Until this year, CG animation was something I saw as mediocre at best. We can all point to Berserk 2016 as the worst example of what could happen but even significantly better-looking CG anime turned me off. The best example of this is the shows done by Polygon Pictures, such as Knights of Sidonia or Ajin. They don’t look awful but they’re somewhat off-putting and end up in the uncanny valley territory for me.
I’m not as virulently anti-CG as some people are. Its use for crowd shots and cars is perfectly fine whenever it’s not jarring. Mecha animation is also acceptable in CG, much as I prefer hand-drawn mecha. And its usage for alternate sequences in shows like Love Live, Etotama, and Show by Rock has never bothered me, even looking good in some cases. It also obviously has its uses in allowing for more complicated camera movement, such as this amazing shot from Hibike Euphonium.
Still, the idea of actually liking a fully CG anime seemed fairly unlikely to the me of one year ago. Kemono Friends shifted that this year, quickly becoming a show I outright adore, but even that hardly proves CG is worthwhile in making well-animated shows. The visuals in Kemono Friends are incredibly charming and I do believe they work to the show’s benefit, but I wouldn’t call the animation in that show particularly good. Holding potential, maybe, and we can see from TATSUKI’s newer work that it’s a style which can look wonderful, but I wouldn’t say it was perfect in Kemono Friends.
Fortunately, this season’s Land of the Lustrous arrived at the perfect time, definitively proving that almost fully CG anime can not only look good but can be an absolute visual marvel.
What makes Land of the Lustrous’ visuals work so well is the show’s understanding of how CG differs from 2D anime, allowing it to make use of techniques that can’t be done in a hand-drawn show, while also ignoring techniques that don’t work that well in 3D.
If you take one look at the manga for Land of the Lustrous, you’ll see how brilliant its style is. It’s a manga that truly understands its medium, using the monotone shades that are near-universal in manga to constantly portray striking images. It would be absurdly hard to replicate that in 2D animation, though not impossible. A preview clip for the manga released in 2013 which did the best job I could imagine at capturing the manga’s style.
Unfortunately, it would be totally impossible to extract the style of that clip and bring it to a full TV adaptation. The designs are far too intricate and would take way too much time. The way all of their hair sparkles under light, the way Cinnabar’s mercury moves, all of it would just be too much to do week after week for 2D animation. Maybe KyoAni could handle it, but even they would have to simplify the character designs. The manga looks fantastic, but its style just doesn’t transfer well to the medium of TV anime.
Fortunately, a CG show can avoid many of those issues. While the manga’s brilliant use of paneling as well as whites and blacks can’t be replicated, new and unique techniques can be used. First of all, the issue with the hair is totally solved. While having their hair reflect light would take way too much time in a 2D show, in a 3D show it’s something which can be done fairly quickly.
Other aspects are shifted into this new domain as well. Take the little joke wherein Sensei blows a dandelion off of Phos’ head, sending it off the panel into the white space. Instead of just having it blown off-screen or cutting the joke altogether, the anime uses its application of 3D to zoom far into the background during this scene, making it clear just how far it was blown, conveying the same ultimate effect. This is really quite a genius way of transferring elements between vastly different mediums. This anime is certainly not a “moving manga”.
Of course, the show does more than transfer its manga effectively, standing tall as an excellent looking show on its own merits. Its use of camera movements in battles is great, far exceeding what can be done by most 2D anime and there are multiple inventive shots as well. You frequently see characters and other elements moving in the background, keeping the show from ever looking boring. The level of movement in this show rivals the most consistent of 2D anime productions.
The show even excels in elements that don’t require it to be 3D. Take the storyboarding, which is truly superb. The show consistently delivers excellent wide shots focusing on its characters that stick in my head for days after each episode airs. This is best demonstrated whenever the Lunarians arrive, as they’re almost always in the center of the frame, contributing to their deeply foreboding presence. The people over at Sakugablog have done a far better job than I could ever do at showing off the brilliant storyboarding, so check that out if you get a chance.
The backgrounds are also excellent and do a good job at demonstrating how well the show integrates 2D without you noticing. A lot of the backgrounds are hand drawn, as well as many facial expressions, certain moments of character animation, and lots of the effects. This can be noticed if you’re paying attention, but it hardly stands out in a casual watch and doesn’t even come close to breaking the suspension of disbelief.
This show is just a masterful production, far above most TV anime at any given point. It easily has my favorite visuals in any show this season, something I never thought I’d be able to say for a full 3D production.
Of course, the show is worth watching for its other merits as well. One thing that the TV anime has over its source material is the excellent voice acting. This is particularly true for our protagonist, Phos. Their personality, which ranges from sarcastic to annoyingly bubbly, is given the perfect voice in Tomoyo Kurosawa, best known for her excellent performance as Kumiko in Hibike Euphonium. Every sound that comes out of Phos’s mouth is perfect and Kurosawa perfectly captures their slow descent into depression and self-hatred. For more on this, check out the Pedantic Romantic’s great video on the subject.
Really though, the show’s audio is just generally brilliant. Ai Kayano as Dia, Ayane Sakura as Bort, Jouji Nakata as Sensei, Mariya Ise as Antarc, Rie Kugimiya as Alex, and many more show up in this cornucopia of A-list voice actors. The music is absolutely wonderful, elevating a great many scenes. The OP and ED stand out as particularly fantastic, especially the ED, which pairs a very good song with breathtaking visuals that bring to mind the 2013 PV.
The show is absolutely excellent in almost every other area as well. One thing that’s stood out particularly strongly to me is how good of a job the show does at keeping me invested week to week. A large flaw of seasonal anime is that a week passes in between each episode, making it easy for knowledge to be lost and for hype to die down. Land of the Lustrous can’t do anything about forgetting details but it does an excellent job of keeping viewers hooked by using constant cliffhangers.
Generally, when a show uses constant cliffhangers, it invalidates them almost immediately upon the next episode. I love Symphogear, but it does this way too much. You get hyped at the end of each episode, excited to see what this new development results in, only to find out that it doesn’t mean anything 2 minutes into the next episode. Land of the Lustrous’ cliffhangers always matter and frequently change my outlook on the entire show in retrospect. It’s just really well paced, something I greatly appreciate, as manga adaptations frequently botch their pacing by sticking too closely to a specific chapter-to-episode ratio.
The show’s themes of depression, self-harm, memory, gender ambiguity, and human existence are intriguing and well-presented, calling to mind works like the Nier series. Phos’ slow descent from feeling somewhat useless but overall being happy into feeling useful but gaining no pleasure from that is painful in its relatability. I’m not going to get too in-depth here, as I don’t want to spoil everything, but the way this show handles its developments is wonderful, with said developments contributing to the core themes in a great way.
I never expected to call a CG show my anime of the season, but I’m definitely willing to do that. Hell, it’s pretty likely at this point that it’ll end up my anime of the year, though I guess we’ll find out if that holds true when my video on the subject releases in a couple weeks. Regardless, I think Land of the Lustrous is a show that everybody who isn’t outright repulsed by CG should watch. Who knows, it might just change your opinion on the whole style.
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