Reaper's Reviews: 'Land of the Lustrous'
Original title: Houseki no Kuni
Format/Length: TV series; 12 episodes
Release: October 7, 2017 - December 23, 2017
Review Release: May 20, 2018
Since it first appeared in anime about three decades ago, CGI animation has been met with… mixed reaction, let’s put it that way. Most, if not all, anime studios have no idea how to blend well hand-drawn or digital 2D animation with CGI textures and designs. There are some exceptions, sure, like ufotable’s Fate adaptations or Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy.
In the anime industry, CGI is often used to cheapen an anime production’s cost. Animation is a very expansive production process and even 13-episode anime are far from cheap. It often allows to implement either complex world designs or model thousands of bystanders for a scene or two.
A somewhat recent notion in the last few years is to produce full-CGI anime shows and movies, and the results tend to be even more mixed than hybrid animations. You have studios like Polygon Pictures with their Godzilla and Ajin films and then you have stuff like The Flowers of Evil or Berserk 2016… and you can see why there is so much hatred for that animation style. Regardless of story or characters.
However, the subject matter of this review… is something else. Something that I wasn’t so sure could work, but I sure am glad it did.
Story & Setting
Land of the Lustrous is set in a world - implied to be a post-apocalyptic one - where humanity doesn’t exist and the land, or rather specifically one island, is populated by a handful of mineral-made humanoid beings known as Gems, or Lustrous. So yeah, those nasty humans are not here to interfere with our rather gorgeously looking Gems and their overly long lives.
But not everything is peaceful in the Lustrous island, no. A mysterious race of angelic yet horrifying beings known as Lunarians, or Moon People, constantly attack the Gems for their bodies. Why? For reasons unknown, at least not that early in the series. But anyways, the Gems fight those Moon People on an almost weekly basis, with guidance by their leader, a monk-like man referred to as Master Kongo.
This backdrop is set against the coming-of-age story of Phospholipase (“Phos”), the youngest Gem and also one of the weakest, as she tries to uncover the mysteries of their world, and on the way grow up as a person and help finding a place for Cinnabar, a fellow Gem who is isolated for their toxicity.
As a story, Lustrous is very character-driven, with the vast majority of the show’s events centering around Phos and most incidents are often caused by their own actions. This allows the setting of Lustrous to be unfolded to us with the same sense of pace as it does for Phos while also maintaining a constant development and progression to the story.
I’d say that the setting of Lustrous is among its biggest strengths. The post-apocalypse genre has been done to death, but Lustrous provides a fresh and inventive spin on it, with a world taking place thousands of years into the future and replacing humans with some sort of “successor” species with their own respective internal rules and structures.
Each episode draws you more by showing a new aspect of either the Gems’ functions, responsibilities and lifestyle, or another forgotten piece about the world’s other mysterious inhibitors and how the world changed over the years. With its unique cast and surprisingly beautifully-presented desolate world, Lustrous’ setting is incredibly absorbing and immersive.
Unfortunately it inevitably suffers from mysteries and questions still waiting for illumination, such as what is the true nature of the Moon People; what really happens to Gems taken by those angelic abominations; is there more to the world than this mere island. All those questions remain sadly unanswered, and it’ll take some time until a second season will solve that up.
The same can be said of the story, which also gets cut short as the series draws to an end. I wouldn’t call the ending terrible, but it certainly lacks some punch to it, and I will say that it feels like the plot ended right before it was about to go into overdrive. Regardless, what we got in this 12-episode first season was written expertly and executed near-flawlessly.
The one thing I am definitely happy about Lustrous’s narrative is its dynamic development. The plot thickens, the stakes grow ever higher, and the characters rarely remain static. Bigger threats cost casualties, partnerships are formed and dissolved, both physical and mental scars remain, and we get this in only 12 episodes.
There are 50-something episode shows that remain static and stale for about 90% of their duration, but Lustrous features an ever shifting narrative with a brisk pacing, but it never feels rushed.
It’s a familiar but powerful story pondering on one’s existence and place in the cycle of life, dripping with Buddhist elements and even some clever fridge brilliance about the Gems and their real-life properties, traits and even relations with other minerals. It reminds me a lot fellow 2017 anime Made in Abyss in its bold writing and serious, unashamed approach, and the stunning execution of the loss of innocence in a cruel and mysterious world.
But despite its serious and rather grim undertones, Lustrous knows when to take itself easily and avoid getting too knee-deep in its own dreadfulness, with lighthearted moments and even upbeat humor or slapstick jokes. But it is never forced upon the scenes and comes away naturally in accordance to the characters’ quirks and nature, and few series can balance drama and comedy as good as this one.
As I mentioned in the previous segment, Lustrous is a very character-driven narrative and the character who drives the plot the most is Phos. Phos is introduced as a lazy, good-for-nothing loudmouth who tries to find their purpose in the Gems’ lifework.
A lot of the incidents occurring throughout the series are a byproduct of Phos and their often questionable actions and disobeying to the rules. That said, unlike with other noisy protagonists who cause idiotic chaos (looking at you, Riko), I actually quite liked Phos from the very beginning thanks to their outgoing persona and witty jabs.
And Phos is a pretty dynamic character, too. They never stay the same over the course of the show, instead the hardships Phos goes through change and alter their personality and physical appearance. It’s Phos’ loss of innocence and desire for answers that drive them and the plot further, and it’s an incredibly endearing character development.
Now, Lustrous has a very large cast, with about 28 - give or take - different Gems, all with unique personalities, hobbies and duties. Obviously the show doesn’t have enough time to touch upon most of them, but it does do a good job in introducing and showcasing Phos’ different fellow Gems.
The most noticeable are Master Kongo, Cinnabar, Diamond and Anthracite who all get a rather decent amount of characterization and even personal arcs to themselves. That doesn’t mean that the rest of the Gems don’t get a moment to… shine, and if anything Lustrous made me believe that the vast majority of them are just as interesting and complex as Phos themselves.
Diamond and Kongo are quite frankly my favorite characters of the show, with the former being a timid fighter who crumbles inside over their own self-esteem, while the latter is a not so stoic mentor who never shies away from showing how much he cares about his own students.
Diamond gets a rather satisfying conclusion to their own little story, and just seeing how they struggle against their own fears and doubts is quite aspiring. Kongo remains a very mysterious being even as the show ends, but his genuinely calm and gentle attitude really stands out in a sea of stern, cookie-cutter mentor figures.
The character interactions are also brilliant and always show another piece of the personalities presented while showcasing great chemistry. And I would really love to see more of the Gems shining brightly if there will be a next season.
Also, I know I haven’t mentioned them too much, but we really need more of Rutile and Jade. They’re damn hilarious.
Animation & Art
If you haven’t figured it out already from the introduction section of this review, Lustrous is freaking beautiful. The studio behind it, Orange, hasn’t really produced anything truly noticeable on their own, although they have been one of the biggest “go to” CGI animation studios beforehand. Lustrous shows just how far their talent goes.
The animation is smooth, gentle and elegant with a fine detail in small character animations and additional quirks. The artstyle is taken from the manga, but feels a lot more polished and slick in comparison to the far rougher style of the manga, which kinda reminded me of Attack on Titan’s situation and how the anime improved vastly upon the manga.
The colors are vibrant and rich, and I love how every character is identified by their own special shade, while also boasting their own hair style. The lighting work here is also pretty damn gorgeous, and some of the series’ most beautiful shots are where the frames focus on the moon, the water or the skies, not to mention some of the characters’ reaction to light, like Diamond's multi-colored hair.
And I would be foolish not to mention just how fluid and smart the cinematography of Lustrous can be, as the CGI animation allows for more flexible frameshots. There is some brilliant work here, from frenetic shots during action sequences which are jaw-dropping despite the fact the show is not that action-oriented, to single-shot scenes that never break away from the character, giving a personal and close look.
And in all honesty, Lustrous looks great. Not great for only a CGI anime. Not only great for cel-shaded animation. Just great. It might be a little of an overstatement saying it’s groundbreaking in terms of visuals, but it is. It manages to bring life to a type of animation often mocked in the anime community for lifeless models and choppy movements, but Lustrous is always smooth, slick and stylish.
Whereas most anime use 3D animation to cheapen their production, Orange has done the incredible reverse of producing a full-on CGI anime while using minimal 2D animation to enhance backgrounds and small details, and the result is breathtaking.
Audio & Sound
The soundtrack for Land of the Lustrous was composed by Yoshiaki Fujisawa, who before this show I never actually experienced. He’s the long-time composer of Love Live, and has also done music for Gate’s two seasons and the movie of No Game No Life, but this is really the first time that I listen to his music.
But if Lustrous is any indication, the man’s deserves a lot of praise. What I love about the soundtrack is just how… adaptable it can be, with a rather rich pieces fitting for action, terror and emotional heft, often using strings, melancholic violin tunes and even some piano. The music goes extremely well with the visuals, providing some heartwrenching melodies like Cinnabar’s personal theme, which is a prime example of the soundtrack’s beauty.
Honestly, the one track I didn’t particularly like was the one used for the Lunarians; “Sunspot”. To its credit it does elevate the threat and sets the tone for what is normally a massacre against the Gems… But as a fight theme, it can feel rather out of place.But really, the rest of the soundtrack makes up for it.
The opening theme “Kyoumen no Nami” is a stand-out track because of how it manages to capture both Phos’ character and the growing development of the show. It has been described as “loss of innocent” with its slow and reluctant intro before raising the vocals and intensity, and at the same time, it’s a visual feast.
The regular ending theme is “Kirameku Hamabe” which is a somewhat bittersweet yet beautiful look on the relationship between Cinnabar and Phos, and the show also includes two special ending themes, one for the finale which is actually a lovingly-made orchestral version of the opening song, and the other being a unique character song for the character of Antarcticite… Which I can only describe as heartbreaking without going further to it.
The show has been licensed by Sentai Filmworks with no news about the English dub yet, so one can only hope it will turn out to be decent. The Japanese dub is noteworthy for being made almost entirely of female seiyuus, the exception being Jouji Nakata, the voice actor of Master Kongo.
I really enjoyed the Japanese dub, and I’m rather curious whether the English dub will follow suit with a mostly female cast or will try giving some characters more masculine. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a slightly different voice cast that, although I know many fans might get annoyed considering how the characters’ gender and sex are among the most vocal arguments regarding this show.
Oh, and I have to admit the foley in this series is really top-notch.
From pure technical standpoint, Land of the Lustrous is an outstanding achievement for the medium that showcases that CGI animation can work just as well, if not better, than the more common 2D digital animation style. Its fluid, lively visuals serve as a new benchmark for its kind of animation, and studio Orange can be very proud of themselves.
But it’s really not only the visuals that make this series shine, for Lustrous is a well-written series with an inventive and magically mysterious setting that simply draws you into its vistas and lore, with a more creative take on the post-apocalyptic genre. Not to mention the story keeps you hooked through brilliant character moments and excellent blending of humor and drama.
Its flaws are few, but can be noticeable, namely the fact that it’s just the first season with no much information about a sequel, not to mention with how slow the manga can be (at the time the anime aired well over half of the manga was adapted), so it’s anyone’s guess when will a second season air. And there are still many mysteries about the setting and questions about the story that remain unresolved for the time being.
That shouldn’t deter you from watching Land of the Lustrous, however, and its holds a serious punch through its 12-episode run. The characters - especially Phos - are brilliant and likable, the story is intriguing and smoothly-paced, and the setting is unique and wondrous. Skipping on Lustrous will just feel like a miss, and it’s definitely one of 2017’s best anime. Oh, and hey, have I mentioned it looks gorgeous?
- Inventive setting with a refreshing take on the post-apocalypse genre and unique aspects
- Brilliant characters and their interactions, especially Phos, and how they affect the story
- Stunning animation and cinematography that will make you believe the future for CGI anime is bright
- Setting remains to be explored in regards to its history and function
- Unanswered plot-sensitive questions regarding the conflict and characters
- Ending might feel a little unsatisfying
& The Ugly:
- Fandom wars between this series and Steven Universe
As for alternate recommendations, I gathered two shows that might scratch you the itch left by Land of the Lustrous;
- My first recommendation would go to Neon Genesis Evangelion, and its rather similar plot structure that starts off with some typical "X of the week" build before growing darker and giving focus on the characters, who are the real meat of the story.
- My second one would go to fellow 2017 anime Made in Abyss, for sharing the concept of a vast, unexplored and mysterious setting uncovered by a naive protagonist despite the dangerous secrets that lie on the path.