It’s easy to learn to depend on objects at the cost of ourselves, leaning on the things we own to weather the times alone. Smartphones are an apt metaphor for each of these problems. Social media and so many options for instant messaging encourage over-exposure to people, dependency, anxiety over the worth of one’s own voice. It can be hard to find a way back to real life, through so much noise and the delusions of knowing and closeness.
At the beginning of A Place Further Than the Universe, Mari is restless, regretful, desperate to make her youth something worthy of remembrance. Trouble is, she doesn’t have a clue where to start. The title card to every episode being presented as an Instagram post suggests social media’s permanence in her life and the lives of her friends, whether for better or worse. It becomes a place for her to document the future adventures which will give her purpose, but as the series uncovers, it’s also an enabler of the dependency that ultimately poisons her relationship with her best friend from childhood, Megumi.
This repeating motif encourages the audience to imagine Mari scrolling through the timelines of her acquaintances, and the likes from their acquaintances. She, too, could have fallen to that illusion of closeness. Seeing all the best days of people she doesn’t know bunched so tight together, she could have wondered what she was doing to earn even anyone’s virtual hearts. And so the panic grew and set in roots until there was nowhere else for them to go but out.
When she meets Shirase, there’s finally space to breathe. Here is her opportunity, to be a high school girl who went to Antarctica. And here, as well, there’s a different relationship with a smartphone altogether. Shirase’s is a symbol of her loneliness as a self-made social pariah, because of her obsession with Antarctica. It’s a place where it’s alright to be alone, with boundless space around her. It’s where her mother went missing. That distance with the slimmest of hopes is why she still ends up drafting out email updates to her mother, when there’s nobody else she can text or call.
Shirase’s whole life has been distance, until she meets three girls with whom she can share her wishes and let go of being that ‘get away from me’ girl. Being connected with Mari, Hinata and Yuzuki, in real life and by satellite, she can stop being so superior and live out her dream, instead of living in it like an isolation chamber. Far from social media being a tool for self-absorption or self-pity, Shirase’s inclusion in her new friends’ tweetable journeys is what brings her out into the world, unguarded. In every opening to the anime, she shows a genuine smile as she waggles her sunglasses in the snow, no longer the sole centre of her universe.
Only when the social web is isolatory and exclusive does it become a damaging factor, warped by users for malice and corruption. In Durarara!!, the secret messaging board of the Dollars gang starts out as a joke but gets twisted into a pseudonymous banner, underneath which the discontented feel empowered to commit crime. The illusion of the ability to change reality, faceless and therefore deified, is the darkest side of social media in life as in anime. As it justifies the psychopathic Light in Death Note, toxic personalities like Logan Paul are catapulted to household fame. The spiteful freedom it intimates, as it does with the Dollars, threatens the will of the decent majority to even speak out, spreading fear of the world outside one person’s private feed.
As much as being near a mobile device can cause anyone to close down from the fear of not knowing what to add, or feeling stuck in the information maelstrom, it opens our world to being within touch at whatever distance. That freedom of contact transforms a sense of treacherous isolation into the knowledge that any adventure has that safety net. In Laid-Back Camp, Rin has the right idea of keeping untied from anyone’s strings, but knowing the unique warmth of phone light when a text from a friend pops up on screen. She has mastered the art of solitude, to the point where she could find her way no matter the dark woods she wound up in. But she knows that the gift of being solitary at this point in history is that a reminder of company is a tap away. She keeps that comfort near, and enjoys the wilds all the more for it.
Even so, when her new friend Nadeshiko reaches across the distance to share a view from her campsite, miles apart from Rin’s, she makes a discovery. Solo camping and sharing the experience don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Her phone’s familiar closeness opens up her cosy hobby to new experiences, ones that nourish the soul in ways we don’t always relate to our gadgets. When she sees that picture of rainbow lights, a view of a faery city, she’s inspired to take a night walk, retrace the route she’d taken that afternoon, to a precipice of her campsite for her own hilltop shot. As they stand and stare at their photos, together in time, they experience being in two equally beautiful places at once, as though their realities have overlapped. At that moment, they are closer together than either one would have thought possible. And they learned of that possibility through the same screen that can create jealousy, fear or isolation.
The smartphone as this kind of wonder, kept a step away from necessity, is present in both of these series, if more subtly in A Place Further…. It is that wonder which can be the key to learning to separate from the object that can feel like a world-ender when we leave it behind. It is because of this unhealthy attachment that the digital detox can sometimes seem like the only way to realign with a reality outside a mind stuffed to bursting. But these shows tell us the answer to the lonely conundrum. That comfort which comes from touching a loved one’s name and being linked with them, together in distance, shouldn’t be sacrificed.
If we can learn to take a step back, see our phones and social media for what they are – a force for possibility, broadening the world in wondrous ways – we can begin to learn how to have healthier relationships with both. Solitude can start to mean something more than loneliness. In turn, our tech can tune us in to something greater than the illusion of closeness. A smartphone can show us the marvels of the far-flung world, as well as the one we’re close enough to touch.