The Fall 2017 Anime Preview Guide
Land of the Lustrous
How would you rate episode 1 of
Land of the Lustrous ?
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How was the first episode?
Despite possibly being the biggest Steven Universe fan on the Preview Guide team, that show wasn't the first thing that came to mind watching Land of the Lustrous' premiere. Instead, I couldn't help but be reminded of RWBY, which elicits just as many groans as grins in anime circles. Now, I wouldn't consider myself a fan of RWBY, but its lo-fi take on hyper-choreographed action has its own kind of wonky charm, and Land of the Lustrous feels like a more polished and reserved version of that. To put it another way, this is the first CG anime I've ever seen where it felt like the computer animation was actually a boon to the production instead of a hindrance. The crystalline glow of the characters' hair and bodies is an effective and visually appealing element of the show's style that I don't think could be done in quite the same way using pen and paper, and throughout the episode, Phos and her peers are animated with small personalized quirks that seem almost rotoscoped, helping give personality to the different jewels that we meet. The backgrounds and general environmental design are too plain to call the show visually imaginative or lush, but at least it remains an interesting show to look at.
The plot and characters also work just fine, though what we get is vague enough that I would understand feeling disappointed in the lack of deliberate world-building. Phos and their allies are literal jewel people, and the evil invading Lunarians' goals are simple; they want to use those jewels for decoration. Outside of a hazily outlined “our school is also a training camp” scenario, that's all we really get about the plot, and the rest of the episode is devoted to getting to know Phos and Friends, as they get into fights with the ethereal Lunarian forces. Phos is a likable if somewhat cliched protagonist, falling neatly into the role of “clumsy jewel who makes up for their lack of strength with determination and friendship”, though their character animation gives them that extra spark of personality to make a good impression. Cinnabar is my favorite jewel that we've met, with their poisonous powers fitting right into the sappy-and-tragic-backstory that my inner edgy twelve-year-old loves so much. This episode is cheesy fun, and I will freely admit that I enjoyed watching the crying rock person beat up evil space aliens with their poisonous tears way more than I probably should. I am a Steven Universe fan, after all.
Land of the Lustrous was a lot of fun, despite not being able to shake the shortcomings of CG anime. The inconsistent framerate was occasionally distracting, and the story hasn't done much to separate itself from the pack outside of its use of the anthropomorphic gems. There's something about its presentation that stuck with me though, and I find myself eager to jump back into its world next week. I'm not sure if the series will be able to sustain itself for an entire season without really beefing up its writing chops, but I remain on board for the immediate future.
I have to admit, when I read the first volume of the Land of the Lustrous manga, my reaction was “I don't get it.” While I still feel that way to a degree, which I suspect is because the story has decided to hold off on world-building details, the basic story does seem easier to figure out in anime format, possibly because the colors make it easier to tell the characters apart.
The visuals are easily my favorite part of this episode, which I was not expecting given my general dislike for CG. In this series, the CG serves to emphasize the jewel-like qualities of the characters, making their hair appear solid (how does it blow in the wind?) and giving them a very fragile quality that makes it easy to believe that they could shatter with too much pressure. The scenes of them being chipped or broken are unsettling, but in a good way – it emphasizes that these are not humans as we know them, but living people nonetheless. It also makes the monk Kongo stand out as the most “human” of the characters, at least in appearance. Personality and power-wise, he's actually the most supernatural of the bunch.
There's also some intriguing religious iconography in the episode that will bear keeping an eye on. The Lunarians, who I assume come from one of the two moons in the sky, look like Hindu deities, while Kongo is dressed like a Buddhist monk. Given the powers that can be associated with crystals in some religions, the fact that everyone is at least a semi-precious gem should also be taken into account, especially since “hardness” is apparently a measure of worth. The more valuable the stone, the more powerful the person? Although that doesn't account for Cinnabar, whose “worth” is in their inability to interact with others. (That's our second character made of poison this season, if you're counting.)
The story thus far is the weakest part of the episode. We know the Lunarians want the gems for jewelry, that Phos wants to fight but is too fragile (so they become obnoxious about the whole thing), while Cinnabar doesn't want to fight but has to despite their fragility because Cinnabar can fling mercury around. There's likely a parallel being set up between the two, and depending on how it's handled, it could be either touching (poor Cinnabar really does need a friend) or irritating because I find Phos annoying. Given that the next episode appears to be about Diamond, I'm not sure how long it will take to get to that point, and I'm also not sure that the story is intriguing enough to merit another episode. But this is worth taking a look at for the visuals alone, and it is a bit easier to follow than the manga.
Land of the Lustrous isn't going to be one of the top premieres of the season for most people, but it's inarguably one of the most visually distinctive. I can't think of another anime series I've ever seen that it resembles much. This isn't a case where the characters merely have the same hair and eye color as their gemstones; their bodies actually look like they're composed of gemstone. Though they otherwise look humanoid, they are also semi-androgynous, with feminine hips but no chests. When damaged, it becomes clear that their bodies are composed of their gemstone all the way through. Shatter them and they can not only be put back together, but even maintain consciousness and enough mobility to talk and make facial expressions. They can be reformed even from being totally destroyed if enough pieces are gathered, but their memories are distributed throughout their bodies, which means that permanently chipping away any part can result in minor memory loss. It's really a fascinating concept.
It's not just the gem people, though. The Lunarians look like something out of Hindu mythology, though their coloring exclusively matches the glow of the moon. When Cinnabar uses their special abilities, they generate CG-animated waves of mercury (because mercury is derived from cinnabar). Pastel-themed lighting effects also pop up throughout the simple but still grand architecture. I wouldn't call the overall effect dazzling, and some definitely won't care for it, but this is definitely one title you need to check out if you're looking for visually experimental anime.
The story so far is a classic tale of a being who's commonly regarded as worthless but is nonetheless striving to do something. As Cinnabar comes into the picture, Phos realizes a purpose they can be satisfied with; they will also find something that Cinnabar can do so that they won't be outcasts due to their gemstone's nature. (Cinnabar poisoning has been a known problem for so long that being assigned to mine it was regarded a death sentence even in ancient Rome.) This could make for a compelling storyline, as the groundwork for a budding friendship between these two characters on the fringe-of-society is being laid. Why the monk is the only apparent human present also makes for a good mystery, as do the real motives of the Lunarians; they are shown using gem fragments in their bows, but surely that's not all there is to it.
This is the toughest debut for me to rate so far this season, as I am unsure if I actually like the visual style. The story is decent enough and the visuals intriguing enough that I want to give it a mild positive, however. Even if you don't watch the whole first episode, it's at least worth checking out the first few minutes.
As the CG animation apocalypse encroaches ever closer, we'll get more and more shows attempting to integrate fully CG character art while retaining the charm of traditional animation. Land of the Lustrous is the latest contender, and personally, I'd say this show may come closest to selling the style yet. I guess it helps when all of your characters are actually precious stones.
Land of the Lustrous's story and world are simultaneously minimalist and deeply intriguing. In a place where all people are constructed of various precious gems, Pho and her fellow gem-people fight to not be spirited away by lunar invaders and turned into simply jewelry. There's a thrilling edge of body horror in this episode's sudden violence and the reveal that an old companion has been turned into a set of golden arrows. This world doesn't necessarily feel like a fully realized place yet, but all of the details we get and all of the people we meet tempt me to ask for more.
This first episode concerns not-so-hard gem-person Phos' quest to find a purpose. Too weak to fight, they're ultimately assigned the duty of compiling an encyclopedia, and then they try to enlist the inherently destructive Cinnabar to help. Though neither Phos nor Cinnabar are the most unusual characters, they're both realized well in this first episode, and the CG character art enables a whole lot of expressive character acting. Phos is a charming lead, and Cinnabar's self-hatred, while pretty rushed in its introduction, feels impactful enough by the end. There are a lot of rough edges to this story, but when it keeps offering up tantalizing details like “your memories can be lost when you lose pieces of your gem self,” I'm tempted to forgive its awkwardness.
The show's visual execution is similarly rough-yet-intriguing. The CG character models can sometimes look clumsy, but they're also quite expressive, and the choice to use CG enables some very dynamic action scenes. The direction is similarly uneven—the constant symmetrical long shots create a consistent sense of awe, but they also underline the fact that this world feels like an empty plane someone plopped a story onto. In both visual and narrative terms, the strings of this story always seem visible.
In the end, “intriguing but sometimes messy story with ambitious but sometimes messy art” earns a recommendation from me. None of Land of the Lustrous' issues really undercut the dramatic appeal of its story, and I'm already eager to learn more about this world. Land of the Lustrous is worth a shot.
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