Anime Reviews: Land of the Lustrous
Some Info About This Landmark CG Anime
Title: Land of the Lustrous a.k.a. Houseki no Kuni
Series Length: 12 episodes
Air Dates: 10/7/2017 to 12/23/2017
Age Rating: 7+ (mild language, some strong violence against rock people)
Summary: On a barren Earth, beings made up of microorganisms that collectively gained human-like intelligence latching onto gemstones have gathered together, living in a small commune on an island by the sea. Guided by their leader, Master Kongo, the gems constantly face the threat of Lunarians--spectral humanoids riding bizarre, ghostly vessels armed with bows with gem-tipped arrows from the gems' fallen comrades--and many have learned to fight, to keep the invaders at bay. One of these gem-people is Phosphophyllite, Phos for short, who is bright and vibrant and too fragile for combat, with a Hardness rating of only 3.5. Though lackadaisical, Phos wants more than anything to help out (in combat), but the Master tasks her with putting together an encyclopedia of the local wildlife. But when Phos meets a lone gem, Cinnabar, stuck with night patrols (though Lunarians never appear at night), she determines to work hard every day, to find more enjoyable jobs for the both of them.
The Good: Bright, eye-popping visuals; unique, engrossing setting; thoughtful narrative brimming with thematic depth
The Bad: Side characters don't get much development; sequel-bait ending
The Ugly: Trying not to use gender pronouns to describe genderless rock people
So what brought me to this series?
In my eternal game of catch-up, it's inevitable that I'll be behind on the latest trends in the anime community, so when I talk about how Land of the Lustrous was a pretty big deal among the forums and Twitterverse, it's all ancient history by this point. It was during that period of slowly-building hype nearly a year ago that this series popped up on my radar, namely for the odious distinction of being "the first 3DCG TV anime that doesn't look like cat vomit." While it's true that 3D-animated anime series have been, uhh...lackluster, shall we say, in the past, simply labeling Land of the Lustrous as "doesn't give your eyes cancer!" is a bit of a disservice to what is actually a really good show with a lot of thought put into its source material.
In what ways does Land of the Lustrous live up to its name?
So, not only is saying "it's the first 3D anime to not look like crap" a disservice to the show as a piece of media, it's also a disservice to just how damn good it looks in general, not just in comparison to other 3D anime. The character models look very nice, and the facial animations are so dynamic and intricate that, at times, I completely forgot I was looking at a 3D character model. The gorgeous background art doesn't once feel at odds with the character models, showing once again the thought and care that went into making this production work.
One common criticism of shows that utilize 3DCG is that the first thing directors forget when switching from 2D to 3D is everything they learned working on 2D animation--Land of the Lustrous does not fall into this category, as it smartly uses the freedom granted by 3D animation only when needed. The camera doesn't whoosh all around like a drunken seagull in nauseatingly complicated angles and arcs (looking at you, Berserk 2016), but rather behaves as a disciplined camera should, working tirelessly to ensure each shot is comprehensible and well-framed. Even the hectic action set pieces are easy to follow, which is a rarity and a relief among 3D anime.
Now that we've established that Land of the Lustrous just looks good in general, not just compared to its peers, I must make mention of the unusual setting and lore present in the series. It's no wonder studio Orange was ready and willing to beef up its 3D department to adapt this series, because the concept is fascinating, and the closest series you can compare it to is the cartoon series Steven Universe (which is so different a show that the comparison goes only as far as "contains gem people") and the lonely island setting still manages to wow us with the staggering majesty of the Chord Shore's jutting cliff face, the wide ocean scenery from atop the hollow cape where Cinnabar usually resides, the verdant expanse of the high fields where the Lunarians commonly appear...the combination of 3D animation and painterly 2D backgrounds bring it all to life.
The lore behind the setting is also really cool--Master Kongo tells us that the world was struck by six comets, with the sixth burying all the earth in ocean, leaving only the island above water, whereas we hear a bit of folklore later from a denizen of the ocean that the gems, the sea people, and the Lunarians are actually the three separate aspects of a long-forgotten race called humans--bone, flesh, and spirit respectively--and that the Lunarians are the aspect closest to what humans were like. These bits of folklore are subtly important to the story, but moreover they're helpful for understanding the different groups and their cultures, and even opens up the possibility of whether Lunarians are capable of speech and culture as well. I love this kind of stuff, man.
And that brings us around nicely to the story, which is more minimalistic than you might be used to, but every scene does have a purpose, even if it's not clear at first. We learn everything as Phos learns it, and we see Phos as she grows and changes through her hectic day-to-day life. Unfortunately, her clumsiness tends to bring disaster wherever she goes, so part of her arc is learning to take responsibility (always a good lesson for viewers) and undergoing personal changes (both internal and especially external). And without spoiling too much, concepts are brought up about memories being stored all throughout the gemstones' bodies, not just in the head, and so if a limb is lost for good, some memories are lost with it. And then you start approaching the Ship of Theseus problem, where the question is raised, "How much of their body can be replaced until it's just not the same person anymore?" And then, because it's a person that this is happening to, it becomes an issue of personal identity, and thus there's some thematic depth to the whole affair. And here I thought this was just going to be a story of a small group of rock people surviving day-to-day.
Also, can we talk about just how great Amethyst is as a character(s)? Because everything about Amethyst is hilarious and fun. Easily my favorite character, with Phos and Rutile trailing behind.
And where does [insert cheesy gem pun relating to the series' low points here]?
Okay, so because Land of the Lustrous is only 12 episodes long, it's only natural that corners are going to be cut to get this much story to fit. And those corners were primarily cut when it came to fleshing out the secondary cast--y'know, everyone who's not Phos, Cinnabar, Diamond, Bort, Antarcticite, Amethyst, Rutile, and Master Kongo. Like, all we know about Yellow Diamond is that they've had a lot of partners fall in battle, and all we know about Zircon is that they're only slightly older than Phos, and all we know about Jade is that they're the chief speaker, and all we know about Morganite is that Morganite is kind of a jerk. There's a whole slew of characters whom we only see for a single scene or even a single second, and since worldbuilding is what the show is best at, I would've liked some more time dedicated to learning who these gems all are.
The other big issue with the series is its blatant sequel-baiting. The manga is currently ongoing, so I wasn't expecting to have a conclusive ending just yet, but they literally tease us with tantalizing mysteries just as the series comes to a close, and I can't stand when incomplete series do that! What if you don't get renewed?! Why would you bring up these plot points if you're not guaranteed a new season to answer them?! I don't want to read the manga like some kind of manga-reading peasant! Announce Season 2 already! We were just getting started and things were getting hot and steamy, and then you just get up and walk out?! Why would you do that to me?!
So yeah, if you like your series to be complete, you might want to wait a bit.
So, what's the verdict?
If you don't mind waiting for a second season that might not materialize (even if the chances of a second season happening are close to 100%), and if you aren't bothered by side characters getting sidelined in favor of tighter focus on a few mains, then Land of the Lustrous will be an easy recommendation. Not only is it an important milestone in the credibility of 3DCG anime not looking like poo-poo garbage, but it also smartly adapts a source material full of rich and thoughtful material that will leave you hungry for more once it's over. I know I'll certainly be keeping my eyes peeled for news of a continuation.
Final Score: 8 out of 10. Land of the Lustrous largely lives up to its name, succeeding at marrying impressive 3D anime visuals with a rich narrative, though its short length means it couldn't quite get around to fleshing out everything in its compelling world.