Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Land of the Lustrous anime.
You could say that the boddhisattva of compassion underwent a makeover of sorts as Buddhist missionaries spread their faith northward and eastward. They journeyed from India, establishing Buddhist followings in Central Asia, China, Korea, and eventually Japan. Avalokiteśvara, as this boddhisattva was known as in India, is depicted in iconography as lightly clad. Kannon, as the boddhisattva came to be called in Japan, is depicted far more modestly. The boddhisattva in India is also depicted as a man. In contrast, the boddhisattva in Japan is depicted as a woman. This incongruity in the gender of this singular boddhisattva naturally arouses a couple of questions concerning (1) why the boddhisattva experienced a gender transition and (2) what the boddisattva’s gender is even. The answer to the second question is that the boddhisattva doesn’t have a gender. In the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, buddhas and boddhisattva have transcended it.
Given the sexless nature of the Lustrous and the Lunarians, I can’t help but wonder if the creator of Land of the Lustrous devised her characters with the Mahayana Buddhist conception of boddhisattva and buddhas in mind. If she did, then that’s great. If she didn’t, then it at least gives me an excuse to talk about the show more, specifically in how genderless identity can be interpreted as being connected to Buddhist transcendence.
Buddhism, above all, teaches about the existence of suffering and the understanding that suffering is linked to attachments. The religion further preaches that people’s suffering can be overcome by following the Buddha’s teachings, and core to those teachings is convincing people to freely give up their attachments. The boddhisattva of the Mahayana tradition work their magic to convince people to let go through, among other methods, persuasion and familiarity to help them realize enlightenment.
Boddhisattva in the Mahayana branch differs in important ways to boddhisattva from other schools, such as the Theravada tradition. In Theravada, boddhisattva is just the name for journeyfolk who are actively seeking enlightenment. In this context, the Buddha was a boddhisattva before he became “the enlightened one.” In Mahayana, boddhisattva are those individuals who have achieved enlightenment and had the opportunity to transcend existence like the Buddha, but instead chose to postpone that transcendence in order to help others achieve enlightenment like them. They acquire deific-like, supernatural abilities and utilize them to intercede directly into other people’s lives for salvi-fic, liberative purposes. One of these abilities is the power to imbue aspects of themselves into the material world, even people. The boddhisattva have transcended gender by this point, and their aspects will the forms of men or women to make their work at saving others easier.
It doesn’t make any important difference then, from the perspective of boddhisattva, if their likeness is depicted as male in one land and female in another. Boddhisattva are pragmatic. The Chinese, at some point, imagined the boddhisattva of compassion as female, and that femininity became what Koreans and Japanese — located on the outskirts of China — associated this boddhisattva’s gender with as well. Anthropologically speaking, the gender re-imagining probably occurred because compassion and related qualities are considered feminine traits in those parts of the world. Theologically speaking, the localization of boddhisattva gender to match feminine traits actually plays into what we would assume to be the boddhisattva’s strategy. It makes the boddhisattva easier for locals to relate to, and thus easier for boddhisattva to shepherd folk into enlightenment. Getting into supernatural qualities, boddhisattva will not only imbue aspects of themselves into their icons in order to inspire salvation.
Boddhisattva will also go imbue aspects of themselves in actual living people, sex and gender notwithstanding. Often in Japanese tales, the sexless and genderless Kannon tends to represent themselves in women. For instance, the founder of the True Pure Land Buddhist sect (distinct from the Japanese Pure Land Buddhist sect… I know, it’s complicated) recorded himself experiencing a revelation in a dream with Kannon. In that dream, Kannon reportedly declared to the founder that they had imbued an aspect of themselves in his wife. In a sense, the wife and Kannon are one and the same person. Kannon works through the founder’s wife, and by extension, all good wives in turn. Kannon and all good wives are one and the same, too. The wife, said Kannon, will help the founder realize enlightenment. In turn, the founder should honor his wife like how he should venerate Kannon.
Returning to the Land of the Lustrous, we encounter the sexless Lustrous. They don’t act, behave, believe, or consider themselves in any solidly gendered fashion. On one hand, their bodies are carved curvaceously, and they speak with high-pitched female voices. On the other hand, they refer to each other with masculine signifiers, and all of them are sculpted with flat chests. Many of them are assigned traditionally masculine martial roles. Many others tasked with customarily supportive female positions. Additionally, the clothes of the Lustrous are a synthesis of modern male attire and female fashion sensibilities. From the perspective of the audience’s culture, the Lustrous appear as what seems to be a deliberate design of gender ambiguity and androgeny. That fluidity suggests a lack of any one role and position being separate and unequal to others.
From a functionalist perspective, without the difference in reproductive systems between biologically male and female individuals, there’s no tendency for cultures to ascribe expressive roles to women (who bear children and tend to be limited in the strenuous actions they can comfortably perform while pregnant) and instrumental roles to men (who can’t bear children and tend tend to be more free with doing strenuous activities comfortably compared to pregnant women). From a feminist perspective, because reproduction occurs in a basically asexual fashion, there’s no inclination for men to monopolize and glamorize instrumental roles to themselves and subordinate and demean women to expressive ones because of the fear of the reproductive power the latter have over the former. From the fighters to the weapon makers, doctors, researchers, carpenters, speakers, and clothes designers, every role an individual Lustrous plays is seen as equally useful and valuable work for the whole community.
Well, except for misfits like Cinnabar and Phosphophyllite, but their problems aren’t related to gender or sex.
In the in-story tale-theory of the origins of the three races of the show, the Lustrous, the Lunarians, and the Admirabilis, respectively represented as bone, soul, and flesh, are suggested to be descended from humanity. Of these three humanoid races, only the bone and the soul are sexless and genderless. The flesh, the sea slug-snail people known as the Admirabilis, do have sexes and genders. Presumably, they reproduce sexually. Does the genderless nature of the Lustrous and the Lunarians suggest that they’re higher forms of life than the Admirabilis and even humans? Have they transcended humanity? The Lunarians aren’t covered that deeply by the anime, but from what we know about the Lustrous in the show, there are doubts. Even as the Lustrous have transcended gender like the peerless boddhisattva, their suffering connects them closer still to their flawed human ancestors.
Management: For more reading by yours truly on Land of the Lustrous, here’s one article where I delve more comprehensively on the Buddhist iconography of the show. Here’s another discussing Land of the Lustrous in the context of its neoteny-defined and Buddha-looking eyes.