A Place Further Than the Universe

“Loved ones will always watch over you” — letters in Violet Evergarden and A Place Further than the Universe

“Is this emotionally manipulative?” is a question frequently asked regarding Japanese animation. I first heard it regarding Clannad — particularly in relation to Kotomi Ichinose’s narrative arc, but also about the series as a whole — but this query dogs certain anime, even if the series in question is completely upfront about these goals, like Clannad. The floating teddy bear in the ocean, the empty, overgrown garden, the musical cues, they’re all in service of eliciting tears from the audience. It’s the equivalent of Russell Crowe’s Maximus screaming, “Are you not entertained?” only the unspoken scream is “Cry, damn you!” to the affected viewer.

In the current anime season, two series have fallen into this category according to the community: Violet Evergarden and A Place Further than the Universe. Within the past week, both shows told similar but diverging stories regarding mothers, daughters, and letters that play with ideas of time and transience. These stories offer an easy point of comparison between each other while also pushing carefully constructed emotional buttons.

However, the question shouldn’t be whether something is emotionally manipulative, but whether it works, strings and all. Do these feelings still feel genuine despite obvious cues and pre-existing narrative structures? My definitely-not-dry eyes say yes, but whatever personal conclusion you come to, Violet Evergarden and A Place Further than the Universe offer parallel case studies — nearly a week apart in airtime — in what make letters and messages such emotional sucker-punches.

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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.

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