The 2017 anime series Land of the Lustrous, based on the manga of the same name, made waves not only with its absolutely beautiful art direction, revolutionary use of CG, and compellingly personal post-apocalyptic storytelling, but also with its largely genderless cast and the translation choice to refer to these characters using the singular “they”. Vrai Kaiser of Anime Feminist already wrote a wonderful article about the importance of this language choice in normalizing nonbinary people and identities. The discussion of how we choose to describe and portray characters outside the enforced gender binary across cultural and language barriers is important and necessary, and for that Vrai and others like them have been absolutely inspirational.
But amidst the efforts to defend the translation of Land of the Lustrous’ portrayal of gender and lack thereof, I find that the ideas about gender actually at play in Land of the Lustrous itself could sometimes become lost in the discussion. Don’t get me wrong, it was and still is a widely popular and well loved series, especially in LGBTQA+ circles, but what I want to turn people’s attention to is why series creator Haruko Ichikawa chose to portray the characters the way that she did and the significance of those choices to the story’s internal logic and themes.
Before I go any further, there’s something that needs to be said: fictional characters do not need a reason to be queer. Certainly no more than they need a reason to be cis and straight. Film and literature have a long and shameful history of using queer characters as props for cis and hetero leads, or using expressions of queerness as shorthand for various social ills while downplaying the validity of queerness in and of itself. Frankly it gets exhausting, so sometimes it can be nice for a character to just be trans or bi or ace and have “this is how some human beings are and it’s awesome, there’s the door if you can’t accept that” be the only deeper meaning.
Except that the gem people of Land of the Lustrous aren’t human beings. They’re symbols for an idea about humanity and what enduring essence we may leave behind tens of thousands of years after we’re gone and forgotten. Ichikawa isn’t just imagining a post-gender world, she’s imagining a world where nearly the entire legacy of gender has been stripped away, and humanity as it exists now lives on only through myths and whispers. So let’s turn our attention away from Land of the Lustrous as a landmark in nonbinary representation; such stories are important, but they have a propensity to lose a bit of their luster (heh) as wider visibility and representation become normalized. But I think Land of the Lustrous has just as much if not more to offer as a meditation on our relationships with and experiences of gender, and that gives it the potential to be truly timeless.
A quick disclaimer before we begin: I have read the Land of the Lustrous manga well past the anime’s endpoint and will never pretend otherwise, but I am limiting the scope of my thematic analysis to what can be mined from content covered by the 2017 anime adaptation. My familiarity with later material has unavoidably colored my perspective and drawn my attention to bits of foreshadowing that I may not have previously noticed, but I will do my best to keep those inevitable moments as vague as possible. I considered the idea of including a spoiler-filled segment that the anime-only crowd could skip and decided against it because I want this to be an accessible read that comes to a conclusion that’s fulfilling and comprehensible to everyone, and a manga spoiler section would make that impossible. I may eventually write a follow-up piece down the road covering later story content; until then hopefully this will be a satisfying read on its own.
Also, I must stress that this is not the One True Interpretation or some secret key to unlocking all the mysteries of Land of the Lustrous. Not everything in the story needs or even ought to be viewed through this lens, and you are no less of a fan if you didn’t read any of this into the text. I can’t even say for sure how much of what I’m pointing out is intentional on Ichikawa’s part and how much is me projecting onto her work, so please keep in perspective that this is one of many paradigms through which to examine a very unique, complex, and layered piece of art. Still, I would argue that there are definitely ideas about gender at play here that go beyond simple representation and that are well-supported enough that I’d be very surprised if at least half of them weren’t put there on purpose. So indulge me as I explore this little pet interpretation of mine, feel free to share your own thoughts in reply, and hopefully some interesting discussion will come of it.
Alongside its living gem protagonists, the Lustrous, there are two other peoples who live in the world of Land of the Lustrous: the Lunarians, a mysterious people who emerge from the sky to hunt the Lustrous; and the Admirabilis, sea slug-like mortals who play a small but deceptively important role in the narrative. Early on in the story, Lustrous protagonist “Phos” Phosphophyllite meets Ventricosus of the Admirabilis, who tells them her people’s story of how the world became what it is and where its current inhabitants came from. The story goes that their world was once populated by ancient animals called humans, but when the planet was rent asunder by six cataclysms and they could no longer exist as they once had, they ultimately split their essence into Flesh, Bone, and Soul, which became the Admirabilis, the Lustrous, and the Lunarians respectively. This is a neat portrayal of the mythologization of history due to the Admirabilis’ short life spans and the limitations of oral tradition, but it also gives the audience a symbolic lens through which to view these three peoples and what they represent in the story. Here we have three embodiments of different aspects of the human condition, and all of them are at least strongly hinted to exist outside the gender binary as we know it.
I’ll start with the Admirabilis, who drew my attention to this little thematic throughline not only with their central myth but also their design inspiration. The Admirabilis are occasionally described as resembling sea slugs, and their distinct flowing bodies, tentacles, and bright colorations are particularly evocative of the nudibranch family, which are hermaphroditic. This isn’t just my personal conjecture either; an explicit comparison between them is made later on in the manga, much to my excitement to see my theory validated. Their life cycle and reproductive mechanism are never elaborated upon, nor do we ever see two Admirabilis forming a mated pair, so that leaves their real world inspiration as all we have to go by and that suggests they don’t share humaniy’s concept of physiological sex. In the same story that stars a group of sexless gem people there’s no way this was an accident.
Their use of pronouns, titles, and honorifics further supports this; Ventricosus, the first Admirabilis we meet, claims to be the king (王/ou) of the Admirabilis as opposed to their queen (女王/joou) but is later referred to as “elder sister” (姉上/aneue) by Aculeatus, who she in turn calls her “little brother” (弟/otouto). In contrast to the Lustrous, whose presentation and forms of address aren’t divided along gendered lines (more on that later), this implies at least some notion of gender identity may still exist in Admirabilis society, but a single person being both a “king” and an “elder sister” lines up with the notion that gender isn’t such a fixed and limiting construct for their kind as something they need be assigned at birth.
As the Flesh of humanity, though, the Admirabilis need to be in the right physical state to be their truest selves, which may sound familiar to some people who have experienced dysphoria. Ventricosus is first introduced as a gigantic, mindless beast the Lunarians drop on the Lustrous against her will, at which point she begins indiscriminately devouring any mineral she touches, Lustrous included. In this state she knows only to consume without end, and to build a protective shell around her body from the minerals she eats. In other words, she has a hunger that can’t be satisfied but keeps eating because she doesn’t know what else to do. She hurts others just by being close to them, and all the while she continuously armors herself against the world that hurts her.
Then she’s purified in a salt water pond and takes on her tiny “sea slug” form that is capable of speech (though only Phos can understand her) and complex thought (though she spends most of her time being hungry or horny or both). Ventricosus claims this to be her true form, but when brought to the ocean she is able to grow into her human-like “truer true form”. Granted, Ventricosus isn’t exactly the most truthful or forthcoming individual and could’ve just not felt like explaining herself to Phos the moment she turned into a slug, but most of what she says tends to be at least a half-truth. If we take the saltwater pond to be a small taste of the life she’s been denied by the Lunarians, the form it grants her would certainly feel much truer than the hulking mindless snail she’d previously been, which would then prompt her to seek greater and more fulfilling forms of self expression in the vastness of the ocean. Following that line of reasoning, it may be that she calls her breasts (which she most likely does not use for their original evolutionary purpose) her “most important parts” because she feels they affirm her true self, contrasting with her brother Aculeatus’ flat, sleek form. The parallels to transitioning and gender euphoria are hard to miss.
While not all non-cis people find it necessary to medically transition, many of us do. There are a wide variety of options for medically transitioning including hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and gender-affirming surgery, but generally speaking, they pretty much always act on a person’s flesh far more than their bones (put a pin in that, we’ll circle back to it later). It’s fitting, then, that the embodiments of human flesh in Land of the Lustrous are so free-form and malleable. After all, a person can gain and lose fat and muscle, become tanned or pale, receive and heal from wounds, and change in all sorts of other ways over the course of their lifetime while still fundamentally remaining the same person. Sexual characteristics are just another axis along which people can change themselves to match their self-images.
But here’s a little thought exercise: think of a person you’ve known for a long time. Now imagine what that person looks like. Did you imagine them at every age, weight, and state of grooming you’ve ever known them? Probably not. How frequently or recently you saw that person looking one way or another, what they looked like during the moments you most remember them by, all of these things affect the overall impression that person leaves on you. Now picture yourself. Now picture yourself the last time you woke up with a bad case of bedhead. The same applies to how we see ourselves, except we can decide how we present ourselves. Most trans people consider themselves to have always been the gender they identify with, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always been living as or freely expressing their truest selves. If acknowledging and coming out as one’s gender (and ideally receiving support and validation) is a non-cis person’s true form, then transitioning to one’s satisfaction is our truer true form.
Flesh is our outermost layer, how we’re recognized by our peers, but this doesn’t mean the Admirabilis are shallow or superficial. Changing our outer appearance is one way to show the world who we feel we are and set others’ expectations for how we wish to be perceived and addressed, but beyond that, changing our outer to match our inner, whether through grooming, clothing, exercise, tattoos, surgery, or HRT, has the potential to be remarkably fulfilling and validating. Our flesh is impermanent and quick to wither when we’re gone, but it’s the part of our body we expose to the world and show to the people with whom we share our lives. This so integral to the Admirabilis that having their bodies altered against their will makes them mentally fragile and emotionally unstable, and restoring them to their preferred forms makes them feel whole again, though their short lives also mean that any lost time is very precious, a feeling late-blooming trans and nonbinary people may recognize.
Still, the Admirabilis care about more than just their own bodies, they have other needs and wants just like any person. One of those wants is physical intimacy, something the Lustrous have very little interest in and largely lack the capacity for (put a pin in that). By contrast, Ventricosus is, to put it delicately, quite interested in “pleasures of the flesh”. She finds the Lustrous very cute even as she comments on how tasty they look, and also flirts openly and assertively with Kongo despite Phos’ best efforts to restrain her. Unfortunately, in her giant snail form, Ventricosus can’t touch a Lustrous without dissolving them, and her small slug form is implied to retain this corrosive quality at least to some degree.
But after regaining her truer true form (and also betraying and subsequently rescuing Phos) she is able to gently touch Phos without dissolving them, something Phos notices and appreciates even in a shattered and barely conscious state. If her brother’s power is anything to go by, Ventricosus definitely hasn’t lost her capacity to do harm and becoming her truest self hasn’t weakened or defanged her, but in any other form she couldn’t not do harm. It’s only when she fully regains her sense of self that she is able to meaningfully engage with Phos on equal footing, but after regaining her agency, it falls on Ventricosus to choose to be a good person. That, to me, makes her moment of genuine connection and compassion with Phos all the more powerful as she refuses to victimize another marginalized group in the name of her and her people’s own freedom and vows to find another way.
Ventricosus’ last act is to take Phos back to the shore and offer a piece of her brother’s shell, the symbolic and literal armor she and her people use to guard themselves at their most vulnerable, in the hope that it would help Phos rebuild their body and become whole again in their own right. This is the last we see of the Admirabilis in the anime, and in retrospect they could quite easily be written out entirely and very little of the overall plot would need to change. There are any number of other ways Phos could have uncovered the word “human” and lost their legs. And yet the Admirabilis spend their screentime the way they live: making the most of the little time they’re given to leave a powerful lasting impression, one that makes the world of Land of the Lustrous and the ideas it represents feel more real and contrasts beautifully with the other peoples inhabiting that world.
This brings us to the Lustrous, by far the most prominent and well explored of Land of the Lustrous‘ three peoples. Much has already been said about their use of the singular they in English translations and their contrasting use of masculine speech patterns and feminine voices in Japanese, both of which serve to highlight their existence outside of traditional gender divisions. They have fully developed concepts of beauty and aesthetic preferences that aren’t at all tied to sex or sexuality, they form deep, lasting, complex emotional connections with no need for romance, and they generally live almost completely removed from human notions of sex or gender. The Lustrous are the central cast of this story, the characters we the human audience are most expected to sympathize with and relate to despite being quite alien in many ways that have nothing to do with their gender or lack thereof. That these characters are so effortlessly likable, sympathetic, and interesting would be enough on its own to make their story notable and praiseworthy, but to stop there would be to sell them short.
Lustrous are referred to by the Admirabilis as the Bones of those ancient creatures known as humans, and that has some very interesting symbolic implications. As mentioned previously, HRT and other forms of medical transitioning generally act on a person’s flesh while leaving their bones relatively unchanged. There is therefore a tendency (that being the operative word, there are exceptions) for one’s skeletal features to correlate with the sex one was assigned at birth, and this is sadly the basis for a somewhat popular, thoroughly tired and stupid talking point that transphobes like to spin as “evidence” that trans people are actually still their assigned sex, because bone structure. So while this may be reaching a bit, I can’t help but feel that there’s something subversive in the fact that the Lustrous, the Bones of humanity, are completely sexless. They may differ from one another in many ways, coming in every hardness and hue, but sex just isn’t a thing for them, to the point that Phos finds Ventricosus’ secondary sexual characteristics gross and vulgar.
Whereas the two Admirabilis we meet in the anime express wildly different physiques and gender presentations, the Lustrous’ bodies have far less variation in that regard. For the most part they all share more or less the same sleek and slender body type, and even wear the same (androgynous) uniform. As a quick aside, while this may be symbolically subversive for the reason mentioned previously, it is a bit limiting from a representation standpoint and I’ve known some plus-sized, dark-skinned, and masculine-presenting nonbinary people for whom this aesthetic was a steep barrier of entry to enjoying the series. I’m not here to dismiss or downplay those feelings, but both narratively and thematically they aren’t this way entirely by accident, and that’s worth exploring.
Like real world gems, the Lustrous of Land of the Lustrous are born naturally rough and uncut. When they are found after taking shape, though, their edges are all smoothed, they are given implants that resemble human eyes, and they cover their bodies in powder that resembles light human skin. Intentionally or not, this preference is culturally enforced and internalized among the Lustrous to the point that not only does Phos refuse to enter the ocean without a coating that prevents their powder from coming off, claiming they’ll look “ugly”, but when Phos doesn’t return, the search party scouring the ocean for them worries about a shortage of that same coating limiting their ability to keep searching. And yet both the manga and the anime take the time to portray the unique beauty of the Lustrous’ natural unpowdered forms, notably when Phos is being reassembled after being subsumed by Ventricosus. Like any beauty standard, their preference is probably not naturally universal among Lustrous, but rather introduced and reinforced when their “imperfections” are “corrected”.
Now is as good a time as any to talk about Kongo, the Lustrous’ teacher, leader, and guardian figure. He is a powerful, imposing, unambiguously masculine figure who clearly knows more than he lets on about both the Lunarians who attack his charges and the humans from whom they inherited the world, and for reasons unknown he withholds this information as the Lustrous continue to be shattered and taken away to the moon, a fate from which he is apparently exempt. Whether intentional or not, the power structure he has created by building a school with himself as a teacher, as well as his sense of which shape newborn gems ought to be chiseled into, are all clearly informed by the old world and what he learned during his time living in it. Regardless of his intentions, he has the ability to instill both fear and reverence in his students and takes on a very patriarchal relationship with them.
While that may be the role he has fallen into, however, that does not necessarily make him a malicious actor. He remains a cipher, but there are some indications that he isn’t entirely comfortable with the position he has taken up. When Phos intentionally (and hilariously) mistranslates Ventricosus’ amorous advances as an offer of servitude, Kongo immediately refuses, stating that a master-servant relationship is unacceptable and that they ought to move forward as equals. In his relationship with the Lustrous, he is inherently intimidating by virtue of his off the charts hardness and power, and it doesn’t help that he can display a fierce and forceful side when giving commands he feels strongly about. But he doesn’t go out of his way to throw his weight around and does little if anything to enforce any of the orders he issues, seemingly preferring to allow them the freedom to find their own sense of purpose. I will have a lot more to discuss about him should I ever write a follow-up piece covering later story content, but for now suffice it to say that many classic pillars of toxic masculinity, such as machismo, possessiveness, showboating, and sexual dominance, are completely absent from Kongo’s character. While this doesn’t make him an entirely unproblematic figure or exonerate his mistakes, it may suggest that he recreates ideas from the old world patriarchy not as a willing agent but as an unwilling product, and that he may also benefit from being shown the possibility of a better world.
To accomplish such a world, though, would require some sweeping changes. Getting back to the Admirabilis’ myth, Bones are more resilient and enduring than Flesh, but that also makes them far more resistant to change. This is most apparent in their immortality, but it also means they can be painfully slow to adapt to new problems. Kongo says their long lives allow them time to find answers to difficult questions, but this perceived lack of urgency can enable internal strain to go on unchecked. I used to wonder why Rutile made cracks about Yellow Diamond’s age when the Lustrous are outwardly ageless. And yet even if it doesn’t show on their bodies, they can still be mentally and emotionally worn down by the passage of time. Yellow has lost at least four partners, and is more than a little ashamed of having survived as long as they have, and maybe this is a stretch but I’m reminded of memoirs I’ve read and seen from some LGBTQ+ people who lived through the HIV epidemic. Bones are a layer deeper than flesh, and if there’s one prevailing flaw in the society that the Lustrous have built, it’s the failure to recognize that one’s outer and inner life don’t always operate on the same deadlines.
This is most apparent in Cinnabar, whose night watch job keeps them safe from the diurnal Lunarians and whose loneliness makes them sometimes wish the Lunarians would come and take them away, whole or in pieces. With a toxicity that can permanently kill other gems and a hardness of only 2, Cinnabar lives a life in which constantly hurting and being hurt are the only alternatives to loneliness, the Hedgehog’s Dilemma incarnate. The Lustrous’ school wasn’t made to accommodate them, and this makes Cinnabar hate their nature and mistrust anyone who offers to help but is unable or unwilling to meet them where they are (more on that later). But the truth is, all the Lustrous have the potential to hurt one another and have boundaries they need to be careful of. They wear gloves to avoid direct physical contact because, with the exception of the Amethyst twins, two Lustrous can’t touch without the softer of the two being damaged. And yet they are capable of working within these limitations to express gentleness and delicate care toward each other, as exemplified by Rutile’s tireless dedication to crafting working prosthetic implants for Padparadscha. Cinnabar doesn’t need a new job, they just need someone who’s willing to work with them and respect their unique boundaries regardless of the job. In other words, they need acceptance.
If it seems like I’m coming down harshly on the flaws in the Lustrous’ society, it’s because they’re the central characters of the story, and Land of the Lustrous is a bit of a tragedy, so those flaws get a lot of time and attention. Still, in just in the span of twelve episodes that cover very little time in-series, many of the Lustrous demonstrate the potential to grow and change. Diamond begins to break away from Bort to become more independent and reevaluate their self-worth. Bort begins to see the harm their dismissive treatment of Diamond has done and makes an effort to teach others how to work with what they have. Zircon, under Bort’s tutelage, curbs their self-destructive tendencies and learns self-preservation while also becoming more confident and assertive to their peers. Antarcticite opens up to Phos and becomes a more caring, less lonely individual (before being shattered and taken to the moon, because again, this is a bit of a tragedy). At time of writing the story is still incomplete, even in manga form, so only time will tell which characters if any will be able to nurture these seeds of growth in positive ways, but for now they offer hope for the future. And then there’s the elephant in the room, but I don’t want to talk about them just yet.
And all of this happens in the span of less than a year. Their bodies may largely stay the same (with one notable exception), but they are vessels for memories and accumulated experiences, and they have the potential to survive to see and help build a better future in ways no human being ever could. They are taught to preserve and value all objects. Everything they interact with and create, however seemingly trivial, carries memories in its own way, albeit not as literally as their bodies do. They call their home a school and Kongo their teacher for this very reason, because while the extent to which they can change their bodies is limited (with one notable exception), their capacity for new experiences is not, and those experiences are wildly diverse and worth protecting and preserving. The Lustrous are worth protecting and preserving. Which brings us to the biggest threat to their survival.
Compared to the Lustrous, who are the main focus of the story, and the Admirabilis, who waste no time laying all their cards on the table, the Lunarians are much harder to talk about by virtue of being present in nearly every episode of the anime and yet remaining almost completely enigmatic by episode 12. Still, while the particulars of their history and motivations may remain shrouded in mystery, there are a handful of clues that help paint a picture of their thematic role in relation to the other peoples of the world. That the Admirabilis consider them to be the Souls of humanity speaks volumes to the weight and ambition of the ideas they represent, and the visual motifs used in their designs may hint at the particular concept of a soul Ichikawa is working with. This will necessarily involve more than a little conjecture, and even then I don’t have as much to say about them without getting into spoilers. But while they’re more symbols than characters, the Lunarians are an essential puzzle piece to bring together the mythology of Land of the Lustrous and its core metaphor, and I think that’s well worth the effort.
Like the Admirabilis and the Lustrous, the Lunarians’ designs are based on a unifying motif that ties into their narrative symbolism, and this one in particular is both very on the nose and extremely difficult for me to talk about: Buddhism. To be clear, I have not at any point in my life practiced Buddhism or studied it to nearly the degree necessary to exhaustively break down Ichikawa’s use of Buddhist imagery or which designs allude to which myths and figures, and there are far more qualified people out there who could cover this subject in far greater depth than I could ever hope. Someone probably already has. So for the purpose of this essay, I’m going to narrow my focus to the Lunarians’ thematic role as manifestations of human souls and what that implies about gender identity in the context of Buddhist tradition. Again, please take my perspective with more than a grain of salt, and if you’re a Buddhist reading this, please feel free to leave a comment with your own input.
One of the most well-known and widely recognized principles of Buddhism is that of Samsara, the ongoing cycle of reincarnation and suffering from which all living beings strive to escape. Within this cycle, one’s body is an empty, impermanent vessel, one of many they must occupy until they achieve enlightenment and break free. Over the course of a soul’s existence these vessels can vary in many ways, including sex. To a Buddhist, sex is a feature of one’s body (i.e. one’s flesh and bones), not one’s soul, and any sense of self, including a sense of one’s gender, needs to be discarded in order to become a pure transcendental being. The soul has no gender and can cross sexual boundaries from lifetime to lifetime unimpeded.
It is necessary, however, to distinguish between an earthbound (or moonbound as it were) soul that can be reincarnated across the boundaries of sex, and an enlightened soul that can fully transcend hollow earthly constructs such as gender. Based on their cruelty toward the Admirabilis and the Lustrous and the hints of pity Kongo occasionally displays toward them, the Lunarians would seem to be the former. This is all but confirmed when Shiro, the giant dog-like Lunarian, dissolves into nothingness, and Kongo, himself modeled after a Buddhist priest, states that he did not return to the moon, but has found peace. Whatever life on the moon is like, based on what the Lunarians are bringing to Earth it sure isn’t peaceful.
The Lunarians, like Kongo, are all but stated to be relics of the old world, possibly even literal human Souls, which would also imply that, though they are no longer physical beings bound by sex, they haven’t escaped their worldliness. They certainly seem to take pleasure in harvesting beautiful fragments of the Lustrous, and a fixation with gems and jewels is often associated with the vice of vanity, which runs directly counter to the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Though they have some variants, by far the most common recurring Lunarian design might be based off of the Apsaras, whimsical spirits known to entertain, seduce, and enthrall gods and mortals and preside over gambling and fortunes, which is to say they are exceedingly worldly beings that prey on desires and impede the path to enlightenment. The Apsaras are also almost universally depicted specifically as female spirits, further suggesting that while the humans of the old world may be gone, the Lunarians haven’t completely shaken the legacy of gender roles.
To summarize, the Lunarians are shown or at least implied to be vain and worldly, not physically bound by sex but emotionally bound by the legacy of gender and other traditions, ancient and quite possibly immortal, and unable to escape the cycle of eternal suffering. Again, much of this is conjecture; nothing is shown of Lunarian society if they even have one, and the closest any character comes to communicating with one of them in 12 episodes happens while Phos is strangling one of them. And even if this reading entirely correct, gender is still only part of the wider problem of the Lunarians’ inability to find peace. Even so, the (implied) inclusion of gender as a relic of human society that’s held onto by some but isn’t necessary or inherent to any part of the enduring human essence is a great thematic note and if it was intentional, my hat is off to Ichikawa.
I have to stress at this point that none of these three peoples represent a complete argument for the human experience and, if taken on their own and applied one-to-one to actual modern humanity, any one of these perspectives will leave a lot of people out. When speculating about the Lunarians’ aims, Phos suggests that they may be capturing Admirabilis and Lustrous to try to become complete humans again, and whether or not that’s their actual aim, thematically the statement does its job of reminding the audience that no one character or people should be taken as a prescription for how to build an inclusive gender-defying society. Inclusiveness can’t be built around a single experience that everyone is expected to share or a single solution that will make everyone happy.
Conversely, Ventricosus goes on to say that the Admirabilis have their own ways that are worth holding on to. The Admirabilis or Lustrous alone may not paint a complete picture of all of humanity, but they can still strike a powerful chord with some individual humans. Some of us will relate to the shapeshifting sea slug who feels more herself the more she “transitions” to her ideal form, others may find the idea of needing the “correct” body to be our best selves insulting, and these are both valid perspectives drawn from very real human experiences. Phos suggests that the Lustrous and Admirabilis should work together, different groups with different experiences standing in solidarity to fight off the remnants of the cisheteronormative patriarchy. That’s a message I can get behind even if it doesn’t come to pass, because again, Land of the Lustrous is a bit of a tragedy.
Tragedy or not, though, Land of the Lustrous offers on display a wide variety of different human experiences within its queer-coded world that goes far beyond the broad symbolism of its three peoples. Whatever their origins or symbolic roles, these characters are not “less than” human, and they all have the potential to live fulfilling lives as complete people in unique ways that embrace or defy their own peoples’ norms. The Amethyst twins, for example, are quite well-adjusted, regularly and gleefully using their ability to safely share physical contact in full view of other Lustrous and not caring if they’re seen as weird or creepy for it. There’s also Red Beryl, who works hard to outfit the other Lustrous with beautiful clothes and puts loving attention to detail into things nobody else will ever notice, much less care about. It’s heartening to see some of these characters just living their best lives and openly expressing their truest selves, while others, as mentioned previously, take steps to change themselves for the better.
Then there’s Phosphophyllite, who undergoes the most radical transformation of any character and shows no signs of stopping. Phos may be a Lustrous, but their tendency to act recklessly in a way that regularly costs them body parts results in them incorporating new elements into their physiology to replace what they’ve lost. And since the Lustrous’ memories and experiences are spread throughout their entire bodies, Phos ends up being remade piece by piece, both symbolically and literally. Everyone will relate to different characters in Land of the Lustrous, and in many ways Phos is that character for me. Long before I came out as genderqueer, I used to have a recurring dream about my body being torn apart, and then put back together as something different. I’m still working out which parts of myself to discard and which parts to keep.
After receiving new legs from the Admirabilis, Phos proves their unique ability to change and adapt far more quickly and radically than their peers, and their later addition of gold and platinum arms even gives them an element of Admirabilis-like fluidity. As of the end of the anime, they’ve also begun attempting to communicate with the Lunarians, and given Phos’ track record this has the potential lead to further change still that might make them more Lunarian-like. Within the series’ mythology, Phos is arguably the closest thing to a “complete” human that the world has seen in a very long time, and if things continue the way they’ve been going they could become closer still.
And they’re absolutely miserable for it, openly envying their past self’s innocence. Phos may start out wishing to change themself, but they never ask to lose their arms and legs, they don’t want to forget or almost forget some of their friends, and they certainly don’t choose to lose Antarcticite. Phos doesn’t even have a say in what replacement parts are added to their damaged body, they’re just too dazed to object; they don’t choose the new body they’re given any more than we choose the bodies we’re born into. None of the peoples of Land of the Lustrous represent the whole human experience, but does anyone really want to experience all of it? Again, the Admirabilis and the Lustrous have their own ways, something new and different they gained after being separated from the other parts of humanity, something Phos is losing.
Phos begins the story with poor self esteem, hoping to become stronger, smarter and more useful to meet the hopes and expectations of the people around them, and as the story progresses their old self is discarded and replaced piece by piece, Ship of Theseus-style, until very little of the Phos we knew is left. In their belief that the world has no place for someone as “worthless” as them, Phos allows themself to be broken down and remade, gaining the power and insight they’ve been made to believe they’re missing. But when Phos was first born, Kongo noted that wherever their talents turned out to lie, one thing that was certain was their kindness. It was their kindness that led them to unhesitatingly reach out to Cinnabar and promise to find them a better job and a happier, less lonely existence. By episode 12, Phos has gained the power to stand alongside Cinnabar but is no longer the sort of person who would think to do so, instead offering Cinnabar a new job that serves their own goals. To which Cinnabar rightly replies “What happened to better?” There is no such thing as a truly “complete” person, everything Phos has gained to become more “worthwhile” and better fit the mold of an imagined ideal has come at far too steep a cost.
I don’t pretend Land of the Lustrous is solely a metaphor for gender identity, and honestly if it were just that it would be a pretty poor one. Some characters, like Padparadscha, work better as disability metaphors than gender identity metaphors (although dysphoria at its worst can be pretty debilitating, and also disabled genderqueer and trans people exist). This is a story about many different aspects of human existence, and also about what kind of legacy we will leave behind when we’re gone, and whether we’ll be able to cast aside our current way of life to become something new or go down clinging to the old ways and drag each other and the world down. These are big ideas that can resonate with a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and gender dysphoria is only one of them. Volumes could be written just about Phos and their development, and it took all my restraint to keep my discussion of the character on-topic. But Ichikawa goes out of her way to represent nonbinary gender identities front and center in her story, and weaves them effortlessly into her larger-than-life ideas that people from all sorts of different backgrounds can see themselves in. I think that’s incredibly powerful, and it gives me hope that Land of the Lustrous and stories like it can bring people together and get them talking, thinking, and empathizing.