In a far-off future, the dominant lifeforms are sentient, genderless human-shaped gems (the ‘Houseki‘ in the title). There are 28 of them in total, and, like real gems, they have varying degrees of hardness. The harder they are, the more efficient they are in combat – which is something that comes in handy, because almost every day their otherwise seemingly peaceful life is under attack by mysterious ‘Lunarians’ – literally people from the moon – who want to make the gems into decorations.
The youngest of the gems is Phosphophyllite, who along with being relatively childish, has a very low hardness level that makes them unsuitable for combat. Phos wishes to be useful in some way, but they are infamously clumsy and bad at just about everything. The leader of the gems, Master Kongo, one day finally has a job for Phos – to create an encyclopedia about the land they live in. Phos is incredibly angry about this and finds it boring, and an obvious attempt for Kongo to just get them out of his hair (well, lack thereof)
In Phos’s attempts to try to learn some things worth putting into the enclopedia, they decide to enlist the help of Cinnabar – a solitary gem who is the only one who ever does night patrols. The thing about Cinnabar, though, is that they excrete a deadly poison wherever they go and can’t be around the others. Hence why they’re given the night patrols – something that Phos soon realizes is a pointless job as the Lunarians don’t attack at night anyway – they merely wanted to get Cinnabar away from them. Phos starts to gradually feel sorry for Cinnabar…
What’s interesting about this anime season is that it contains two adaptations of manga that I got into at literally the exact same time, both this one and Mahoutsukai no Yome (the new anime of which I will also be reviewing). I went into a manga rental shop and saw them both there and decided they looked interesting based on the covers and rented both at the same time. I ended up liking both a lot – although I never expected Houseki no Kuni to get a TV anime. (It did get a bunch of promotional shorts a while back, though)
There are two things about Houseki no Kuni that I think are incredibly important to the experience, and whether the way they are realized in the anime is successful or not is up to individual preference. First of all is the most striking part of the series – the artwork. The artwork in the manga is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, with deceptively simple linework and pages that wouldn’t look out of place in a graphic design portfolio. Given how unique it looks, the anime too needed to look unique in some way, and it does this by being entirely CGI. Those who like the simplicity of the manga art might be annoyed, but I actually like how much this enhances the gem-like qualities of the characters. Obviously they’re all very sparkly, but it makes them look a lot more ethereal, and it’s hands down one of the best uses of CGI I’ve seen in an anime to date. The only things that look a little off to me is in some of the building interiors, and Cinnabar’s attacks. Otherwise, it’s an extremely captivating aesthetic and I think they did a good job in managing to create that kind of unique and striking look while still doing it in a very different way.
The other thing is the fact that yes, these characters are all genderless. A whole lot of people only finding out about the series now are currently insisting they’re all female, but the thing is, androgynous looks aside these characters are actually more coded male than female. Most of them use male third person as well as first person pronouns to refer to others and themselves, and even male-only terms like ‘oniichan’. According to the mangaka they’re neither male nor female, but given the male-coding on a lot of the characters and the fact that the Japanese fandom seems to largely read them as androgynous men – I personally think calling them girls is not only incorrect, but the most incorrect of the three possible readings (female, male or neither). (To be honest, seeing Phos referred to as ‘she’ is bizarre and somewhat jarring to me because to be honest even before I realised the characters were meant to be genderless I just assumed they were a cute boy!) Anyway, with all this in mind, things get a lot more confusing when many of the characters are given very feminine voices. In fact, I think all the voice actors are female – and this is something the Japanese fans were actually a little annoyed about judging from twitter reactions. To me, Phos sounds suitably gender-neutral, and Cinnabar sounds masculine, but a lot of the others are now a good deal more feminine than they were before. But whatever – at the end of the day, these beings aren’t human anyway so there is no reason for them to follow human gender cues. It’s likely that they don’t have a concept of gender at all.
I really like this series, and I was really impressed by the first episode. It’s a strange series that’s hard to write about because so much of it is tied to imagery and symbolism, but I’m most likely going to blog it.