Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the A Place Farther than the Universe anime.
There’s a lot to A Place Farther than the Universe that even a cynical guy like me can relate to. It’s a story of earnestness governed by doubts that I’d imagine speak to many folks. Mari “Kimari” Tamaki’s personality might have been too earnest for me to consider her my character favorite, but as the initial main girl introduced to the audience, her central conflict was something that hit home. You may have big dreams early on. You may have achieved little since then to realize your aspirations. You get intimidated after realizing the scale of the work and luck needed to accomplish your goals. You fall into a deep melancholy over being no where close to your aims. What was the point of everything until now? That was me in my 20s, with hair on my chin and honors to my degree, working a job for a year that wasn’t worth the time and tuition I spent for schooling. I’m still in my 20s, and I can confidently say that I’m in a better place now.
But I’ll admit, the recent memory of a year of my youth wasted still bothers me. In that spirit, I understand why folks combine new resolutions with dramatic gestures. People do it often at the turn of the New Year, promising on its midnight stroke to becoming better people no matter what. If you think about it, why it has to be on New Year’s Day is a decision people make that’s ultimately arbitrary. It would be more logical for folks to devote themselves to new resolutions as soon as they form them. However, it is romantic to follow through commitments when they’re associated with some grand spectacle. People convince themselves that a dramatic gesture will make it harder to break a promise. It gives them an extra boost of courage, or it puts extra pressure on them to save face. For Kimari, Shirase Kobuchizawa, and her other friends, her life-changing adventure was a trip to Antarctica. For me, my call to adventure was going to Japan.
While neither Antarctica for Kimari and Japan for I are places that are literally farther than how people tend to imagine the universe — a black canvass of twinkling stars and vapor-like stardust — they are definitely different from the figurative universes that most of us were raised under. Kimari lived the entirety of her life in Japan, and I’ve lived most of my life in America. To be clear, I don’t mean to disparage the folks that are perfectly happy to stay put where they were raised. For me though, I have always felt ill at ease living here. I never felt fully comfortable socializing with my peers back home, and I always had these itches to travel abroad and see the world. My father used to regale me with his tales of working in foreign lands before settling down in the US with his family. My dad also refrained from taking the family too far from the US during vacations to save money. He told me to finance my own adventures when I grew up. Growing up, I poured through world history books during class time and my spare hours, entertained by the narratives of great civilizations and the customs of rich cultures.
Kimari’s wish to do something similarly sensational became something of a beaming and clawing hope to do something fulfilling. But as much as I can empathize with her desire to drastically turn her mediocre life around, I also feel like that she lucked out of feeling alienated. Unlike Shirase, she had a constant friend, a loving family, and an only recent perception of feeling inadequate.
My third attempt at going to Japan on a work visa became something of a shining and desperate hope of mine that would wake me from my existential funk and get my life back in order. My existence up until recently had felt stagnant and uninspired after I lost my good job and endured my bad one, my daily routines a means for me to survive from moment to moment without feeling, at all times, disjointed.
While Kimari’s central conflict resonated with me most strongly at the beginning, the character whose past and anxieties I related to the most toward the end was Shirase’s. I’d say my own existential challenges are a synthesis of these two characters’ conflicts. Whereas Kimari had only began feeling incomplete for a relatively short period of time, Shirase has been feeling broken for years. Kimari started wanting to go anywhere to find fulfillment. Shirase has been singularly obsessed with traveling to Antarctica.
As the cultural, political, and socioeconomic issues of the US became increasingly apparent to me — apparent in the very negative sense — I grew increasingly obsessed with traveling to and living in Japan. I’ve been interested in Japan ever since I first got into anime and realized that anime was a Japanese product. I initially studied Japanese culture to get a better understanding of the anime that I watched. I eventually grew to admire Japan on its own merits. The lands of Japan were lush, Japanese food was tasty, and many of the values of this archipelago nation held dear were refreshingly alternative to the values of the continental one that I’ve grown sick of. My forays into work that utilized the political science training that I spent my college years devoted to were troubled, my previous attempts at living in Japan affordably were dashed, my former classmates were off doing ambitious and fulfilling things, and I worked at a job that I hated to make ends meet before moving back home with my parents and quitting that line of work entirely.
To a maybe unhealthy degree for Shirase and I, we became a little infatuated with seeing Antarctica and Japan as the answer to our woes. It’s understandable as to why, in hindsight. Japan would offer me a chance to forget my career anxieties, and Antarctica was supposed to bring closure to Shirase’s mother issues. I went to Japan on a two-week excursion last year, and I have worked myself hard on my interview skills since to achieve my long sought goal of gaining a work visa to live there. Shirase’s mother went to Antarctica on a research expedition and never returned, and Shirase has taken part-time jobs and resisted peer-based harassment since to discover why her mother liked the place so much. We hoped to discover things about ourselves in these places that we can feel satisfied by. What exactly are these elements, these aspects, these fragments, these things that we’re looking for to make us feel happy and whole? Truth be told, for Shirase before the end and I right now, we don’t exactly know. We assumed that things would work themselves out once we got to these places, but what if they don’t?
What would Shirase do after her Antarctica trip ends?
Will Antarctica still interest her like before?
What will I do once my initial work-visa to Japan expires?
Will I stay in Japan or go back to America?
We may be tempted to hope that getting over that finishing line will change our perspectives for the happier and set us up for the rest of our lives. Shirase achieved her aim of going to Antarctica in person. I achieved my goal of being accepted into the JET Program. As far as things from Kimari’s perspective are concerned, both of us can claim that we did something bold and daring. That hope, though, of things working themselves out afterwards is probably false, and our constant reminders from peers toward getting real does have its prescient wisdom. For Shirase, she learned to enjoy Antarctica outside of its associations with her mother. Antarctica was beautiful, and she promised with her friends new plans to return there one day with them. For me, I continued to apply for other lines of fulfilling work as a backup plan. My diligence paid off, and I was recently hired as an election clerk for the upcoming elections, a job that I enjoy immensely to this day. Shirase and I both have something that we are confident enough to point to as long-term vocations. They are vocations we can realistically aspire to and enjoy outside of our limited-time dreams.
My dream to live and work in Japan will be a experience that I hope to enjoy, but I also understand that it won’t be without its bumps. I get that, like the US, Japan isn’t a perfect place. I understand that my time on the JET Program will eventually end, and that the romance of my early adulthood, as sure as it commenced, will one day conclude. I appreciate now that Japan isn’t the panacea to my problems. I’m planning what I will do in a year from now. For now though, I’m going to enjoy the fact that, like some of my friends, I’m doing something that I want to do. I’m going to freaking Japan.