Land Of The Lustrous is what I call a Microcosm Story, a favorite genre of mine, where we see depicted a whole mini-universe with its own physical laws, biology, history, and all the rest (everything from Texhnolyze to Beanworld). It's also what I call an Under The Door Story, because while it's being entertaining it's also sliding a great many other things under the door that have greater and deeper significance (Utena). On the face of it, there's a lively adventure in the girl's-private-school-of-magic vein, but under that it's an existential meditation on selfhood and the nature of one's relationship to the universe. Each supports the other to create what turned out to be one of last year's highlights, and which raises the bar bigtime for how CGI can be used skillfully and appropriately in anime.
First and foremost credit goes to Haruko Ichikawa, creator of the manga Lustrous was adapted from. I encountered Lustrous in its original untranslated form some years back, and my two big thoughts were 1) this is really something, and 2) there's no way us plebes on this side of the Pacific will ever see it in English. I was happy to be doubly wrong on the second count, since we not only got the manga but now the animated adaptation as well. I just hope what we see here is the first of many parts to come.
Altered carbon (and zinc, and iron, and ... )
Lustrous's microcosm is a crescent-shaped island somewhere out in the middle of an apparently endless ocean. There, in a temple-like enclave, lives a little family of humaniform gemstones, all watched over by the avuncular priest they call Sensei. Each stone has its own physical properties, but also its own personality; they're depicted a little like a class of teen-to-adult-aged girls in a private school, although it's implied in many ways (the show's promotional material, their choice of pronouns) that they are fundamentally genderless. Their job is twofold: to learn as much as they can about their world and its curious biology, and to defend the school against the Lunarians.
The Lunarians appear every few days, manifesting in the sky by way of what looks like a giant black inkblot (they call it a "sunspot"). They look like the hosts of bodhisattvas seen in Buddhist iconic art — one large one surrounded by many smaller ones wielding weapons. They never attempt to communicate. All they ever do is appear, attack, try to smash as many of the gemstones as they can, and take them back with them to be turned into weaponry. They're not that hard to defeat — the gemstones can usually take them out with a few well-placed sword blows — but they never stop coming, and they grow trickier and more persistent with each generation. Fortunately, the gems are quasi-immortal: even if smashed to pieces they can pick up where they left off as long as someone collects enough of the bits to stick them back together. But if some of the bits go missing, so do some of their memories.
The battle has been going on for centuries, although some of the gems have been more recently quarried than others. "Quarried" seems like the better term than "born", since that's more or less how they emerge: spontaneously, from the shoals on the far side of the island. The youngest of the cadre, Phosphophyllite — "Phos" for short — is a relatively brittle mineral whose impetuousness and flippancy is a test of patience for the older, harder, or at least more sensible gems. Phos has no real skillset, is too friable to be useful in a fight, and so has become the fulfillment of everyone else's low expectations.
One day Sensei gives Phos a mission: to compile an encyclopedia of the island's ecosystem. Phos is thrilled at the chance to have something useful to do. This desire is mirrored in another of the gems, Cinnabar, whose poisonous effluvia is useful for fighting Lunarians but has also turned Cinnabar into a recluse. It would be nice, Cinnabar thinks, to have something to do that isn't the (largely useless) night shift. Phos agrees, and promises to provide Cinnabar with just such a thing — but it's easy to be skeptical when Phos has long proven to be such a, well, flake.
Meet the new Phos — definitely not the same as the old Phos
The encyclopedia is ostensibly a ruse just to keep Phos out of trouble. There's already tons of documentation assembled by the other gems about their biosphere. But out of Phos's ambition to fulfill this bit of makework comes one discovery after another, one transformation after another, and one evolutionary change after another.
At first it comes in the form of casualty and disaster. When a giant snail-like monster under the Lunarians' control attacks the gems' temple, it ingests and dissolves Phos, and the other gems are forced to chisel what's left of Phos out of the snail's shell and reconstitute whatever they can find. Later, Phos loses her legs in an encounter with an undersea creature (who offers some unsettling details about the nature of their world). There's not enough of Phos to reconstitute the legs, but Rutile, the ingenious gotta-dissect-'em-all physician of the bunch, creates a synthetic mixture of Phos's body and other minerals harvested from the shells. The end result is a pair of prosthetic legs that let Phos run like the wind, but speed alone isn't enough to make Phos a good fighter — especially when it's easy to move fast but not so easy to stop.
Then comes another major evolutionary leap for Phos. While helping fellow gem Antarcticite chisel up ice floes during wintertime, while all the other gems are hibernating, another Lunarian attack causes Phos to fuse with a glob of gold and platinum. Gold is heavy, but ductile, and with it Phos has a way to extrude limbs, provide explosive propulsion, throw up defensive shields. By the end of winter, Phos has become a force to be reckoned with.
All this, though, comes at the cost of that much more of Phos's original physiology being displaced. That also means Phos's memory, and personality, are now altered; the "new" Phos is soberer, more detached, less flighty. One obvious implication of this is how the other gems are as intimidated by Phos as they are fascinated. But another is in how gems like Cinnabar now relate to Phos, how what was once a one-up-one-down relationship is now more one of peers, and how Cinnabar finds that disturbing — at least as disturbing as the idea that the Phos who promised to find Cinnabar something better to do than the night shift might be gone now. Where's that promise now?
But that Phos isn't gone, just changed. And one of the biggest changes for Phos has nothing to do with power or ability. All of the clues Phos has gathered so far — the strange ocean creatures with stories of their own, the behavior of the Lunarians, every fragmentary and decontextualized detail — have driven Phos to do the one thing that previously seemed unthinkable: to challenge the assumed wisdom and received truth of their world. Phos's new mission, and the one now shared with Cinnabar, is to find out that truth for themselves, not simply to receive it as gospel.
The diamond thunderbolt of the truth
This last insight, which closes the first thirteen episodes of the show, was what clinched for me a theory that had been building all along. All the Buddhist imagery throughout, from the design of the Lunarians to Sensei's kasaya robes, aren't just there for show or to spice things up. They echo how Buddhist concepts and thinking reverberate through it and are woven into it.
I'll start at the end and work backwards. The single greatest aspect of Phos's maturity is not that she has powered up, but that she has woken up, that she is no longer willing to simply take things as they have been given to her but is now determined to investigate the truth of them for herself. This is a version of what foundational Zen Buddhist master Dōgen termed "the will to truth". If the surface of Phos's world is frivolity, but the truth of it is lies and deception and suffering, better to confront such things and know them and make full attainment of them. Even five minutes of such attainment would be better than a lifetime of cheery delusion — better because it opens the door to the possibility of a lifetime without delusion. It isn't easy, and success is not guaranteed. But once Phos's eyes have been opened even a crack, it's impossible for Phos to shut them again. Doubt becomes the vehicle of personal liberation.
The other major Buddhist-tinged insight offered by the show is the idea that the self is not a monolithic entity, and that all our ideas about such things exist mainly out of habit, both personal and social. The self is a continuum, a process, malleable and mutable. Each time Phos is smashed and cobbled back together, with pieces missing and memories along with it, there's a different Phos — and a good deal of how well Phos copes with it revolves around how much the others value what's been preserved versus the overall trajectory of the person they know. The gems have been living in a kind of timeless time for so long, true change is jarring to them — so much so that they have difficulty coping with it on their own, and have to fall to Sensei to walk them through it. (How complicit is he in all this? It's left open-ended.)
Another Buddhist notion surfaces in a scene when Phos goes to the shoals where the various minerals sometimes take their form. Most of the time, they just accrete into vaguely humaniform chunks, then shatter. Only very rarely do they become a sentient entity. That brought to mind a common line of thought in Buddhism, of how the odds of you being incarnate as a sentient being are exceedingly small, and so you ought to make the most of it and use what time and mind you have to seek tirelessly after the truth of your existence. There's more, but I think the point has been made: the Buddhist elements in the show aren't trappings or tinsel; they are the show.
Beneath those gleaming surfaces
CGI is hard to use well in any domain, and it feels doubly hard to use it well in animation. Lustrous is one of the very few anime I've seen so far where it's quite plainly CGI (barring a few hand-drawn inserts here and there), but where that look is both executed well and entirely complementary to the flavor of the imagery. The different lusters sported by each gem, the way each fractures differently, are all things CGI does well naturally. But the animation team (Orange CG) went several extra miles to give the characters supple body language and credible facial expressions, and to surround them with environments that hew closer to hand painting than anything digital. I also admired the way the show uses widescreen more effectively than almost any other show in recent memory; it's blocked and framed like it deserves to be on a big screen, not a little one.
All of this would not add up to much if Lustrous weren't also tremendously entertaining on its face. I mentioned how it has the flavor of a "girls' school for magic" type of story, in the vein of everything from Little Witch Academia to RWBY. (Steven Universe gets namechecked by others as well, but this predates it and has a different set of goals.) It works perfectly as-is on that level, so people with no awareness or consideration of the show's metaphysical side can just watch and be taken for a physical and emotional ride. But the deeper stuff sinks in, and makes itself known with time — and because it's paired elegantly with the upfront drama and characterizations, it doesn't feel like a front-load. Lustrous is already a keeper, but if whatever follows stays in the same groove and sees its ideas all the way through to their culminations, it'll be twice as much of one.