Atsuko Ishizuka’s clever use of social media in A Place Further Than the Universe

#IFollowEveryoneWhoFollowsMe

Child actress Yuzuki Shiraishi chooses this hashtag for her Instagram post that depicts a fairly candid shot of her stepping away from an older woman splashing water and onto a cat. The woman is Shirase Kobuchizawa’s grandmother. Yuzuki is on her way to request that Shirase take over her job as “high school girl reporter” along for the ride in the Challenge for the Antarctic expedition.

A well-known actress who according to Mari Tamaki’s (Kimari) internet research has 38,000 followers, Yuzuki shouldn’t have to beg for followers in a hashtag. It doesn’t matter that her idol debut was with a horrendously-titled song, “The Follow-backs Don’t Stop,” there’s no world where someone as popular as Yuzuki should be begging for followers, never mind promising to follow them back, which is often seen as social media suicide. Yet she does, in this post that only has two likes, two reblogs, and zero comments, less engagement than I received last night for random musings about Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door.

The image doubles as A Place Further Than the Universe‘s third episode introduction, an episode where Yuzuki will later learn that she has made friends without having to try — also that having friends doesn’t mean that said friends will be the sycophants she’s used to, which is actually a very good thing. #IFollowEveryoneWhoFollowsMe might be Yuzuki’s #brand, but it doubles as a reflection of her personal insecurities, distain for certain aspects of her job, and desperate desire to have real friends. Yuzuki opens the episode by trying to pass off her job to the ill-equipped Shirase in order to lead a more normal high school life with her classmates. She ends the episode with three new friends — Hinata Miyake, Kimari, and Shirase — and a promise to go to Antarctica together.

A Place Further Than the Universe director Atsuko Ishizuka is no stranger to pointed visual trappings and unique color filters. She’s used a myriad of clever visual tricks in her previous series — most recently Hanayamata, No Game No Life, and Price of Stride: Alternative. This also isn’t the first anime to use SNS/Instagram to focus on themes of ephemerality and time. Sayo Yamamoto framed the entirety of Yuri!!! On Ice through social media, both in the series ending sequence and later in a major plot twist that recontextualizes the entire show.

Although Instagram isn’t the most prevalent social media platform in Japan, it’s the one with the highest growth rate over the past year or so. It’s easy to see why Kimari and company would choose this microblogging platform to document their daily lives as well as their trip to Antarctica — in fact, once they partner with Yuzuki and her project, it’s part of their job. Ishizuka uses this to focus on certain thematic elements in each episode while also poking fun at her characters.

The title of each episode is introduced by a social media post identifying one or more of the main characters doing something fun, training, or working on the ship. It’s an evolved form of photo booth purikura, where the girls add the episode title and doodles of penguins in the margins (this is also present in the series’ ending, drawings appear next to the characters). Every post has more to it than meets the eye, and ties into dramatic elements or themes of the show.

In the image above, Kimari is having tea with her best friend, Megumi Takahashi. In most of the series’ social media posts, a looping animation occurs and this one seems no different. Kimari continues to put sugar in her tea multiple times in what appears to be a similar animation loop. Only right before the image cuts to the show does Megumi’s arm reach out and stop Kimari from adding more. A Place Further Than the Universe uses this simple image to explain the dynamics of Kimari and Megumi’s relationship — one that will be challenged in this episode and is ultimately left ambiguous due to Kimari’s departure. Kimari overly-relied on Megumi in the past which led to a toxic co-dependency. Megumi enjoyed the fact that Kimari relied on her so much and Kimari used Megumi’s friendship as a crutch to not move forward in life. The Antarctica trip, and Kimari’s new friend group, break this cycle, leading to a rift between the two that isn’t wholly resolved before Kimari leaves.

A Place Further Than the Universe isn’t a comedic slice-of-life series as much as it is a coming-of-age drama that also manages to hit comedic beat after beat to lighten the mood. Ishizuka’s masterful attention to detail, especially in these social media posts, adds both comic relief and melancholy transience to what is ultimately looking like a story about Shirase coming to terms with her mother’s death. After all, it takes a talent like Ishizuka to turn an episode titled, “The Follow-backs Don’t Stop” into a poignant reflection on friendship.

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