Review – Land of the Lustrous [Houseki no Kuni]

“Rigorous, meaningful work is the best medicine for questioning one’s place in the world.”

Land of the Lustrous, or if you would rather Country of Jewels, is an 2017 show loosely based on the still on-going comic published in Monthly Afternoon. It is beautiful to look at, and even though some of the camera work took some getting used to the action flows beautifully. And yet, I found myself somewhat irritated with the show. I understand this isn’t a popular opinion of it, at all, and a lot of people actually highly praise this show… but it’s an opinion I hold all the same. Time to get cancelled by some anime’s street team I guess.

Note – I’m a member of a Discord server called Leth’s Lazy Lounge, where we all did an “anime exchange” wherein all participants bring a show to the table, we all watch what we can during the week, and then we share our thoughts. Many participants shared one of their favorite shows. A few shared a show they just wanted to discuss, and a couple were apparently chosen just to mess with all participants. I’ll be taking all of these seriously. This is the second show of this exchange.

The Premise:

Once upon a time earth was ravaged by a bunch of meteorites and now life as we know it pretty much doesn’t exist. Different crystal elements have taken on gender-ambiguous personified forms, however, and they have to fight for their lives because strange moon-people show up to attempt to harvest them. Phos, whose full name is Phosphophyllite, wants to do their part to fight on the front lines. Complicating this is the fact that they are incredibly brittle to the point where they falls apart just by bumping into someone roughly. In a world where a caste system uses hardness to determine one’s place, Phos has a hardness of three-point-five which places them rather low. However, the monk who sees over all of these characters, one Master Kongo, has a goal for Phos: put together a catalogue of their people, and the world around them. This, it should be pointed out, is far and removed from Phos goal of fighting on the front lines to help protect her people from the Moon people.

Pho has a friend named Cinnabar, who is slightly weaker than Phos but has gained a position on the night watch due to their powerfully poisonous mercury. This friendship, and the idea that Pho can help find a place for Cinnabar outside of the night watch, encourages them to take their charge of the catalogue more seriously.

There is a lot more going on under the hood of the show, with themes of death and spirituality, but going into a lot of that would take us into heavy spoiler territory.

This show is two parts sci-fi fantasy and one part coming-of-age story as Phos quite literally changes themselves to meet their goals.

Why it Works: Everyone praises how this show looks, and for good reason. The style is unique; you can look at any still from the show and be able to recognize where it is from. The show feels as imaginative as it looks. There is a solid atmosphere. And the sound design is something else. It’s amazing to me how so many different themes can all work together so well. I’d argue two solid examples are:

This song feels very well arranged. It’s complex in design yet simple in tone.

When you hear this music, you know the Lunari are about to appear, and uh… they’re not good.

The world this takes place in is solidly built as well. How we discover this world is a different issue entirely, as I’ll discuss briefly in what I didn’t like about the show, but the setup as to why these immortal characters are here and why they are the way they are is well realized.

Why it Doesn’t Work: I have two major issues with this show.

The first is the pacing. Land of the Lustrous wants to show us the world instead of tell us about it, which is commendable. Unfortunately, it often does this with unusual pauses for narrative exposition that frankly didn’t work for me. In between these stutters, there’s a pretty clear disconnect from the first couple of episodes where there is a focus on how meritless Phos is the the larger gathering at large, versus the strange tone shift as they explore more of their world.

There’s also the trouble of how the last few episodes end the season yet clearly not the series. Cliffhanger endings are part and parcel to getting invested viewers to continue watching the show, but Land of the Lustrous doesn’t even let the viewers see the cliff, as it were. We still have no real idea who or what the Lunarians are outside of a threat, the fish people rarely get a mention outside of the first quarter, and while we know that Master when it essentially leaves many of the mysteries up in the air: the Lunarians, the secret Master Kongo is hiding is brushed up against but left to the wayside. As a result, the season ends with a lot of focus on Phos and not a lot of focus on the world she lives in. I found this frankly a bit disappointing, and also a frustrating segue into the other issue I have with the show: the main character themselves.

If I wanted to be my most negative and critical, I’d argue that the show suggests Phos only has value when they casts aside their identity. Who they are at the start of the show and who they are at the end of it is completely different, and this is less a linear progression as it is a couple of rather sudden sharp jumps. We’re used to seeing characters grow, but Phos outright changes. It’s thematically appropriate, I suppose, especially given the philosophical nature of the source material, but it does create some dissonance.

The cast of this show is rather large, but also feels very supplementary. We don’t see much character growth outside of Phos at all. They are a unique cast, and not a detraction, but at times I felt like more could have been done with them.

Overall, what an imaginative series! What a surprisingly insignificant ending. I felt like I should have liked it more. However, it took too long to get where it was going, and then… seemed to forget where it was going. I have a suspicion that the source material may handle these issues a lot better. It holds some parallels to my all time favorite series of all time, which I’ll be covering at a later time… but that feeling that there isn’t much direction, even if despite that feeling there actually is one, makes it much harder for me to recommend this series. If there ever is a season 2, I may watch and reconsider this.

Land of the Lustrous was produced by Orange and released in 2017. It can be streamed subtitled with the Amazon Prime service; the content can be purchased with an English dub from Sentai Filmworks.

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