Land of the Lustrous (aka Houseki no Kuni) initially sent rumbles through fandom circles thanks to the show’s surface-similarity to fan-favorite Steven Universe. Sentient gems! They fight! And love! And they're possibly gay! But throughout its initial season, Land of the Lustrous has proven that the world is wide enough for more than one show about alien gems searching for identity and meaning while defending their right to exist.
Land of the Lustrous embodies a much more melancholic feel than Steven Universe, with a level of foreboding that’s missing from Steven’s adventures with his surrogate family.
A kingdom of non-binary riches
Lustrous is set in a post-human world, with the gems — there are 28 in all — living in a sprawling dorm under the care of a mysterious monk-like figure they call Sensei. Sensei is also the only male-presenting gem in the series, and all the gems treat Sensei as a mixture of father and teacher. Sensei tutors the gems about the world, and why they must fight in a neverending conflict with their enemies, the Lunarians. These creatures sporadically emerge from fractal-shaped portals in the sky, seeking out gems to kidnap and bring back to the Moon. The only explanation for this behavior is that the Lunarians believe that the gems are “pretty,” and they wish to own and control that beauty.
The gems take obvious pride in how they look. They dust their bodies with powder which gives their naturally glossy forms a more human-like appearance. They don’t need to breathe, but if they explore the vast oceans that surround their island home, they must rub resin all over themselves so that the salt water won’t eat away at their mineral forms. If gems shatter, they have a doctor — a gem named Rutile — who expertly glues the shards back together.
While the gems are femme-presenting, their design is not what you’d find in a traditional anime series. They’re not busty. They’re not susceptible to boob jiggle every time they run. Their figures are very boyish, with lanky limbs, but their overall design doesn’t adhere to a single gender type. Their winter uniforms resemble rompers, and their summer uniforms consist of blouses and skirts. Each gem is distinct, which is mirrored in how they present themselves to the world.
Yet all the Lunarians care about is the gems’ literal radiance. The surface of the moon is apparently coated with the dust of kidnapped gems, ground down and reduced to shiny, pretty glitter. The Lunarians have no interest in how the gems self-identify. They only see a resource to exploit. They are creatures of the id, following the instinctual drive to subjugate everything around them without any attempts to understand. It’s not difficult to see this conflict as representative of how society often treats queer existence. Queers need to fight to be acknowledged, and yet are still misunderstood and deemed unworthy.
Phos and Cinnabar: Searching for permanence
As the gems are portrayed as non-binary, I will be following Kodansha’s official English translation of the manga and using they/them pronouns.
The main protagonist of Lustrous is a gem named Phosphophyllite, nicknamed “Phos.” Each gem is rated on a hardness scale (the Moh’s scale, which is a real thing), and Phos is currently the most fragile of them all, which makes them unsuited for combat. At the start of the series, Phos is tasked with writing a natural history of their world. Phos realizes that this is busy work, but embarks on it anyway. They are determined to speak with Cinnabar, who has isolated themselves from the others because they continuously ooze out mercury. Cinnabar is surrounded by floating clumps of it, and while the mercury is useful in fighting against the Lunarians, it’s also highly corrosive. Cinnabar has accepted a lonely existence of patrolling the shoreline alone for possible Lunarian invasion.
Phos, being a young and idealistic gem, decides to befriend Cinnabar, because their wandering might prove useful for Phos’s encyclopedia. Cinnabar accidentally shares their deepest secret with Phos. They want the Lunarians to come and take them away, which shocks Phos into enacting the first selfless thing they’ve done: figuring out a new job for Cinnabar. After this initial encounter, Cinnabar becomes a looming presence in Phos’s life. Phos strives to be as strong as Cinnabar. Cinnabar witnesses Phos’s sincere kindness and develops empathy for the most fragile of gems.
Phos goes through a physical transformation, which spurs character development. A gem’s awareness, memories, and identity all exist within their crystalline structure. Losing a limb means losing memories, and Phos (due to the unfortunate combination of their brittle nature and unyielding moxie) ends up shattering on more than one occasion. In some instances, their limbs are replaced with different crystals, and they lose a chunk of memory each and every time. They become the embodiment of the Theseus’s ship paradox (how much of them is them if every sliver of their body has been replaced?), but Phos never wholly forgets Cinnabar, or their promise to get them a better job. Phos’s relationship with Cinnabar is the driving force behind their actions throughout the series.
Rutile and Padparadscha: Forging identities
Rutile and Padparadscha are the two old marrieds of the group. Rutile is the closest thing the immortal gems have to a doctor, skilled at gluing shattered shards back together and finding replacements for missing limbs. Rutile is known as a miracle worker (though the other gems tease them and call them a quack), but their skills developed while serving a selfish cause. Padparadscha, Rutile’s assigned fighting partner, is not precisely whole. They’ve never been whole, as their body is riddled with gaping openings which affect their physiology. They have trouble staying conscious and have fallen into decades-long comas. Rutile seeks to cure Padparadscha of their ailment, scouring the shores for compatible gem shards to slot into Padparadscha’s jigsaw puzzle of a torso.
Rutile’s commitment to curing Padparadscha speaks to their deeply held feelings. They haven’t given up for centuries, and when Padparadscha does manage to awaken for a while, the affection the pair share is undeniable. And who could blame Rutile? Padparadscha has swagger and an adorable smile. Who wouldn’t want to help someone who looks like this?
Rutile’s selfish gesture, their desperate attempt to save their partner, is the impetus for their explorations of gem medicine, leading them to learn more about gems than any other of their number. Their relationship starts with Rutile’s discovery of a place in the gems’ hierarchy. The gems couldn’t survive with Rutile, and Rutile couldn’t survive without the quest to save Padparadscha. For their part, Padparadscha serves as mentor and sage to the younger gems, and perhaps they couldn’t even imagine such relationships with other gems if it weren’t for their connection with Rutile.
The trouble with translating gender non-conformity
Both Kodansha (publishers of the manga) and Sentai Filmworks (US distributors of the anime) have chosen to refer to the gems as they/them. In the original Japanese, some of the characters refer to themselves with the more masculine pronoun “boku” while others prefer the gender-neutral “watashi.” Resorting to “they/them” is a compromise, but it’s a fair one. The original Japanese work doesn’t put much stock in the gender of the characters, to begin with. They are overtly portrayed as non-binary, and when it comes to English, "they/them" feels like the best way to convey the gems’ own understanding of their identities.
This focus on the singular “them” is a long way from Funimation’s tackling of another non-binary character, the titular Kino of Kino’s Journey. Kino is AFAB, but they are decidedly uninterested in identifying with a particular gender. When asked point-blank what they are, they reply, “I’m Kino.” Funimation’s handling of the subtleties of Kino’s identity feels ham-fisted when compared with Land of the Lustrous. Instead of embracing the genderqueer nature of the character, Funimation’s subtitles continually refer to Kino as “her” and "she" when there’s no viable reason for it in the narrative. Kino identifies as Kino.
Perhaps the most widely-known gender non-conforming character in recent manga/anime is Zoe Hange from Attack on Titan. Kodansha has taken a stand once again and honored original author Hajime Isayama’s intent, referring to Hange with gender-neutral pronouns in the English manga translation. Isayama states that gender isn’t really that important to Hange’s identity (which is wrapped up in studying Titans), and if the fans want Hange to be gender-neutral, then he has no problem with it. This might not seem like a big deal, but the impact of Isayama’s Word of God is enormous. The existence of a genderqueer hero in one of the most popular series ever? Every appearance of a genderqueer character builds up on much-needed representation, and Land of the Lustrous is almost nothing but genderqueer characters.
Naturally, Land of the Lustrous isn’t perfect when it comes to queer representation. All of the gems are skinny and thin-limbed, and while this might make shattering themselves all the more dramatic, it doesn’t lend a lot of diversity to the cast. Also, the gems are femme-presenting and in the anime are voiced by cis female actors, so this might convince some casual viewers that the characters are female. But Land of the Lustrous is a daring stepping stone on the road to queer representation, and hopefully will lead to the creation of much more queer-themed mainstream anime and manga.