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.
At the intersection of philosophy and theology is a word that both these disciplines have used to describe ultimate truth: God. God, in both senses of the word, is a concept that’s too abstract for newborn babes to fully appreciate as they mewl from their mothers’ wombs into a cold world. We open our eyes, our vision yet fully formed, and the very first beings to actively engage our sight (and the rest of our senses) are our parents. They take us into their care and teach us things: practical things, like how to walk, and ideological things, like how to see the world. We are taught by, ask, observe, and learn from our parents. We are made in their image and likeness, our first and most intimate mentors. For us humans learning how to be, the closest and most tangible thing to a God that we can appreciate in our early years are our parents. As we grow older and learn to respect other authorities, to realize that our parents are not always infallible and omniscient, but sometimes wrong in their judgments and even debase in their worldviews is tantamount to some betrayal. My mother and father were my Gods, my go-to sources for knowledge and wisdom. Now they are not, and I’ve had to struggle with the fallout of our strident disagreements.
In Land of the Lustrous, the effective parent of Phosphophyllite, Cinnabar, and all Lustrous beings was Kongo-sensei. He carved them from his hands, gave them names to identify with and cherish, taught them of the world, and gave them purpose through specific roles in their society.
In turn, all the Lustrous, and Phos initially, looked to Kongo for affection and guidance as their effective parent. As his effectively beloved children, they placed their complete faith in him and trusted him unconditionally. But eventually, Phos began to feel their relationship with him needed a more critical evaluation. They discover Kongo concealing something important from the rest of the Lustrous, something related to the Lunarians. The rest of the Lustrous confirm to Phos that they suspected Kongo was hiding things from them all along. They were content to leave it be. Phos wanted to prod at it further. Slowly, gradually, Phos sought answers to inquiries about the Lunarians that Kongo wouldn’t answer but Phos believed he knew the answers to. Kongo appeared to be letting the Lustrous suffer by withholding important information about the Lunarians. However Phos, in the end, couldn’t bring themselves to hate the parent who raised and nurtured them. Phos began rebelling against Kongo, though Phos’ feelings toward him remained conflicted. In being recast from the God-parent role he was always seen as by his charges into a flawed parent that he always was, Kongo is revealed to share more qualities with Christian saints than with of Buddhist boddhisattva. This Christian-informed observation is little odd, considering the show’s heavily Buddhist presentation.
I’ve discussed in earlier Land of the Lustrous articles that Buddhist boddhisattva were the rough equivalent to Christian saints. Both parties are patrons of certain causes relevant to the real-world interests of believers. Believers from both faiths look up to their boddhisattva and saints as moral exemplars, respectively. Believers turn to these patrons both for helpful intercession in the areas that they desire it from. For instance, there are patrons to children that the devout of both religious pray to. If I were make a crucial distinction between the two for the purposes of this article, it would be the following: Buddhist boddhisattva are luminous beings that have transcended humanity, and Christian saints are human beings that consider themselves all too flawed.
In the Buddhist Mahayana tradition, boddhisattva have already shed their flawed humanity through a combination of individual effort and the Buddha’s guidance. They are only postponing their complete transcendence from existence out of compassion for the others they left behind and want to help. In the Christian Catholic tradition, saints are recorded in the testimonies that they leave behind as painfully self-aware and regretful of their sinful natures. They operate in even their most compassionate of activities on the understanding that they and everyone else can only be saved through the grace and mercy of their God.
Kongo’s design as a character and the impression that he projects toward his charges is inspired by Buddhist boddhisattva models. Of the pantheon of boddhisattva that have a place of importance in Buddhism, Kongo is most reminiscent to Kṣitigarbha. Known as Jizo in Japan, this boddhisattva is typically portrayed in religious iconography as a bald-headed and ceremonially-robed Buddhist monk positioned in the act of teaching. Jizo is the patron boddhisattva of children.
Kongo’s doubts over the efficacy of his abilities and his lamentations about being powerless to save his children despite his best efforts figure him more neatly in Christian saintly narratives than their Buddhist equivalent. Kongo remains a compassionate figure throughout the narrative whose every waking moment seems devoted to helping his charges. The story frames his denial to Phos’ challenges to knowing more than he lets on as an inability to admit the truth more than an unwillingness to divulge it.
At the same time though, he allows Phos to attempt alternative methods at finding the truth he likely knows but can’t tell, to their confusion. Kongo’s not a God after all, nor does he appear to be a tyrant. He’s a parent who perceives his own flaws and criticizes himself for them, but is otherwise trying to do his best for others in a complicated situation.
Phos rebels against Kongo by searching for their own answers, and yet Phos finds themselves unable to demonize him because he is their parent. The feeling that results is ambivalence. Ambivalence is an example of Phos growing up. They are experiencing what many children of parents experience as they come of age: the idealism, betrayal, and subsequent ambivalence toward one’s once godly and now less than perfect parents. This dynamic is expressed best through Phos than from any other sentient gem. Phos is one of the youngest Lustrous at the beginning of the show. Phos was the most immature of them: impulsive, bratty. In a relatively short span of time though, the acute trauma of losing loved ones caused them to rapidly mature. They became more outwardly stoic: less cowardly, less needy. For Phos, listlessly chronic melancholia concerning the uncertainty of one’s place in life is replaced with acute mental breakdowns and a solid certainty of where to move forward.
Unlike the unquestioned, innocent, and child-like faith of the other Lustrous to assume that Kongo always knows best, Phos takes the audacity, maturity, and heart to investigate what Kongo is hiding from them. Phos still loves Kongo, even if they’ve started to question his authority.