It is not some great moral conviction that drives Phos into the sea. If anything, it’s closer to the opposite – a total absence of feeling, and lack of concern for their own fate. Even after being reconstructed from the nautilus’ shell, Phos still possesses no value within gem society; the only one who seems to actually need them is this weird slug-creature. Like Cinnabar, Phos clings to this paltry source of value out of desperation – and also like Cinnabar, they do this in spite of having people who actually care about them, and want to see them happy. So often, we are our own cruelest judges.
Land of the Lustrous’ fifth episode is not a happy episode, but it is a beautiful one. Phos’ absence prompts the gems to form search parties, introducing us to a variety of lovely new backgrounds, while also reaffirming this show’s remarkably cohesive aesthetic. Due to the fundamentally simplified, two-tone designs of the gems, as well as the incredible success Orange achieved in bringing their crystalline hair to life, Land of the Lustrous is likely the first anime to make its CG characters into an aesthetic asset, rather than a necessary shortcoming to facilitate animation.
Land of the Lustrous’ landscapes often look better with the CG characters in them, offering a striking visual counterpoint to the soft, lush colors of the surrounding terrain. It’s a trick few properties could replicate. Only because of Land of the Lustrous’ distinct contrast of organic backgrounds and stark crystalline bodies are these elements able to congeal into a cohesive look. And of course, it certainly helps that this show possesses such dynamic storyboards, and always has a clear sense of the larger geometry its characters are fitting into. The more attention is paid to the overall geometry of a composition, the more easily an inorganic element like a hard-lined CG character can integrate within it.
Land the Lustrous also takes consistent advantage of CG’s general advantages, namely the flexibility it allows in camerawork. The reveal of Ventricosus’ brother Aceleatus is a perfect example, employing subtle pans and lots of low-angle shots to create a sense of scale in the composition. Lustrous’ big action setpieces are defined by the fluidity of the camera movement, as our perspective is guided on a rail through an entire sequence of combat maneuvers. But the show’s camera movement is just as crucial for smaller moments like these, facilitating dramatic zooms into depth, or panning around a giant creature like in a kaiju film. And for all that, Lustrous is also perfectly capable of embracing flat compositions as well – like the ascent of the King’s brother, which feels like a panel ripped straight from the source material. From the purposeful storyboarding to the active cinematography to the remarkably convincing composite work, Land of the Lustrous is a triumph of CG art design.
But enough gushing about art – let’s talk about sadness. With Phos now certain they possess no value in gem society, they don’t even really struggle as Ventricosus bargains with the Lunarians. When Phos learns that they could potentially be used as payment to save Ventricosus’ family, they glumly accept this offer, asking only that Ventricosus keep Cinnabar out of it. Resting against Ventricosus’ billowing furls, Phos articulates a feeling that I’m sure many of us can relate to. “What have I been doing all this time? I turn 300 today, you know. You must be so much younger than me, yet look at what you’ve accomplished.”
Not all of us get to live to three hundred, but I think most of us sometimes feel three hundred, when we’re comparing ourselves to the brilliance of our peers. This feeling is amplified by a society that urges us to find some “core purpose,” a cultural slot seemingly designed just for us, and which channels our unique identity into a public good. But a system that defines our value by what we can provide for it will always create unhappy stragglers, people who don’t fit well within the prescribed professional avenues, and are thus considered “defective” by their own society.
It is hard to avoid seeing yourself as a failure when your cultural environment clearly labels you as such. Even if you are told you are loved or valued by those close to you, the overall system will perpetually erode your sense of self-worth. It takes great strength and confidence to push back against such a system, and declare that you are valuable regardless of what line item value you provide. And when you’re taught all your life that these are the only systems of worth, you are given no reason to claim or justify such confidence. It’s no wonder that Phos and Cinnabar have each embraced fatalism; their world is perpetually telling them that they’re of no use to anyone.
And yet, even as they lament their purposelessness, it is abundantly clear just how valuable they are. Moved by Phos’ kindness and hopelessness, Ventricosus adjusts her plans, stating that “if we don’t change our ways, we’re no different from the Lunarians, are we?” Through their earnest vulnerability, Phos’ distinct personality literally changes the world, and establishes a peace between the land and sea dwellers. As Phos and Cinnabar both demonstrate, we cannot fully appreciate what we mean to others, or how our presence impacts the world around us. Even if we see ourselves as without value, someone else might even now be relying on us, taking strength in our presence without us ever knowing.
But it’s hard to anchor ourselves on such ephemeral fragments of purpose, particularly if we’re starting from a position of deep self-loathing. As Cinnabar watches the gems head out to sea, they once again harp on Phos’ as a failure, a “useless fool who does nothing for anyone.” Of course, Cinnabar is actually thinking of their own failures, their own sense of uselessness and shame. They desperately want Phos to prove them wrong – to succeed in some way, and show that both of them have value. But even more fundamentally than that, they just don’t want to lose Phos, the only person who seems to truly care about them. Even if we can’t learn to live for ourselves, we might be able to live for each other – for the people who care about us, who lean on us as we lean on them, who’d mourn our absence.
Their gestures of kindness are heartbreaking, couched as they are in the utilitarian terminology of gem society. “I’m sorry,” a broken Phos mutters to Cinnabar. “Even at sea, I couldn’t find a job for you.” Phos and Cinnabar literally destroy themselves to conform to society’s desires, unable to accept the simple happiness of each other’s gratitude. Over the course of this series, Phos will lose more and more of their charming, irreverent, and irreplaceable original self, as they contort themselves into a form this society can use. Sometimes, the process of breaking and remaking ourselves is actually a process of losing ourselves, as we accept that society will never love our truest forms. Shattered on the beach, despairing yet still apologetic, we see both Phos’ undeniable worth and the cruelty of a system that’d deny it. “Tomorrow I’ll try harder. So please, forgive me.”
Phos’ failure in the sea is compounded by Sensei’s verdict, when he announces that Phos’ encyclopedia project has been put on hold. For the gems, such an announcement is just short of a death sentence – after all, without your job, what really are you, anyway? Thusly, Phos is too deep in the grips of despair to fully appreciate the results of Rutile’s grafts. Sitting in the lawn with two “useless” new legs, they blankly wonder “how can I be worse off than when I started?” As I’ve said, growth doesn’t always perceive in a positive direction – but of course, we also tend to be bad judges of our value and trajectory.
Phos doesn’t give up when they fail this time, nor run to anyone else for support. Remembering Cinnabar and their promise, they rise to their feet – and suddenly realize, hey, I’m on my feet! Though they still can’t fight for their own sake, Cinnabar’s trust propels them forward, offering the sense of purpose they can’t claim for themselves. And though this episode saw Phos battered and dismembered, in the end, their new legs carry them faster than ever before. Sometimes we stumble, and sometimes the fortunes of life will drag us down altogether. But other times, the value of a change only hits us long after the fact. After having suffered and thanklessly endured, we step back up to our feet, and realize our legs can now bear the weight of the world.
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