The first shot of Land of the Lustrous is a night sky, filled with two full moons. A gem crouches in a cave, surrounded by amber-like tears, as they watch the ocean tide go back and forth, back and forth. It’s a lonely sight, filled with emptiness and longing – the perfect set up for the kind of feelings that linger in the show, despite the glint and shine of light that’s cast over the first episode.
Phos (short for Phosphophyllite) is a gem that has no current purpose in the life they’ve been given. In a society where work is chosen for those best suited for it, Phos is remarkably…unremarkable, except for their sharp tongue and smug faces. Inherently clumsy and unknowledgeable, they are pushed into an even more unremarkable job in the first episode: completing an encyclopedia, detailing everything from the gems themselves to the life and matter around them and unknown mysteries.
One could argue that giving an accessible character like Phos an even more accessible job like documentation is a step to easily identifying and exploring the world of Land of the Lustrous. To an extent, I think it is: the audience is completely new to the rules of this weird, abstract world, and having someone like Phos as the main character makes those abstractions a little easier to parse. As opposed to other characters, who are obviously far more knowledgeable about the world Phos live in, Phos is just a child, not just in personality, but in self awareness and mentality. This makes completing the Encyclopedia a perfect job for them; it forces them to make contact with the outside world, to dive in and truly experience it in all of its horrors and wonders.
But the real tie, I think, goes back to the roots of Land of the Lustrous, which heavily borrows from many theological and conceptual references to Buddhism. For starters, the setting of the story is a strange dichotomy between karmic cycles and lonely journey of self discovery. The macrocosm of the story strongly clashes with the microcosm, and this can be seen on almost every level. In terms of setting, the gems reside on some kind of island, filled with open fields, long beaches, and large caves. Its peaceful atmosphere is exaggerated by the contrast of the cold (but equally spacious) temple Phos and the gems reside in. Soulless, reaching pillars that stretch into infinity. A bell that perches underneath yet another skyscraper-like tower. Long, endless halls that lack any decorative purpose. Land of the Lustrous’ man-made settings are beautiful, but they ring hollow, as opposed to the natural world, which is relaxing but also longs for completion.
There are greater mysteries with the society that the gems live in as well. Their enemies, the Lunarians, resemble Buddhist figures, infinitely spawning during the day, always gracious with no motion wasted, to the point where it is almost creepy. We know little about where they come from, what their overall purpose is, and how they work, but it’s clear that they view the gems as nothing more than playthings to be gathered and used. In terms of Buddhist symbols, it’s hard to exactly unravel their purpose, but I do find it interesting that despite being called Lunarians, they can only come during the day. The moon holds great power in Buddhism, and yet it seems that for very Buddhist-like figures, the Lunarians are as far as away as Buddhist concepts can get. They prize the tangible, and are willing to mow down gems to get what they desire. In contrast, the relationship between the gems with their protector and mentor, Master Kongo, is far more friendly. It also suffers from some abstract hierarchy and seems extremely functional, but doesn’t at least feel derivative. Each gem is unique, and has a particular duty based on their characteristics. They have their own unique personality and overall, come together as a family unit rather than a sinister entity.
Overall, these points tie into a larger focus: the contest between freedom of agency and individualism. The gems are admired and pursued for their beauty and elegance; they are reduced to a number of physical characteristics and traits by the monk who protects and commands them. And for the most part, they are content with it. They do what they’re told to do, and as a result, their life is a constant stream of breaking and being molded again, to the point where it’s almost as stagnant and lifeless as a crystal itself. The only two exceptions to this endless cycle are Phos and Cinnabar, whom directly contradict the lifestyle that’s been deemed for them. Phos wants to be more than ordinary. They wants to break out of the cage that confines them to a seemingly meandering existence. Cinnabar is so exemplary on the other hand, that the weight of responsibility crushes them to an emptiness no dark cave or moon-lit night can fill. In being distinct, both gems are alone; they are mere specs against an open sky, ready to be swallowed whole by the pleasant but lonely landscapes around them. As outcasts to their own society, the only peace Phos and Cinnabar can find is with one another. That in itself is a kind of lonely truth, especially considering how isolated these characters truly are within their own circles.
Theravada Buddhism argues that the minute we cut away worldly cravings, the minute we can look and aspire to something greater. We must understand our own limitations, abandon our desires, and pursue rightful purpose. In an ironic way, the Gems pursue this kind of practice. They can be reduced to what they were meant to be – luxuries, craved and modified to fit someone else’s standards and beauty. Or they can choose to fight that predetermined fate and stay as they are, stagnantly frozen in time, never aging, never changing, and constantly reincarnating into their previous form. Neither answer seems to be the correct one, but it lies upon these two souls to find the balance necessary to stop an endless war and find some greater meaning to the existence of these gems. As to how they’ll solve it and bridge connections remains to be seen.