Religious/Spiritual Undertones in Houseki no Kuni

I’ve had a sneaking suspicion about this since I started watching Houseki no Kuni. Admittedly, I was late to the party and began bingewatching the series around 3 weeks ago, so I can’t claim to be an astute anime-only fan who figured it out. I’m sure others already know about this. I know for a fact that fans who have read the manga already know all about it (BE WARNED: SPOILERS IN THAT LINK).

As for me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Lunarian sunspots reminded me of something right from the very start.

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And then I gave in and looked into it. Turns out my hunches were right. The Lunarians sort of resembled Buddhist imagery. I wish I could be more specific, but I am not Buddhist (although my father’s side of the family is). There’s just a shared vibe, I guess. The clothing, the accessories. The music, too, that played whenever they showed on-screen.

adibuddha_vajrasattva1

There’s definitely more to it and there are some very clever reasons regarding why the Lunarians look like this. To elaborate further would be venturing into spoilers territory, however.

I know most people have stopped griping about this, but early on it seems like many people were complaining about how Phos was losing bits and pieces of herself only to have their parts replaced with other materials. It’s not meaningless and is actually a reference to the Seven Treasures of the Lotus Sutra.

If you’re too lazy to click on the link, let me break down for you.

There are seven gemstones that represent faith, perseverance, sense of shame, avoidance of wrongdoing, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Said gemstones are:

  1. suvarṇa (金, gold)
  2. rūpya (銀, silver)
  3. vaiḍūrya (琉璃, aquamarine / lapis lazuli)
  4. sphaṭika (頗梨, crystal)
  5. musāragalva (硨磲, conch shell / white coral)
  6. lohita-muktikā (赤珠, ruby / red pearl)
  7. aśmagarbha(瑪瑙, emerald / carnelian)

Now think back to Phos. They lost their legs which are replaced with agate.

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They lost their arms and receives gold and silver alloy arms in return.

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It’s unlikely for this to be covered in the anime, but Phos ends up losing their entire head which is replaced by Lapis Lazuli’s own head. They also loses an eye which is replaced with a pearl eye.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to deciding if Phos is becoming more wise or faithful or whatever, but they are certainly changing with each and every replacement. It’s explained as the gemstones losing their memories if they lose too many pieces, but it also ties in with the underlying Buddhist themes within Houseki no Kuni.

I personally don’t mind the religious / spiritual imagery in the series. It doesn’t come across as being preachy and so I’m not offended. I guess that sort of potential reaction doesn’t occur since it’s a bit subtle and not overly blatant. Plus, it’s sort of cool. But I digress.

18 thoughts on “Religious/Spiritual Undertones in Houseki no Kuni

  1. The Buddhist symbolism and imagery are definitely a major factor in the story’s overall setting, and alludes to aspects of Buddhist philosophy, particularly Japanese Zen Buddhism, and the Japanese concept of “ikigai”, ie, one’s “reason for being”, or raison d’être, as it’s more commonly known in the West.

    I can’t comment too much, as I’d recently finished reading the available chapters of the source manga, and I don’t want to give too much away. But since you’re aware of the tvtropes page for “Houseki no Kuni”, I can vouch for some of the insights compiled there — they’re surprisingly on point and could, for once, serve as a valuable resource for manga-readers seeking further understanding once they’re done with the story.

    Essentially, it’ll pay off immensely to dwell on the nature of the gems’ lives on their lonely island, all the while remembering that all of them, including Sensei Kongo, are dressed as funeral-service workers. Dwell also on what Ventricosus said about the fundamental natures of the flesh, the bones and the spirit descendants of the now extinct humanity. Very critically, recall what the King said about death, and how it paradoxically gives meaning to life.

    Take all of that into heart, and then consider what it means to be immortal and essentially immutable, unchanging, like the Gems. What then, is the meaning of such an existence? And, more profoundly, what might that imply for the immortal soul, the spirit that’s commonly believed to remain after death, to be reincarnated again into another life?

    “Houseki no Kuni”, fundamentally, is a fascinatingly imaginative exploration on existentialism, as understood from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, and the Japanese work ethic. And that’s why it was nominated for the Manga Taisho. Deservedly so. I daresay the work, as a whole, ranks up there with the best in seminal Western graphic novels like “The Watchmen” and “The Sandman”. But given its deep dive into Buddhist/Taoist concepts, not to mention Japanese life philosophy, it won’t be immediately apparent to Western audiences how profound its ideas are.

    At the very least, it will require Westerners more used to thinking of faith and reason as a dichotomy, rather than as a duality, to take a step back, and try to develop a more intuitive understanding of the meaning of life. All things that exist have a role in the cosmic scheme, and that to learn one’s purpose in life is to first accept that we’re all part of the cosmic whole, and are linked to each other in intricate ways, ie, our actions have impact on others and vice versa.

    Phos is unique among the Gems because he’s the only one among them who is actively changing over time. With each step of the way, he’s coming closer to the ideal of Buddhist transformation, an acceptance of one’s self in all its perfections and imperfections, as symbolised by the “Seven Treasures” you’ve noted.

    But something is also lost at each step. This was brought home poignantly in the final episode of the anime, where Phos mourns the loss of innocence, realising that he’s jealous of his old, carefree self. With knowledge came greater curiosity, more doubts, and more unease. But to be ignorant was also no longer an acceptable option. Thus did Phos accept that there was no longer any choice but for him to press on regardless.

    This is one of essences of Eastern thought: The gradual, intuitive realisation that we lose something even as we gain something. To be able come to terms with this cosmic, dynamic balance, is to achieve a kind of enlightenment, and to come closer to the “Truth”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mmm, my shabby and hasty explanation didn’t begin to cover how much thought was put into Houseki no Kuni and how the themes behind the series ties with Buddhist philosophy and such.

      I must express my gratitude over how you’ve kept the spoilers to a minimum since I wouldn’t want to spoiler anything for anyone who happen to be browsing the comments section.

      Thank you, as well, for the thorough and informative comment.

      Like

      1. You’re welcome. 🙂

        There’s so much to discuss! But unfortunately, a good deal of it comes from later developments in the story not covered in the anime adaptation.

        The anime has followed the manga quite closely, and it’s managed to pace the story quite nicely to end where it does. The big problem, though, is that anime-only viewers will not grasp until much later why many of the things dwelt upon in the final 12th episode carry profound significance.

        ….but that’s not to say the ending was bad! I’m still wrapping my head around just how it is that the production team managed to adapt the corresponding manga chapters to deliver such a satisfying finale to the anime series.

        Even if viewers were to stop here, without going farther into the manga, the anime ending neatly conveys the sense that everything has come full-circle for Phos, and yet, at the same time, everything has changed for him.

        We also get a sense, for the first time, that every gem is motivated by private doubts, fears and anger. All of them are driven by a sense of purpose, although some, like Yellow Diamond, is not sure if he remembers what the purpose is any more.

        The question of life’s purpose, and how it relates to cosmic reality, lies at the heart of Buddhist philosophy (google about “Dependent Origination”, one of several English terms for the fundamental Buddhist concept of “interconnectedness”). And it’s profoundly fascinating how Haruko Ichikawa managed to allude to and explore these concepts through her story.

        There are layers upon layers of Buddhist themes and symbolism laced throughout her manga, and the more a reader ponders their links to one another, the more amazing it becomes. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I also think they did a good job with the ending like you said. It works for anime-only viewers since it comes full-circle, but it also allows for a second season (fingers crossed) while staying faithful the original material. Alas, like you also said, the meaning behind Phos’ doubts and actions in the episode 12 might be lost on anime-only viewers until much later. I also heard that they rushed through such developments in the last episode? I’m not following the manga, but that’s a mistake.

          What you’ve said about the other gems is also true. It’s such an unexpected development considering how they seem to place utmost faith in Sensei. I would say it works since Phos has always been a bit slow on the uptake whereas everyone else has already realized.

          Whoa, the material on such topics is fascinating. An absolutely amazingly job done by Ichikawa Haruko.

          I’m not sure if you’re aware, but a lot of people are comparing Houseki no Kuni to Steven Universe and the comparison just seems so shallow and superficial. One of my peers uploaded a video and the comments are just full of that. It’s actually insane and gets crazier when people like you get into the themes and philosophy behind Houseki no Kuni.

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          1. I don’t live in North America, so I’ve not even heard of Steven Universe until I read the reddit threads on “Houseki no Kuni”. XD

            In any case, I just found this amazing essay on the use of Buddhist symbols and themes in “Houseki no Kuni”. It’s safe for anime-only viewers, as the writer, zeroreq011, limits the discussion to just the animated series.

            http://bit.ly/2zEMKXk

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting read. I could tell that the Lunarians’ designs were based on Buddhist artwork, but I didn’t know that the show’s underlying themes connected to that as well. I’m not remotely religious, but I don’t mind religious themes being integrated into a work if it’s done well. Land of the Lustrous never comes off as preachy or condescending, so it doesn’t bother me that it includes ideas and motifs from Buddhism. Based on the anime (I haven’t read the manga), it seems like the religious connection is something to add flavor and depth to the story, as opposed to the entire point of the story.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Mmmm there was just this general feel.

      It’s pretty interesting how that’s the core of the series, isn’t it?
      I think you’re definitely right about how it “handles” said religious themes. It’s definitely not the crux of the story – I’m sure you can enjoy Houseki no Kuni without even knowing about the Buddhist themes – but it certainly adds a few layers to consider.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, that adds a lot of depth to it. I like the way it uses those themes to add more meat to the story without making them the entire point of the story.

        I know very little about Buddhism and only noticed the design similarities with the Lunarians, but I’m still loving it so far. Assuming the last few episodes keep up this level of quality, it’s easily going to be one of my top anime of this year.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. One doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate the spiritual. It doesn’t take religious education for one to stand in awe at the sight of a mountain range that blocks out half the sky, or to allow one’s mind to drift with the sounds of the deep forest.

      Spirituality, to me, is the ability to experience the ineffable, and to accept it as such. It’s also about the ability to take a broader view, to know that inevitable differences exist, while also having the wisdom to accept it as a part of life.

      The arbitrary need to divide between religion and rationalism is one of the more harmful and unfortunate consequences of Western tradition, in my opinion.

      But, it’s not my intention to spark a debate on religion. Rather, I want to point out the necessity of putting aside this point of view — if only for the moment — if one wants to gain a deeper appreciation of the Buddhist themes alluded to in this story.

      Haruko Ichikawa, like most successful, professional writers, isn’t trying to preach a point. The existentialist questions she explores in her story are applicable to all people, from any culture. But her thoughts on the subject are necessarily informed by her background and her culture, so some familiarity with Japanese Buddhism will be needed to appreciate what she’s trying to convey.

      Essentially, the central theme is about the purpose of life. What gives life meaning? What does it take to be happy? What does it mean to suffer? What does it take to change, to grow, to become wiser? If change comes with a high cost, will it be worthwhile?

      Ichikawa-san isn’t necessarily asking these questions, but it’s clear, upon reflection, that such thoughts had informed the way her characters developed, and the plot progressed.

      So, atheist or not, Christian or Buddhist, “Houseki no Kuni” can be quite enlightening, once a reader or a viewer becomes more aware of Ichikawa’s artistry. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hmm I’ll definitely be checking this series out now. I may be atheist nowadays, but I’ve always enjoyed good religious portrayals in entertainment, especially when they capture some of the lesser-known aspects like this. World religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, was one of my favorite subjects early on in college, and we never went over the symbolic use of gemstones. Seems especially egregious now considering our professor spend a year studying at a Buddhist temple, but c’est la vie I guess.

    Liked by 3 people

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