X days #10: Too many Bodhisattvas

Warning: Spoilers for Kingdom of the Gems/ Land of the Lustrous (1)

Land of the Lustrous has concluded with 12 episodes with Phos, staring grimly at the horizon wanting answers. The manga from which it is drawn, Houseki no Kuni/ Kingdom of the Gems continues, further apace and as with the 4chan Eastern European starving farmer joke, Suffering Continues.

If anything it intensifies.

I really, really wanted to do a short essay on Land of the Lustrous for my 12 Days of Anime marathon. Unfortunately IRL stuff crashed my run and anxiety of influence has derailed any re-engagement with the subject until now. Lustrous made a BIG impression on the segment of anime fandom I follow and there are more than a number of great essays on it already. Why add one more to the pile? I could get picky about some aspects of it – that’s an easy way to start an essay but I’m getting tired of doing that. I don’t review properties I dislike here, unless they are such exemplary stinkers as to serve as straw high-school students doing self-harming relationship melodrama asshats and even then, I usually scrap those posts because of “why bother?

Lustrous is in no danger of having even a fragment, or a shard of it being slagged here. It is beautiful and painfully tragic: perhaps it is a Contemporary Japanese Visual Culture adoption of the newest mundane Japanese literary trope; “detective stories written by women that leave you feeling bad”: Iyamisu.  Blame NieR Automata and/or the current lousy world situation. Then add a metric tonne of Buddhist Imagery.

Desire leads only to suffering.

The other concern that inhibits analysis is the risk of spoilers. The manga from which the anime is drawn is much further along its story line and a few questions concerning the natures of the gems, Kongo-sensei and the lunarians have been answered. As for Buddhism and bodhisattvas, there at first appear to be too many while upon further examination, there are none.

The Buddha averts his gaze, turns his head away.

The Buddha has left the stadium.

I see only a vague echo of Terry Pratchett’s All Things Strive confronted by implacable nemesis.

The lunarians bring only destruction, perhaps even death to the Kingdom of the Gems. The gems resist and so it continues throughout eternity.

“”The most numerous of the Lunarians are based off the appearance of apsaras. Apsaras are cloud and water spirits that are prominent in Buddhist as well as Hindu artwork. They are typically depicted with lithe-looking and lightly-clothed bodies that sway in rhythm to dance and music.””

“Then there are the Lunarians who look like bodhisattva, themselves the rough Japanese Buddhist equivalent in service and function to Christian saints. Depicted in the center of a Lunarian grouping, they tend to be more heavily embellished with raiment and jewelry. Whereas buddhas have already transcended the cycle of reincarnation (buddhas in general as opposed to the Buddha specifically), bodhisattva (of the Mahayana branch that is popular in Japan) postpone their transcendence from the cycle so that they can intercede as guides to enlightenment for those who still struggle with attachments, loss, and suffering.”
— ‘Buddhist Iconography in Land of the Lustrous‘ by ZEROREQ011 (see footnote below)

Time, on a geological scale has buffeted, eroded life. The lore of the sea-slug/ jellyfish on the tripartite residue of absent humanity becomes a murky allegory. In the furthest reaches of Kongo-sensei’s memory are fragments about one human being, his creator. As for the Lunarians, though they appear as Buddhist or Vedic deities and demi-urges, they are most certainly not some veiled allusion to any positive mystical force. They are pure selfish evil and probably best destroyed – although it is most likely impossible for them to be destroyed in any conventional manner. Very good-looking preta, hungry ghosts, malign and damned.

If we are seeking a bodhisattva we must try to identify them by their works:

“If I do not go to the hell to help the suffering beings there, who else will go? … if the hells are not empty I will not become a Buddha. Only when all living beings have been saved, will I attain Bodhi.”
— see : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kshitigarbha

No one in Lustrous functions as a bodhisattva, although the male-appearing Kongo-sensei is dressed as a Buddhist priest ready to read funeral sutras in memory of the dead. His name is somewhat close to the Japanese esoteric names of the six Jizo that assist in the six realms of existence but no clue is given as to what realm the Kingdom of the jewels is analogous to. Nor can he be considered analogous to the Jizo who rescues the souls of dead children from torment on the shores of the river Sanzu by hiding them in his cloak – the jewels have no parents but sea-eroded rock.

The androgynous, girlish presenting gems themselves wear outfits somewhere between school uniforms and mourning clothes, though short-shorts and lithe bare legs ending in flats or heels are nowhere near funeral attire. The gems do not eat or age, though they sleep and seem to require light to sustain their life energies. They can and do go into coma-like states for decades, even centuries to recuperate from injuries. Their sense of selves and their memories are diffuse throughout their bodies. Losing a portion of their bodies means losing a portion of their memories but like holograms, the entire remains with details lost and resolution blurred. The manga hints that within the minerals themselves are life-causing somethings that are the true source of the gems sentience and mobility.

The Lunarians relentlessly seek to harvest them, preferably in pieces. The Lunarians also harvest sentient sea creatures. The implacable hostility of the Lunarians is, of course one of the big mysteries of the story. Phos will later confront them and their dispassionate evil. A resolution is obvious, so obvious that there must be a reason why it had not been previously attempted. From the perspective of plot mechanics, it is as if the Lunarians exist solely to impel the long-limbed gems to run through the veldt with katanas and give the viewers moments of fighting action and class-S yuri affection between each other (even if they are nominally asexual), followed by the ache of loss.

Phos curses themself to a starring role in a body-horror bildungsroman when they make a promise to Cinnabar that they will find something “better” for them to do than their current perpetual exile. As Phos loses and gains new legs, arms and more, along with the details of memory and self encoded in their original body mass, the one thing that remains as a token of their self-identity is the promise.

Phos always returns to it.

Perhaps, eventually that will lead to the resolution of the tale.

The sole Buddhist-related plot resonance I can make out from Land of the Lustrous is the suggestion that the task of the Jizu grows exponentially more difficult as the hells are emptied. The last of the damned are very very damned indeed, even if they have made it to some manner of ‘pure land” purgatory. The closest thing to a bodhisattva in the Kingdom of the Gems is a broken prayer wheel creaking in the wind, self-jammed on its spindle.

(1) I am indebted to the examination of Buddhist themes and iconography in the essay: ‘Buddhist Iconography in Land of the Lustrous‘ posted in their blog THEREFORE IT IS by ZEROREQ011 (December 16, 2017)