In my most chuunibyou moments of college, I clung to quick phrases and quotes from a variety of media that I consumed at the time. One of these series was Grey’s Anatomy, which I watched with my suite-mates and friends as a fun exercise in procrastinating rather than doing the mountain of homework we had saved up for that Sunday evening. I don’t think Meredith Grey’s “But as human beings, sometimes it’s better to stay in the dark, because in the dark there may be fear, but there’s also hope” is as profound as I initially thought when I was much younger, but there’s a lot of raw honesty and nuance to this statement.
Sometimes, we keep ourselves in the dark because, deep down, we are aware of an awful truth and unwilling or unready to accept it.
The twelfth episode of A Place Further Than the Universe opens with Shirase Kobuchizawa pulled from class. She is told that she needs to go home to her grandmother. Once at home, she watches as her grandmother cries over a map of Antarctica. The implication is that Shirase’s mother, Takako, has passed away.
“I was almost like a dream,” Shirase says. “‘Oh. I’m not waking up. Why aren’t I waking up?’ I thought. That feeling never ended. It still hasn’t ended.”
Aptly titled as the series’ title, Episode 12, “A Place Further Than the Universe” is introduced by Shirase herself. It’s hashtagged, “Dear Mom,” a reflection of the constant updates that Shirase has sent her mother in Antarctica since the latter’s disappearance. Director Atsuko Ishizuka’s use of social media — especially the instagram accounts of the series’ four leads — in A Place Further Than the Universe is purposeful. Even the most off-handed instagram shot holds a thematic key to that episode’s narrative direction.
Here, it frames Shirase’s awakening.
Shirase’s single-minded desire to go to Antarctica has always been driven by the possibility of reuniting with her mother. Mari Tamaki, Hinata Miyake, and Yuzuki Shiraishi all join for their own reasons — and have their own, poignant emotional narratives — but the catalyst is Shirase and her determination to see her mother once more.
Since Takako Kobuchizawa disappeared and the body was never found, this leaves room for hope, placing Shirase in mental stasis. Shirase appears to be moving forward — she drives the entire plot of the series with her initial ambition — but is actually frozen in place, unable to accept that her mother has died. This is the darkness in Meredith Grey’s statement. Shirase fears that her mother is dead, but the disappearance and lack of a body give her a sliver of hope that eventually lands her in Antarctica with her mother’s former expedition partners. In Episode 12, Shirase finally travels to the place where her mother was last seen and recovers Takako’s old laptop.
Throughout the episode, Shirase is reluctant to do much of anything. She asks her mother’s former partners what they think, desperately clinging to any shred of hope she has left that Takako is alive. She is visibly afraid.
The rational part of Shirase’s mind already knows that Takako is dead. Returning to director Ishizuka’s use of social media — Shirase has been sending her mother email and messages for years, another act of hope and desperation. In flashbacks, Takako is shown as a bit of a space cadet, but certainly not someone who would go for years without contacting her daughter. This is visually reinforced by the photograph of Takako and a younger Shirase taped to the outside of Takako’s laptop. Since the first episode, we have seen all of these messages sent by Shirase with no response from Takako. When Shirase finally works up the courage to turn the laptop on, she is inundated with unread emails that she herself sent to her mother. As she watches the number of unread emails rise, Shirase finally cries.
In the dark there may be fear, but there is always hope, yet this too is a trap that keeps you in place, never moving forward. Staying in the dark forever is unhealthy at best. By turning on that computer and seeing the unread emails for herself, Shirase is no longer afraid. She is devastated, but she can finally move forward.