Sentient space rocks have become an incredibly popular concept in recent years, due in no small part to a certain Cartoon Network series that shall remain anonymous (*cough cough* Steven Universe *cough cough*). As such, when the anime/manga series Houseki no Kuni (Land of the Lustrous) came along, you would be forgiven for writing it off as just a rip-off clone of Steven Universe. However, this is definitely not the case, and in particular, Houseki no Kuni has a most unique and polarising selling point – it’s an entirely CG anime!
When I say CG Anime, many of you most likely groan in horrified anticipation for laughably awful and stunted animation or out-of-place/ distorted character models, that, sadly, often detract from the anime’s potentially fantastic plot. For the longest time, the potential of CG has remained untapped and has therefore been crying out for an instance where CG can run wild to its fullest and as a result be used to deliver a one-of-a-kind experience that leaves the audience in dazzled awe. The question is, will Houseki no Kuni be that anime to finally unleash the wonder of CG?
With that, it’s time once again for you to buckle up for a journey down the rabbit hole to see whether Houseki no Kuni will dazzle like a glorious CG diamond, or will it leave us stone-faced and disappointed like so many of its predecessors?
Story and Characters
The story follows the trials and tribulations of a small cluster of gem people that inhabit the earth in the distant future. On an almost daily basis, the Gems are forced to defend themselves from the evil Lunarians, a race of seemingly emotionless creatures from the moon, that appear from the sky to hunt the Gems for use as ornaments or decorations, while showing little to no regard for the life that they’re stealing.
The Gems are based on real life gem stones, and fascinatingly, Houseki no Kuni has chosen to adopt the density/ hardness of gems as an integral part of the story, with gems being more or less suited to a given task depending on their hardness. If the hardness of a gem is insufficient to withstand an impact or even a touch from a harder gemstone/ object, the gem can be shattered into shards and thus are left susceptible to further damage or, worse yet, to the Lunarians’ advances. When a portion of a Gem is lost, it is revealed that so too goes some of its memories. If a gem is shattered and taken to the moon by the Lunarians, all is not lost however, as it is possible to revive that Gem, if all shards are recovered and they are reassembled. Thus, the scene is set for the primary conflict that Houseki no Kuni lives and dies by, that being, a recovery mission where the stakes are kill or be killed.
Phosphophyllite (Phos), our main protagonist, is a gem of very low hardness and is highly brittle as a result. Worst of all, she is of a beautiful colour, and thus is highly desirable to the Lunarians. Despite being unsuited for most of the daily tasks undertaken by the vast assortment of Gems, she is determined to be of use, and is assigned a job as an observer to record and compile a natural history encyclopaedia. Houseki no Kuni is therefore a view into this world of wonder, mystery and action through the eyes of Phos as she navigates the world, encountering all manner of creatures, both friend and foe alike. Through her growth, the audience is treated to often shocking and simultaneously hilarious situations that are coupled with incredible action set pieces to deliver a highly intricate and heartfelt experience that, whilst truly unique, simultaneously gives audiences a feeling of familiarity and comfort.
The Gems that make up the majority of Houseki no Kuni’s cast are incredibly simple yet effective in their designs, as, despite often being dressed in identical costumes, the small details such as hair and facial features enable immediate distinction between them, while allowing the audience to draw further information from the characters, such as their temperaments. One complaint that I must point out, however, is that many of the Gems, besides Phos, are supremely underdeveloped and one-dimensional, only appearing for a scene here or there despite the apparent interwoven nature of the Gems with one another in the world that Houseki no Kuni prides itself on so intently. As such, the audience can often be left confused as to who these gems are and their importance in the world, if any.
If Houseki no Kuni excels in anything, it would be in its visuals. The use of CG is seamlessly blended with an art style that minimises the jarring nature of CG, while maximising the animation quality, general beauty and fluid movements in a way that only CG can accomplish.
With its characters, Houseki no Kuni, with the aid of CG, provides a sense of wonder and fantasy without ever detracting from the overall experience in any way. The Lunarians in particular exploit the otherworldly-ness of CG and feeling of being “not-quite-right” in a way that, in my personal opinion, deserves a round of applause. As the anime utilises bold, striking colours, the almost monotone, pastel colour palette of the Lunarians stands as a stark contrast, and when combined with the CG, results in something truly ethereal, further enhancing the audience’s feeling of uneasy wonder.
When considering the gems, however, the CG is most effective in the small details, mainly their hair. As the gems have primarily human characteristics, the use of CG to render a gemstone-like transparency and shine in the hair is wonderful. It enhances the characters’ innate beauty and makes the audience truly understand why these gems are something to be coveted and are hunted in the way that they are.
If you take all areas where CG shines in Houseki no Kuni, there is an obvious overlap that could potentially lift this anime from the realm of good to great – that being the action set pieces. In these moments, the brilliance of the CG is laid bare for all to see, and is done in a way that, in my opinion, could not be replicated in another medium. The fights almost act as a dance, with the smallest movement resulting in a beautiful spectacle, showcasing the almost lead-and-follow battles that occur between Lunarians and Gems. Additionally, the camera in these scenes helps elevate them to another level, as the camera almost appears to chase the characters during the fights, which lends itself to the frenzied feeling of the fight and, in certain cases is a perfect expression of the desperation of the characters in that moment.
So what’s the problem?
Now if you’ve made it this far, I bet you’re wondering “Is there anything wrong with this anime?”. The short answer is yes. To avoid any unnecessary spoilers, I will keep this as generic as possible, however, the execution of Houseki no Kuni’s story, is a big turn off for me. This anime approaches its story in a way that leaves you with more questions than answers at its end, and then commits a cardinal sin in anime of having no solid sense of closure. Now this could be due to one of two reasons: either the studio believed that the anime would be picked up for another season, or the anime has been made in way to make people read the manga if they want to get that sense of closure. If we start with the latter, regardless of the manga, the anime should still provide some closure to audiences, and not shoehorn its viewers into reading the manga to get the story. If, on the other hand, the anime does get renewed for another season, we reach a whole other issue. To produce a show of this quality and beauty entirely in CG, a great deal of time is required, and as such the window of time between now and the next season may be long. The question therefore becomes, will the beauty and hype generated by the story that has been told in this season be enough to hold on to its fanbase for the entire time it will take for another season to be made? For that, we would have to wait and see.
So after a longer review than I had originally planned on writing, I can say that Houseki no Kuni is a shining example of what CG anime could be if only a little love and care is given to them. However, as I’ve also pointed out, the anime does come with its own set of issues, particularly in its character development and how it chooses to deliver its story – most obviously, in how it chooses to end it. I must say, however, that I enjoyed my time with this anime and would definitely say that it is worth a watch, despite its issues. Like many gems, Houseki no Kuni’s imperfections do detract from its shine, but still delivers an experience that I will say you should check out. With that, I award Houseki no Kuni ….
And with that, we have finished another trip down the otaku rabbit hole. I hope you’ve enjoyed this review and decide to check it out for yourself. Until next time, keep it weeby!
Disclaimer: All images were gathered directly from the anime. I do not own any of the images used in this review.