What’s Exchanged in Shattering — “Land of the Lustrous”

I keep thinking of what I could say that does justice to “Land of the Lustrous”. Words and phrases like “staggeringly beautiful” and “bewildering” come to mind. So do “lonesome” and “heartache”. The 2017 anime series is an artistic masterpiece and a technological breakthrough, but those feel like the least important aspects of its storytelling.

Sometimes you find on a sculpture the sign of the hands that made it. It could be an indentation, a furrow, a ripple of sinew, a smoothness where someone else would leave it rough. What those marks represent tells you where that sculptor wants you to focus, on how they want you to identify with a character. There are rare pieces of art where – days later – you consider your emotions and you still recognize the indentations a story has made in you, the furrow that it’s molded in how you even feel a feeling. That’s what “Land of the Lustrous” can do. What words are there for that?

I think the most important thing to say is this: I was ready to turn “Land of the Lustrous” off after two episodes. I wasn’t sure whether I’d keep watching. This is because I misinterpreted what it is. “Land of the Lustrous” fosters this misinterpretation so that it can turn it upside down inside you.

Let’s start from the beginning. Adapted from a manga by Haruko Ichikawa, “Land of the Lustrous” takes place in a post-apocalypse. Humans went extinct, but it’s been long enough afterward that all signs of previous civilization are gone. Entire new geological eras have taken place. The world is lush grasslands and vibrant seashores. It’s not dire or extinct; it’s full of life.

The Lustrous are immortal beings created from gemstones. It’s not that their heart is a gemstone or they carry some magical gemstone within them. They are entirely created – head to toe – out of gemstone. Each character is composed of a different gemstone. Those who are more brittle can shatter if they fall over. Those who are harder can fight in battle. Microscopic organisms inside them constitute their sentience and memory. If one shatters and can’t recover a piece, they lose a part of their memory and knowledge.

The Lustrous are hunted by the Lunarians, moon dwellers who erupt massive armies from the sky at a moment’s notice. The Lunarians use the Lustrous in their jewelry. Though their armies are usually defeated, it seems they have numbers to spare. They’ll sacrifice hundreds just to shatter and collect a single Lustrous – and the Lustrous only number 28.

Lunarians attack in Land of the Lustrous

Phosphophyllite – or Phos for short – is naive, privileged, and impressionable. They’re the youngest of the Lustrous at 300 years old. Among the most brittle of the gems, they’ve resigned themself to being useless. Phos can’t fight, and they have no role such as other non-fighters have, like doctor, designer, or academic. They can’t find a purpose and are decidedly noncommittal even when they’re assigned one.

The characters are androgynous, but it took me a while to pick up on this – they’re animated tall and lanky, often with traditionally femme-presenting hairstyles and clothes, and they’re all voiced by women. That is, all but Kongo, their creator and leader. The effect is one of a school of young women being led by a man who created them and is worshiped by them. Most of them are somewhat impressionable and excitable. This is what first gave me pause.

Despite being hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, many of the Lustrous often read as child-like. There are stories from every culture that misuse or abuse this trope. It takes a minute for you to start suspecting that this is the point, that the series wants you to be uncomfortable with this and question whether this is an intentional aspect of the Lustrous’ creation or even a willful choice that’s reinforced in their culture so as to hide from a truth no one wants answered. Certainly, many of the Lustrous do act more like adults. They’re the ones least connected to the rest.

The English translation uses the gender-neutral singular “they” to refer to the Lustrous. The original Japanese refers to them using a pronoun that’s similar to “he” but that I’m given to understand still reflects an ambiguous or somewhat gender-neutral aspect. There is no concept of gender among the Lustrous themselves.

(Others with far more knowledge on the show’s intersection of queer and Japanese cultural aspects have written on it, and they open a window into further elements of the show I have less ability to speak on. They contain spoilers, but if you want to read up on the presentation of queerness in “Land of the Lustrous” try: Sy Fy Wire’s “The Audacious Queerness of ‘Land of the Lustrous’” and Anime Feminist’s “Mangaka Ichikawa Haruko and the beautiful horror of growth”).

My initial hesitation had to do strictly with how characters might be read as feminine and childlike, worshiping a patriarch, and the potential problems that reside within this – before understanding that the series itself wants you to question the nature of that system.

The other half of my initial hesitation was Phos themself. It’s difficult to create stories around someone who is uninterested in their own story. That’s where the body horror element of “Land of the Lustrous” comes in. Minor spoilers, but by the second episode, Phos is swallowed by a large snail and starts to dissolve in its digestive acids.

It’s this body horror element that reveals what “Land of the Lustrous” truly is. Watch the Japanese trailer (I’ll post an English one at the bottom of the article), and it looks like a pleasant looking anime battler with impressive design and some humor.

Yet in the first episode, we meet a social outcast who wants to die. Cinnabar is poisonous to the other Lustrous and can’t come close to them. Cinnabar lives in self-exile and patrols during the night, when Lunarians are loathe to appear.

Phos themself increasingly becomes obsessed with self harm. If they can replace enough of their body with other materials and alloys, they’ll lose memory of who they are and become someone else – perhaps someone more useful. The course they pursue becomes altogether Faustian in nature.

The Lunarians inflict a toll as well. Characters are lost and pieces of who a character is are lost – there’s no gore to the characters shattering, none of the shock/revulsion that some filmmakers attempt to turn into titillation. There’s just a person who is, and then isn’t. It feels like a more honest portrayal of death and its shock to the living than a thousand more realistic depictions.

By the end of the 12-episode first season, what initially might seem like a quirky battler with school-plot humor becomes a magical realist meditation on the relationship between trauma and resistance. With some spoilers that won’t mean much without context, this fan compilation of shots describes the melancholic beauty and stark tone of the latter half of the season better than the official trailers do:

I almost turned the show off after two episodes because I couldn’t quite match the humor, fight scenes, and the show’s penchant for quiet introspection and self-analysis. It was this last – often in moments of threat or loss – that finally made me pay attention and start understanding it better. There are surreal moments of memories and trauma relived, and it’s within trying to understand the world and one’s own nature that the show excels.

This introspection often veers straight into magical realism: A character questions their usefulness in society as they’re absorbed into a snail. They lose their memories and create space for new ones as parts of them are lost and replaced. Ice floes naturally shape into monuments to long-dead sinners, shrieking as they pass each other, echoing your subconscious thoughts back to you as you as temptations. A character stands unmoving for days on end in one place hoping to speak with an enemy, becoming covered in butterflies as they wait. The show is filled with awe-inspiring, magical realist ideas and frustrated, lonely, sometimes silly people doing their best to make sense of their place in such a world.

I’m not the most avid anime viewer. It’s one of many things I watch, but it’s not a primary focus. I try to find room for what looks interesting or unique, but there’s a lot of anime that passes me by. I know enough to recognize this isn’t the first anime to combine some of these elements – while “Land of the Lustrous” ultimately falls very far from the magical girl genre, I can’t help but think of “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”. It was a revolution in taking tired magical girl tropes and introducing aspects of cosmic horror, PTSD, and – in its case – contemporary art. The two shows both center on Faustian bargains in order to take on a role that protects society, a role characters can only begin to question once they’re fulfilling it.

“Land of the Lustrous” is without a doubt in my mind the best anime series I’ve seen since “Mushi-Shi”. What does that mean from someone who isn’t an expert in anime? I can’t tell you. But why compare it only to other anime? The single season that’s out now is one of the best seasons of any show that I’ve seen. The way its deeper-and-deeper world-building is slowly revealed is unique. It finds overwhelming beauty and calm in the stillness between moments of trauma. The Buddhist cosmic horror of the Lunarians is presented with a peace and silence that becomes far more frightening than the loud, gurgling, dark, and oozing horrors I’m used to seeing in other shows and movies.

What “Land of the Lustrous” does that’s almost impossible to do, that is a rare and complicated feat in storytelling, is it evolves the viewer’s understanding of its world in perfect time with a character’s own. The psychology of Phos’s character, at first so innocuous and simplistic, becomes utterly involved, complex, and heartbreaking. Phos is so convinced that they’ll fail that they constantly self-sabotage. Others die because of it, but Phos is always protected from carrying that burden themself because others think that Phos can’t handle it. The desire to be useful drives Phos to wild extremes. Yet the social determination that they’ll always be so useless that they shouldn’t even carry the burden of their mistakes is what makes Phos so desperate in the first place.

Butterflies land on Phos in Land of the Lustrous

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character evolve so much, in such an earned way, in as brief a time as twelve 20-some minute episodes. This is what makes “Land of the Lustrous” leave its mark on you. It has impressive anime battles that are stunning to look at, but it’s not really a battler. It has plenty of humor, and a surprising amount of dry humor laced throughout otherwise serious moments, but it’s certainly not a comedy. It has plentiful discovery of its intricate world-building without ever being a straight-ahead fantasy.

“Land of the Lustrous” is, at its core, a psychological portrayal of one character in a world built from metaphor. Few pieces of art have managed to leave this profound an emotional mark on me. I don’t find myself often leaning forward in my seat, but there were many moments in later episodes that saw me do this. One was a surprisingly tense chase scene; the rest were almost all moments in Phos’s psychology, where who they were and who they’d decide to be rested on a very fine balance.

There are some works of art that are masterpieces, that have such command over their medium that they guide you through every moment and perception with unfaltering sureness. There are other works of art that I often find more interesting – these are more ambitious. They’re usually too messy in everything they want to speak about to be as fine and controlled as masterpieces. And sometimes, very rarely, you find both of those aspects in one work of art. They are messy and ambitious and somehow find that sure-footedness in something that seems like it should be desperately uncontrolled. They don’t just guide you, they guide you through chaos. “Land of the Lustrous” is utterly thick with metaphor. It builds a world from things that are nearly impossible to build worlds from.

If you asked me to describe the show in a sentence, it’s this: It centers on the psychology of a magically real amnesiac, trying to find a role in a critically flawed society, amid the threat of Buddhist cosmic horrors, half-remembering trauma in fits of surrealism.

This shouldn’t work. That it does, and it does so well boils my brain down to those hyperbolic phrases of criticism you’re never supposed to use: Staggeringly beautiful. Bewildering. Masterpiece. Heartbreak. Awe.

“Land of the Lustrous” is currently available in the U.S. through Amazon Prime. I watched the subtitled version, which I recommend in particular for Tomoyo Kurosawa’s constantly evolving but anchored Japanese voice performance as Phos. Reading a bit on other viewers’ experiences shows the dubbed version is also well regarded.

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