Land of the Lustrous: Gods, Parents, Saints, and Growing Up

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.

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Identity Genderless and Buddhist Transcendence in Land of the Lustrous

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.

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Land of the Lustrous: Mine Eyes Have Seen Much

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.

So there’s many little details in Buddhist art and imagery that are actually supposed to signify something important in Buddhism — symbolize some value that the religion itself teaches. Study the iconography of any buddha sculpted or painted, and you might notice that they’re depicted doing something funky with their hands. It turns out that how a buddha’s hands are positioned determines what kind of  Buddhist value is being communicated. A buddha depicted with an open palm forward communicates reassurance to the onlooker from suffering. A buddha depicted with a finger touching the ground communicates the realization by the figure of enlightenment. The same weighty symbolism can be said about a buddha’s eyes, which if you think about it, are often depicted in a manner that doesn’t reflect how people’s eyes normally look. They look like a combination of stoic and placid, and they’re supposed to represent what a person’s eyes would look after they reach enlightenment: aware, mindful, and content.

Of course, eyes have significations outside of Buddhist ones. Eyes attached to a face appear different between the developmental stages of infancy and adulthood. Illustrators and animators have played with how to depict eye composition and movement. Eyes are often said  to be windows to the soul in adage.  Eyes can reveal much about a person’s emotional state upon psychical study. They are associated with qualities related to people in stasis. They also convey qualities about people in action. The condition of Phosphophyllite’s eyes changes over the course of Land of the Lustrous, from wide and doey to narrow and sharp. In fact, the gem’s latter eye set looks positively buddha-eyed. Based off of the show’s more-than-flirtatious usage of Buddhist iconography, I don’t think this resemblance is a coincidence.

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Buddhist Iconography in Land of the Lustrous

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.

Introduction

Iconography is a powerful tool in storytelling. The power of icons belies and transcends the descriptor of them as being mere assortments of organized lines, shapes, and maybe colors. Even if audiences don’t fully understand their cultural context, icons hold a power over a people who are even just passingly familiar with them. The more ancient and fundamental seeming these icons are in a given culture, the more power they have over shaping the expectations of audiences when consuming a work of fiction utilizing them. Like money, icons are a currency that those in the know conduct exchanges with, with the medium of exchange being knowledge instead of paper or metal. For instance, the knowledge of whether or not your friend likes certain anime without asking him can be ascertained from the Homura figurine he positions on his writing desk or the Rem plushie he keeps at his bedside. The knowledge of your friend’s interest in certain religions can be deduced without direct inquiry based on the crucifix on her wall or the buddha on her nightstand.

Many storytellers set up expectations based on how audiences understand these icons in the real world. Religious iconography, even without much knowledge of doctrine, possesses the cultural currency of something deep and profound. Land of the Lustrous and the Evangelion franchise contain copious amounts of this kind of iconography. While Evangelion doesn’t demonstrate any deep or profound understanding of the Christian symbolism it mucks around in, audiences are nevertheless drawn to it by the iconography’s intangible appeal. Land of the Lustrous goes further with its iconography, exhibiting a more-than-passing understanding of the Buddhist symbolism it sculpts its characters out with. Most people watching Land of the Lustrous will at least recognize that some of its iconography is Buddhist in origin. Those with passing familiarity with Buddhism may find themselves attracted to these icons because of their pop culture associations with deep and profound powers or knowledge. Those with more educated backgrounds in the Buddhist religion may may also expect the themes of the story to unfold in ways that reflect a Buddhist worldview.

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