‘Land of the Lustrous’ is the Most Visually Interesting Show In Ages

A body is not your own.

It is a collection of parts that make up who and what you are, but it is not of your own choosing. It is the slate, the template. You are what you are because of it, not in spite of it. At least, that’s what they say.

Few cinematic works really capture the horror and beauty of what it means to inhabit a body. Most recent to come to mind is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a meditation on the ways bearing a human, female body fundamentally changes you and how you move through the world. And now there’s Takahiko Kyogoku’s Land of the Lustrous, adapted from Haruko Ichikawa’s manga of the same name, about the beauty and agony of inhabiting any body to begin with.

Land of the Lustrous (or Houseki no Kuni) takes place in a world inhabited by sentient jewel-people who are hunted by the Lunarians, strange beings from the Moon who prize the Gems for their beauty. If this sounds like an odd amalgam of Steven Universe and NieR Automata, that’s because it is — a vibrant, post-human fever dream that can quickly descend into body-horror nightmare at the drop of a hat. It’s at once playful as it is enigmatic, rapturous as it is unnerving.

It’s the rare anime television show executed mostly through CG animation, a practice often decried and awkward-looking when employed. While CG is the go-to in western animation, Japanese anime has mainly stuck to 2D. 3D models in Japanese animated television often look animatronic, plastic, and even creepy. The technology and resources just weren’t there.

It’s difficult to say whether or not Land of the Lustrous warrants an “…until now” at the end of that sentence, but I bring it up as an important context for what makes Lustrous such a unique visual splendor: it’s the only show I can think of that is beautiful and wondrous because of its CG animation, not in spite of it.

It’s not just the clean, concise shot compositions or the kinetic yet fluid “camera”-work that elevate it. It’s the texture, the movement of bodies, the bouncing of light, the heaviness with which a Gem can shatter to a million pieces. Land of the Lustrous is an intensely physical, elemental show, making it unlike anything else ever made. It could only have been done in its special mixture of CG with 2D effects and details. It could only have been made this way.

It’s telling that series director Kyogoku had previously worked on Love Live! School Idol Project, which (in)famously used CG models for its elaborate dance sequences. Like most anime CG of the past, those scenes don’t quite hold up, but they contain the seeds of what he would accomplish with his Land of the Lustrous studio, who had previously worked on Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion films.

Their CG doesn’t have the bouncy energy of American CG giants like Pixar, nor does it have the fluid sheen of Japanese CG you’d find in video games like Final Fantasy. Instead, their characters feel weighty, heavy. They call to mind Roger Ebert’s comparisons of the CG in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which he denounced as cartoonish, with the CG in its sequel Spider-Man 2, which he praised for having “uncanny life”. “Uncanny” seems to be the key word here.

Kyogoku seems deeply interested in the melding of features that look 2D in still frames, but with 3D movement that would work in motion. He’s fascinated with the inbetween of the two mediums of animation, the perfect marriage of spatial planes. Lustrous is his first experiment to transcend those boundaries, practically using the uncanny valley to its advantage.

The Gems of Land of the Lustrous don’t move like we do. They are alien, otherworldly, yet in no way the same animatronic idols found in Love Live! Sound design makes them clank when walking on rocks or marble floors, while the animators take great care in the way light glows and reflects off their shimmering, translucent hair. When the Gems shatter, the edges of their pieces have a depth and sheen that 2D animation could never replicate. Their fight scenes play off almost like dance, each swipe of legs and arms rendered with impactful swings, basking in the push and pull of weight and gravity. The “camera”, untethered from reality or static 2D planes, is able to swoop and fly around them as they jump and sprint. There is simply nothing else — film, television, or otherwise — with the texture and movement of Lustrous.

Kyogoku and his animators are clearly having fun envisioning the unique physical attributes of each Gem. There’s the Ametheyst twins, their movements identical and symmetrical; Bort, with their long, razor-sharp hair they use in combat; Antarcticite, made of a liquid material that forces them to only come out in freezing temperatures.

And then there’s Cinnabar, a central figure who’s constantly surrounded by droplets of poison mercury, floating and swirling around them like moths to a flame. When they use the liquid mercury in battle, it’s like Terminator 2’s T-1000 on crack — they create an army of fighters with their own essence, all of them melting and collapsing into each other when they’re done with. They are perhaps the biggest showcase of all Lustrous’s “elements” coming together, the show’s beating heart and secret weapon.

The image of bodies deconstructing and remaking themselves is a constant in Land of the Lustrous, as well as a central theme. The Gems are seemingly immortal, but can shatter easily depending on their hardness level on the Mohs scale. They’re thankfully able to reattach the pieces together, but there’s a catch — if a piece is lost, then so is a memory. So when a Gem is put back together except for their arm, they may forget another Gem’s name, or a moment they shared together.

This idea is woven into the arc of our main character Phosphophyllite (Phos for short), a Gem with low hardness who’s seen as useless by the other Gems in their community. They wish to be seen as useful by their peers and transcend the “inferior” make of their body; so throughout the show, they lose pieces of themself permanently and have them replaced with new materials that contradict the make of their own body. Gradually, they become an anthropomorphized Ship of Theseus. Just how much of Phos will be remade? How much of them will change? And for what? “Usefulness”? What makes a body “of use” within the constructs of social order?

This factors into the show’s body-horror, which is not gory or bloody but just as horrifying all the same. Lustrous, like the films of David Cronenberg before it, is one of the rare stories to visually capture the terror of having a body only to lose it to forces beyond your control. That physicality the show so effortlessly conveys is weaponized in many scenes that are squirm-inducing without being explicitly gruesome, as bodies are regularly dismantled, put back together, and, at one point, melted into nothing. If body dictates your sense of self, then are we slaves to the body? How much of our selves are made possible by the limits of flesh and bone?

And yet the body is also treated as a deeply beautiful construct in Land of the Lustrous, which gives its destruction that much more impact. Each lost piece and empty fragment leaves a bitter hole, and like all losses, they’re treated almost with a sense of mourning. “Mourning” is a theme that manga author Ichikawa recalls as the reasoning behind the Gems’ odd choice of clothing: small tuxedo shirts with tight short-shorts. She referred to them as “mourning clothes”, which only makes sense when considered under the show’s queering of gender binaries.

Speaking of the body as ultimate totem to one’s self, the Gems are depicted as genderless and speak to each other with they/them pronouns. Many of their features are very femme, and they’re voiced by cisgender female actresses, yet they distinctly lack breasts and (presumably) reproductive organs. Their very design, like most elements of the show, is meant to exist in a state of inbetween, of non-binary. Despite being about the inseparability of the Ghost with the Shell, the presentation of bodies (and gender) is as fluid as it is weighty — like Cinnabar’s swirling mercury droplets — and it only adds to the unique physicality of their movements. Like everything else in Lustrous, these elements contradict each other, yet the show lives and breathes comfortably within the blur of those lines.

The shots that frame these bodies also contribute to their deeply physical presence in Lustrous’s environs. Unlike most of the American “Peak TV” shows that imitate Kubrick’s penchant for symmetrical compositions and negative space, Lustrous’s framing is always emotionally clear and concise. While these shots certainly assist with the uniquely cryptic mood and atmosphere, they’re first and foremost about the characters they’re framing, and their positions in the desolate world of the show.

Each of these frames is a story in and of itself when standing still. But like the rest of the show, they’re somehow even more bewildering in motion. They live in contradiction, in constant battle with themselves. Every frame is a clash of space, depth, and movement; and the results are utterly mystifying.

While the show is currently halfway through, Land of the Lustrous has already announced itself as a singular vision. The only other show to surpass it this year is David Lynch’s magnum opus Twin Peaks: The Return. But where Lynch rewrites the rules of history and structure, Kyogoku redefines cinematic motion. We are lucky to witness something so bold, so utterly new this year, and nothing looks and feels more unlike anything else than Land of the Lustrous.

trans girl screenwriter into movies, TV, games, and anime.