Houseki no Kuni (Land of the Lustrous) - 6.5/10
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"Long ago, the three races lived in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Lunarians attacked..."
"Houseki" is the surprise success of the Fall 2017 season. As a CG series it had to prove itself, and the premise of, "Hey, we've made everything else into cute girls, why not gemology" was hardly inspiring. Yet somehow, against all expectation, it has developed into one of the most spirited shows in recent years.
It centers on Phosphophyllite, one of many girls (yes, they're girls, bite me) who are made of living crystal. Together they serve a man simply referred to as Master. Their prime function is simply to defend themselves, as periodically beings called the Lunarians descend from the sky and attempt to steal them away. This results in more than a few fantastic fight scenes against these otherworldly invaders.
In the meantime, though, each of the characters has a specific specialty and role that she plays for the group. But Phos lacks this purpose, finding herself at loose ends, annoying everybody around her while they work hard to serve each other and their master. In time she begins to branch out, exploring her world and coming to appreciate much of the danger it contains.
As mentioned, Houseki is a series that is almost exclusively computer graphics with only the minimum of traditional animation. Versed anime fans are well aware of CG's bad reputation in the genre, treated as an economic shortcut to the intrinsically superior hand drawn style. A few series have made inroads, with Knights of Sidonia as the most widely recognized and successful attempt.
With the completion of Houseki, I would have to say that this crown has been stolen, and with style. Sidonia never quite shook a flatness in its lighting that caused the people to appear porcelain, like the robogeishas from Ghost in the Shell, their expressions limited to the same open-mouthed gape. Other series, such as the ill-fated KADO, I complemented for some of their novel shots but was always forced to say this with a caveat.
Houseki takes CG and makes it its own, passing out of uncanny valley into an aesthetic that matches its origins. The small details, such as the smooth motion of multifaceted crystalline hair and the flow of liquid gold, are handled with ease while dazzling with grand panning shots that can be produced effortlessly in a computer. The chase scene in which Shiro terrorizes Dia was also a beautiful mixture of shot planning and the strengths of what a computer can do.
But where I most appreciated its application was the Lunarians. It puts the eeriness of concerted computer-generated mass-movement to use; their coordinated behavior, which would normally provoke a snort of CG recognition, was oddly appropriate. Their sunspots also had a symmetric and highly-detailed mathematical-fractal appearance that played well to the unearthly nature of their coming.
This furthers the theme that how Houseki looks and how it feels are expertly coordinated. All the events take place on a luscious and idyllic island that is very pretty, but slightly unnerving in its emptiness. As the series unfolds we are told that this is in fact Earth, some time in the distant future. Humans used to exist but are now no more, having been apparently split into their three facets of biological promulgation (flesh), unwavering duty (bone), and rapacious need (mind). How this occurs is never revealed, but furthers the sense of mystery. In the last shot, the island is shown to be curiously shaped, as though it were shaped by unnatural forces, while drifting alone in a wide sea.
While I never took any meaning from the split (maybe it's the neuroscientist in me that rejects it as a inaccurate hypothesis), or the Buddhist iconography that guides the Lunarian design, I did appreciate what they created: a post-apocalyptic world that feels like no other. The absence of humans, the regression of "civilization" to small outposts of gems or sea slug people, presided over by hostile invaders who attack at will, is non-desirable without feeling oppressively tragic. It is simply strange, representing echos of some past catastrophe, but with so much time passed it has lost any meaning to those who now live. The closest experience I can think of is Shinsekai Yori, an unnerving faux-dystopia that intrigues with its details.
Finally, no praise of Houseki would be complete without a mention of comedy. Anime humor is a hard sell for me; usually I find it slapstick, over the top, and too reliant on being amused by just facial expressions. Houseki's comedy is just this, and yet the framing and timing made all the difference. It's the one-off visual gags of Phos pointing with arm-stubs, pushing herself lazily through the snow, waving with two hands, or just completely discombobulated that got me. They are shown just long enough to be funny and then move on.
And all of this comes back to the CG: the expressions. Where other series have failed, Houseki succeeds in spades. The gem-girls are remarkably fluid. Gone are the rock-like faces and mouths that pop open and closed like nutcrackers, replaced with detailed eyes and evocative expressions of surprise, distrust, concern, dislike, irritation, embarrassment, and more. While one can say that it still doesn't measure up to the best that hand drawn has to offer, I consider that a fallacious comparison as most regular animation does not either.
Houseki built a great house, but ultimately struggled to make full use of it. At its core, the story focuses on Phos and her development. She begins as an unwanted brat, a gem that has failed to find any real use in the world, both due to her weaknesses as well as a lack of effort on her part. At first she is passed off on working on an encyclopedia, but is derailed by meeting Cinnabar, another lonely soul looking for a purpose.
This sounds like the setup to the crucial plot, the bond between these two characters that will substantiate the series. Phos promises to help Cinnabar find a job, and this quest will in turn give Phos something as well. But it never goes anywhere.
At its foundation, I never got the sense that Phos experienced more than a passing irritation at her lack of purpose. I don't require that she mope around in existential angst, but the natural moments of quiet pensiveness that should have accompanied such a worry were missing. She was just kind of obnoxious. And no, I refuse to get into a discussion as to whether obnoxious protagonists are important; if 20 years of talking about Shinji Ikari didn't do me in, Subaru Natsuki did.
Because of this central weakness, a feeling that Phos' personal development had nothing to do with her own drives, I had a hard time grasping the thread through much of the series. The events just happen to her, and after a series of screwups she learns nothing until finally turning a corner with Antarcticite's capture. She then shifts completely to a world-weary being, weighed down literally by her gold and figuratively by her past.
This transition felt jarring, as though it didn't originate properly with Phos' own mental structure. Like Cinnabar, we had no reason to care about Antarcticite after so little exposure. She was there and then she was gone, and yet her loss is the prime motivator for Phos in the latter half of the series. I would have loved dearly if the series were twice its length and had taken more time on developing their bond, but it was simply not to be.
Similarly, it's not that I didn't like the new Phos; in fact I loved how deeply she realized that what she had taken for a game of self-realization was actually a life-or-death struggle. Nor did I fail to appreciate how they were trying to develop her. It's that the steps taken to get there were uneven and didn't flow naturally from how the series played out due to a lack of care for Antarcticite as a character.
In the end, it all returns to Cinnabar in a dramatic final scene, and I was so surprised it was calling on me to care about her that I had a startle moment. Cinnabar even loses the taciturn distance she has maintained and becomes completely, openly abashed at Phos' attention. Just having Phos interested in her in the slightest seemed to trigger a complete unraveling of her defensive persona.
It feels like the series was trying to guide us toward an idea that these pairs were more than just teams but like romantic partners, evidenced by the tenderness between Dia/Bort, Yellow Diamond/Zircon, and Rutile/Padparadscha. As such, for Phos to really find a partner in Cinnabar would mean more than just company, and that she turned to her in this important task of finding answers shows real trust. But again, I was prevented in feeling the impact of any of this because Cinnabar was practically absent the entire series.
This leaves me in the final point, and that is my tired complaint of open endings. I understand that they couldn't wrap everything up given the manga, and that they had to do the best they could, but it still leaves me slightly tired, feeling like all of this was a long setup. Phos has just left the Shire and the book ends.
I fear sometimes putting the bad last gives an impression that on the whole the series was dissatisfying. Houseki is the only series I kept with this season. It was clever, humorous, intriguing, and entertaining and I looked forward to it every week. I don't think it's a great series destined to become a classic, but as a break-out achievement in CG anime that has a lot of heart I'm happy that I decided to watch it.