Land of the Lustrous Review/Analysis: Minerals and Buddhism

In 2017, an animated adaptation of a little-known manga series came out, and it made a big impression. The series utilises CG animation in a unique fashion and has a character-driven story that’s striking in its depth and level of detail. Produced by the up-and-coming animation company, Studio Orange, Land of the Lustrous builds a strange and fascinating world.

The narrative built around it, stands-out for its creative art direction and sweeping storytelling.  Land of the Lustrous takes place in a world where humans no longer exist, and instead, beings based on a different gem or mineral live in a tight-knit community.

They are hunted by beings called Lunarians and are split into fighters and administrators. The Lustrous’ role in life is often determined by their level of hardness.  The youngest Lustrous, Phosphophyllite or Phos has a hardness of only three and a half, making her the weakest and therefore limiting their options. However, after meeting an outcast Lustrous named Cinnabar, they become determined to help them, and as a result, starts a long, difficult journey of change. 

Based on a manga series Haruko Ichikawa, this twelve episode anime paces itself out far better than most adaptations of long-running manga. Even though the anime creates an expansive world with an unfolding arc that takes place over several mini plotlines, it never feels rushed. Ichikawa discussed how to adapt the story within a short time frame with director, Takahiko Kyogoku. Haruko took part in the story development and ensured that the series struck explored some key concepts while still leaving hints about the central mysteries. (1)

This more thoughtful approach to adapting a work from one medium to another is rare and makes the series a series a joy to watch. The writer for the manga and anime crew put far more care and effort into every aspect of this adaptation than most manga to anime adaptations.

The visuals complement, even enhance the storytelling on a thematic and emotional level. The original manga uses a simple art style that contrasts black and white to create a sense of ambiguity. Anime isn’t a medium where ambiguity works. So Takahiko Kyogoku and the animators decided to use a lush colour palette to convey atmosphere and emotion. 

 The manga creates a sense of isolation through a lack of detail, using white backgrounds to highlight a character’s mental state.

But the anime uses colour to full effect. It builds a clear sense of atmosphere with the contrast between soft blue and green hues with dark shades of red and black. The lone figure of Cinnabar emerging from their dank cave surrounded only by small bubbles of mercury. 

The combination of traditional, hand-drawn animation and CG, vividly brings the world of the Lustrous to life. The traditional animation renders beautiful backdrops, while the CG gives the Lustrous their luster. Land of the Lustrous is an intricately researched series.

The different Lustrous’ traits are informed by the minerals and rocks they are based on. For example, Phosphophylite is known for its fragility and brittleness, and Cinnabar is a mineral that’s composed of mercury. The series borrows heavily from Buddhist iconography.

The Buddhist philosophy of impermanence is explored through beings who are defined by their changelessness.  The Lunarians that hunt them seem based on Buddhist mythic creatures called Apsara. The Apsara are described as magic, whimsical beings, “born of clouds and water.” (2)


The Angkor Wat Apsara Trio 

The Apsaras are said to rule over the fortunes of games of chance and gambling. (3) They are beings who known to entertain and sometimes seduce. The Apsara-like Lunarians of Land of the Lustrous steal the Lustrous and use them to amuse themselves as jewelry. The show implies that the souls of humans exist within these creatures, so caught in their attachments to material things, that they treat sentient beings as objects. 

The Lustrous themselves are closer to the Buddhist goal of enlightenment than the Lunarians that hunt them. But nothing is as it seems in this series. In the Mahayana branch of Buddhist thought, a bodhisattva is a person who has reached enlightenment. They have transcended attachments and concepts such as gender. While the anime draws the Lustrous with curvaceous feminine bodies, they are far more androgynous in the manga. They all present as non-binary in both versions.  

The narrative hints that the Lustrous are distant relatives of humans that have inherited only their strength or “bones.” But they still have remnants of humanity in their personalities. They can’t just be content to be, well,  minerals. They’re too complicated to live with the permanence that comes with being a rock or mineral. They all need some kind of purpose to drive them forward. Phos, in particular, wants to become more than just the weak Lustrous that relies on the others for protection. 

As a result, Phos experiences the closest thing to death that a Lustrous can, repeatedly. They come back each time stronger, but more world-weary.  “Even as the Lustrous have transcended gender like the peerless bodhisattva, their suffering connects them closer still to their flawed human ancestors.” (4)   

Phos goes through a type of reincarnation experiencing change on a level that organic beings normally do. 

“This is a first for me, watching winter fade away into spring,” Phos observes. “Living beings change at such a fast pace, don’t they? It’s frightening.”

“You do too,” The Sensei and leader of the Lustrous, tells Phos. 

“That … you’re right.” Phos agrees. “You’re very right … it’s scary.”

By the end of the series, Phos seems to have entered into samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth. They have willed themselves to change through sacrifice and sheer determination. The series sees change as complicated and messy, yet ultimately worth it, with an ending that stays with you long after the final credits roll. 

Land of the Lustrous isn’t just a beautiful sweeping story about sentient minerals. It’s also wacky and fun. The series has random, bizarre moments that will leave in fits of confused laughter. Episode three, in particular, is charmingly goofy and strange. The show’s ability to balance deep character drama and poignant moments with off-the-wall humour makes it a joy to watch. 

The characters themselves are a joy, with fun and well-developed character dynamics. While story very much centres on Phos, the way their arc intersects with the colourful cast, gives a brief yet compelling insight into the Lustrous community. 

Land of the Lustrous is a gorgeous, inventive series with mesmerizing visuals that enhance the storytelling, instead of taking away from it. Critics are calling it the best anime of the season. I’d go so far to say that it’s one of the best animated series to come out of Japan, period. The rich characterization, themes of finding your true potential, and unique art direction, make this series really stand out. 

References:

(1) https://www.animatetimes.com/news/details.php?id=1507372073 Animate Times, October 7, 2017

(2) https://traceyrohrsheim.com/tag/apsara/ Cloud Writing, Tracy Rohsheim, February 26, 2012

(3) https://www.britannica.com/topic/apsara Apsara, Indian Religion and Mythology, Matt Stefon, October 20, 2009

(4) https://thereforeitis.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/identity-genderless-and-buddhist-transcendence-in-land-of-the-lustrous/ Identity Genderless and Buddhist Transcendence in Land of the Lustrous, ZeroreQ011, February 24, 2018 

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Creating Character Arcs: Part 3

Act 3: Confronting the Lie and Conclusions

Traditionally, the hero is meant to overcome the things in their way. The heroes confront and overcome their Lie by facing their foil. In both Thor and The Prince of Egypt, their brothers are their biggest obstacles. Family dysfunction makes for good drama. Just ask Shakespeare.

Thor:

In Thor, Loki holds onto the Lie of kingship, while Ramses holds onto the Lie that the system he inherited must be upheld at all costs. Loki believes he can earn his adoptive family’s love by killing his people, the Frost Giants.

He wants to take the right of kingship and prove he’s worthy of his adoptive family. And he does this by taking on the same Lie his brother held about might making right. But by the time Thor confronts his brother, he’s rejected that way of thinking. He’s not the cocky prince out to start a fight anymore. He earned back his hammer and godly status by throwing putting aside his pride and acting selflessly.

The Prince of Egypt:

Ramses’ father pressured him to live up to his legacy as the all-powerful, “morning and evening star.” If Ramses failed to live up to these incredibly lofty standards, he would be the “weak link” that would bring down the whole dynasty.

Ramses defines himself by his status as Pharaoh and lives with his father’s admonition not to be the “weak link” in back of his mind. It becomes his driving force when Moses pleads for him to let his people go. Moses let go of the Lie of his own entitlement once his sense of identity was shattered but Ramses steadfastly holds onto it.

Thor and Moses’ brothers believe in the Lie, while they grow away from it. Having a foil who goes in the opposite direction to the hero is a great way to create compelling character drama. It also highlights how far your hero has come, while giving them not necessarily a villain, but an antagonist force who offers an opposing view.

The end of a positive change arc has the main character not just rejecting the lie, but overcoming it. Thor rejects his initial beliefs of might makes right by reaching out to his brother, both literally and figuratively in an attempt to help him. But Loki, unable to overcome his Lie, rejects his brother’s help.

Ramses loses his only son as a result of not letting Moses’ people go. But even as Ramses finally agrees to let the slaves leave, he plans revenge. The final hurdle Moses and his people must face is Ramses and his men, charging at them before leaving Egypt. This is one last show of power for Ramses while he’s grieving. Moses manages to start anew, guiding his people safely to a better life in a new land, while Ramses loses everything because of stubbornness and pride.

A positive change character arc shows the main character coming to a better place emotionally and often physically. And to highlight this, their foil often ends in the direction the hero could have potentially gone if they hadn’t changed.

All stories are based on a problem, often both internal and external, that the hero must solve. Building conflict and showing how they go about overcoming it is what gets people invested in a story. Writing a gripping character arc and weaving it into your plot can seem like a daunting task. But following a basic structure can make it flow naturally.