Land of the Lustrous (宝石の国) by Haruko Ichikawa
Back when Anime Strike was still a thing it was a bit of the kiss of death for discussion surrounding any series that was put on the service. With the need for subscription to both Amazon Prime and Anime Strike it made the service extremely unpopular. The double pay wall meant that all but the most dedicated (and well to do) fans used the service. Now the normal “alternative methods” of watching licensed shows still exist but shows that are not easily to stream tend to get left out of the general conversation of fandom. It takes a very special show to stand out in a way that a larger audience will spend the time and/or money to find a show that is not just dropped in their laps. Land of the Lustrous was one of those shows.
I was honestly surprised that people were talking about Land of the Lustrous despite being on Anime Strike. Now some shows on Anime Strike are just not very good so it makes sense they would disappear from discussions but even very good shows like The Great Passage did not stand a chance. So when Anime Strike finally died the few shows that people were still talking about before the lowering of the second pay wall stood out. One of the shows that I remember having lots of buzz was Land of the Lustrous. It was as impressive as I had heard and made me very curious to see what the manga was like. Haruko Ichikawa’s work on the manga opened my eyes even more.
The last time I did the Manga of the Month I mentioned the somewhat rare case where the manga and the anime but both very good but also have enough of a difference in execution to make both version worth experiencing. I’m happy to say that Land of the Lustrous falls into that same illustrious category. It gives the reader a very different experience than the anime but being just as good. That alone makes it worth talking about. The fact that the series is a unique mixture of philosophy, mystery, and action takes it from the realm of should talk about to must talk about.
The genderless gem people are immortal but live in fear of the alien Lunarians who wish to whisk them away and grind them into jewelry. Phos is one of the weakest gems and does not have a proper job. Phos finds that their fellow gem Cinnabar is also dissatisfied with their job and vows find them a proper purpose in life. This casual promise turns into a transcendent journey that transforms Phos and opens their eyes to greater truths about the world.
I remember Carl from Ogiue Maniax talking about this series when we were discussing Anime Strike. Since it is running in Monthly Afternoon, which also ran his favorite manga Genshiken, he had occasion to read a chapter or two when he purchased the magazine. He mentioned that his only real impression was that he did not have one mostly because he had to idea what was going on coming into the middle of the story. That is no small feat because Carl has a PhD in manga so that should explain how this is not your standard fantasy adventure. The mixture of the alien nature of the setting and the complexity of the themes mean that you can’t just jump in and find your way with some the standard tropes and conventions of the medium. This is a unique story that takes its time to unfold to the reader at a deliberate but measured pace.
If you have seen the “What I Read, What I Expected, What I Got” picture for this show it is surprisingly insightful. Given the surface similarities between Land of the Lustrous and Steven Universe it is very easy to assume at first glance that this manga will be the Cartoon Network show with cute girl fluffy nonsense. Considering the high praise that Steven Universe receives critically and from its fanbase that would hardly be the worst scenario in the world. Any deeper examination Land of the Lustrous will show that both series care deeply about the themes of identity and self. They just do that very differently. But beyond that element both shows have very different ideas that they wish to explore and do so in unique ways.
The reason Carl could not easily just pop into Land of the Lustrous is because it has a very alien world that you have to watch unfold. The manga drops you in cold to a world very different from our own and then slowly and carefully shows you how this world works in easily digestible little chunks. If you don’t have these carefully cultivated lessons then it can feel like trying to do advanced quantum mechanics without the prerequisite math and physics courses. Thankfully Phos starts off as a lazy and inexperienced character so the reader organically experiences the world alongside them which makes everything fall into place nicely.
What is very interesting is that much like the unique setting Phos journey is not your standard character progress. At first it seems that Phos character arc will be your stock in trade bildungsroman just one in a very odd setting. As Pho grows it comes apparently they are going through something more similar to a Kafkaesque transformation that challenges to reader on the value of the growth. This subversion of the standard coming of age story mixed with Buddhist themes that challenges the reader in a very unusual fashion.
Like I said up top the manga and the anime play differently from each other. The direction and the CG make the anime feel more like a thoughtful action anime. The animation lets there be a bit more focus on the fights with the Lunarians and the body horror of the gems being broken. The manga feels more like a 70’s shojo manga. It sort of lives in the mood of those old counterculture sci-fi series that define the era. The fights are still in the manga and the deep thematic resonance is still in the anime but each one leans into its strengths.
It is not uncommon to see people get into anime and manga because they feel it offers them different stories then what they are used to in western media. The problem is that if you spend enough time reading manga and watching anime you quickly realize like any other medium there are clichés and workhorse formulas that you see all the time. The story of some newer fan getting burnt out on their 5th version of shonen fighting tournament or shojo romance is hardly uncommon. The perfect antidote to that is reading something that challenges the reader like Land of the Lustrous. There is a reason this series was able to escape the Anime Strike limbo it seemed destined to fall into. It reads in a way that refuses to be forgotten and demands to be explored.