Land Of The Lustrous, Volumes I & II by Haruko Ichikawa
reviewed by jim hepplewhite
The usual notes for writing about manga:
— It reads right to left, and that's strange at first. Like anything else, do it often enough and you'll get used to it.
— The way I'm supposed to refer to manga creators is Last Name-sensei, but I don't get the impression that formal designation is useful for you, the reader of this review.
— Creators sometimes use studio assistants for everything from "Finish up a background or two" to "Draw the entire comic except the main character's faces." (American comic strips did this for decades.) Hearsay on 2ch (the Japanese message board of note) says Haruko Ichikawa doesn't use assistants, but short of her volunteering the information, we'll never know.
Sometimes, the press release is right.
The press release's job is to suggest to the critic the most positive lens through which to view the work. Therefore, every metal band is the heir to Metallica or Neurosis. Every white dude's novel about an English teacher rejuvenated by sex with a female student is the next Lolita. Every comic with even a garnish of goth is the next Sandman.
See enough press material and you ignore everything they say except for the title of the work, the release date and the correctly spelled names of the creators.
So when I read on the back of volume one that Land Of The Lustrous is an elegant action manga for fans of Steven Universe, I ignored it.
Then I read that first volume and admitted they were right.
Volume one sets up the world and earns the Steven Universe comparison. Both series star humanoid shaped gems who must fight to survive. The main character thus far, Phos, wants to help her fellow gems fight off their enemies, but is terrible at it and any other role offered by the school. In what appears to be exasperation, the principal of sorts gives her a new role: Compiling a natural history of their land. Phos is bad at that too, but along the way interacts with enough other crystals and discovers up close, they also have flaws. The use of density and cleavage (fault lines in gems, not the space between breasts) as a metaphor for mental health is obvious in hindsight and executed flawlessly.
The most visibly depressed gem felt a bit dashed off for my tastes, though Ms. Ichikawa executes the "Wait, you were in pain/sad this whole time? Yes, it's super bad, but I don't say anything about it" moment as well as I've seen in a minute.
Initially, the similarity between Steven Universe and Land Of The Lustrous is uncomfortably close enough that I checked when both series debuted and Land Of The Lustrous predates Steven Universe by about seven months. Land Of The Lustrous debuted on October 25, 2012 and the Steven Universe pilot aired May 21, 2013.
To my relief, volume two puts distance from itself and Steven Universe, while still being a, goddamnit, elegant action manga for fans of that show. It's anchored by a beautiful underwater exposition dump and sets up a cruel twist that fills out the nature of the inaudible enemy and their campaign against the entire world.
Ms. Ichikawa's line is graceful and knows just how much exaggeration to put into the proportions of her characters. The legs are much too long, but not sexually, in a way that subtly reminds me these characters aren't quite human. They're just a little too thin, even for the aesthetic and their limbs are just wrong enough to be recognizable, but subconsciously tell the reader of the alien nature of the gems.
A couple of the single-page splashes are some of the most striking I've seen in a manga this year. The action scenes look cool, and outside combat, Ms. Ichikawa chooses the right moments to slow down the story and let the characters breathe. Manga gives creators the space to devote an entire page to a person extending their hand, and Ms. Ichikawa uses that space to heighten Phos' fear of never amounting to anything in the eyes of her fellow gems and Phos' crippling depression. She nails it.
Phos walks around the story unable to contribute anything to the community she's in. That depression and guilt is an identifying point for the Japanese audience, and resonates over here as well.
To indulge in a quick For Fans Of: If you needed more sword fights between chunks of My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, Land Of The Lustrous might be for you. I avoid pre-ordering anything and I still pre-ordered the next three volumes a week after I read the first one.
I think you'll like Land Of The Lustrous.
Kodansha Comics (the publisher) hosts a 40-page preview of volume one.