Shirase’s friends are trying to help Shirase’s break through those walls that she’s erected. She tells her friends that it’s enough for her to simply accomplish her goal of retracing her mother’s steps, but she’s wrong. She can’t continue living through life with numbed feelings. It’s just not healthy. Eventually, the girls stumble upon an old laptop. On the chassis is an old picture of Takako and Shirase. More importantly, Shirase finds unread emails after unread emails on the laptop.

It’s over.

Misc. notes & observations:

— Kanae makes a mistake in trimming Gin’s hair. Why even bother? Just let it grow out. You’re in Antarctica, so there’s no need to be stylish.

— Oh hey, look at this report featuring Yuzuki and Mari. The latter doesn’t exactly look natural, but she isn’t freaking out in front of a camera like Shirase normally does.

— The episode’s tone has been pretty subdued so far. No OP, and thus far, no BGM whatsoever. This is the penultimate episode, so I’m prepared for some heavy tearjerking.

— Curiously enough, the girls are peeling onions during this sad scene. Peeling onions won’t make you cry, but I thought the choice of vegetables was apropos.

— The “thrill of the Antarctic barbecue” is gobbling up the food before it goes cold. Sounds… fun. I hate cold, congealed fat. The texture and taste is nasty. But you can’t go with strictly lean cuts, because then the meat will be too tough. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

— Or we could just turn up the heat.

— It’s amusing to see Hinata say that inaction is sometimes compassionate. Yumiko then says, “The ability to give each other space is the proof that you’re good friends.” I don’t disagree with her, but Shirase never considered inaction in last week’s episode. She pretty much strong-armed her way into Hinata’s drama and convinced the girl to not forgive her former teammates. I still don’t like how last week’s episode ended.

What, no contracts?

All these bills represent a chunk of carefree youth that the girl had to sacrifice in order to get here.

— Friends can be so blunt. Still, they wouldn’t include her in the picture if they weren’t so sure that Shirase would end up coming along with them. And right on cue, Shirase decides to join the inland team. We all knew that she would.

— As the girls travel further inland, the conditions get harsher and harsher. Kanae warn them that the slightest bit of carelessness can cost them their lives. This is where Antarctica truly begins. The payoff is nice, though. These are sights that most of us will only ever glimpse through pictures and videos. I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to visit Antarctica in my lifetime. It’s just not financially and logistically feasible.

— The next day, a snowstorm hits, and it reminds me of something. You know what’s simultaneously the coolest and scariest thing about these harsh environments? A whiteout. It’s when a snowstorm causes the horizon to visually disappear. The ground is white, the sky is white, and you have no goddamn clue where you’re going. Just imagine being surrounded on all sides by nothing but cold whiteness. You’re effectively blind. That has to be a surreal experience, no?

— Then imagine being the first person to one day to step foot on Europa or Pluto… man, I wish we were still in the age of exploration. All we have are shitty international squabbles and politics tearing our species apart.

— Later that night, Mari’s arc all but wraps itself up: she thanks Shirase for helping her make the most out of her youth. She’s content. I know a lot of you guys might want her to resolve things with Megumi when she returns from Antarctica, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

— I can imagine frozen ramen being served in a restaurant focused on molecular gastronomy.

— The team starts laying the foundation for the observatory, but for now, they just have this dinky sign and a telescope. Honestly, it’ll take years to finish the job, so this leaves things open for a sequel, but at the same time, without Shirase’s personal quest to find her mother, I don’t know how compelling a follow-up series would be. I’m sure the writers could find new storylines to explore, but unless next week’s episode really drops the ball, I’m satisfied with this series.

— I’m amazed that the laptop would even turn on.

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2 Replies to “A Place Further Than The Universe Ep. 12: There’s beauty in the breakdown”

  1. It’s interesting to me how this show started as a coming-of-age story, but has wound up as more of a meditation on the healing power of friendship. I suppose that’s a pretty “anime” theme, but seldom are shows like this so beautifully directed, so thoughtful, and so willing to portray melancholy.

  2. This episode is good. The build up that is spread throughout the previous episodes and the execution in this episode is good. That fool-proof laptop notwithstanding. All its creators need to do now is give it a satisfying conclusion and that should make up for a few times (albeit minor) that this anime drops the ball.

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