Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger can't say anything about this series without sounding like a hopeless anime geek.
The only thing more deadly than Kurau…is the secret hidden inside her.
Anime is curiously incestuous. While we Americans are quick to disparage derivative works, the Japanese crank out slightly different spins on the same seed plots. Somehow, your knowledge of past anime informs the latest offering, adding a rich backlog of self-reference. In this way, anime directors can explore a riff suggested in another anime without directly explaining the homage. Thus the anime world is like a large fractal that keeps spawning new facets. Most of these spin off ideas seem derivative, but sometimes a new vibe emerges that spawns still more ideas.
In the case of Kurau Phantom Memory, the reference would read something like "Major Matoko grafted onto a Magical Girl plot." If you're familiar with typical magical girl plots and the hardass known as Major Matoko Kusinagi, you'll see why this is a strange—but effective—pairing.
Facts of the Case
Young Kurau is sad because her hardworking single father (Dr. Amami) overlooked her upcoming birthday. In an effort to appease her, Dr. Amami invites Kurau to his lab with a promise of lots of one-on-one time after he finishes his experiment.
Shockingly enough, something goes awry: A streak of bizarre energy strikes Kurau and evaporates her atoms. When her atoms coalesce, Kurau has been merged with an extraterrestrial known as a Ryna sapiens and its dormant mate. Dr. Amami dedicates his research to understanding Ryna sapiens so that he can free his daughter. Meanwhile, the new and improved Kurau becomes the baddest Agent this side of Ryna.
Ghost in the Shell opens with a shot of a woman crouched atop a skyscraper looking down into the city. With her short-cropped black hair, peircing blue eyes, and businesslike movements, you know that Major Matoko is a tough customer. Though Matoko is a cyborg, this moment of quiet before the storm seems somehow personal, almost reverent. Then she leaps into the void.
When Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex kicked off with the same image, it was a welcome reference to the source movie. And now we have Kurau Phantom Memory, which opens with a shot of a black haired, blue eyed, hardened woman crouched atop a skyscraper looking down into the city just before she leaps into the void. This homage invites us to compare Kurau to Matoko. Both are in similar lines of work, have identical eyes, and favor short black clothes and hair. Also, both represent warm, flawed humanity mixed with an alien other. Both have memories that don't actually belong to them, but that color their understanding of life. Both can take down an armored tank in a street fight.
In the Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 2) episode "Decoy," Matoko's actions suggest that she is a "lesbian." The term earns quotation marks because Matoko is not actually human, so sexual orientation is a bit complicated. This volume of Kurau Phantom Memory strikes me as an exploration of that theme throughout an entire series. Kurau is established as both a mate and mother figure to a young Ryna named Christmas. It is unclear whether Ryna sapiens share our sexual mores. Perhaps their pairing is a necessity, or like sleep, or like happiness, or a function of energy transfer…who knows. But clearly the setup is meant to represent a complex emotional bond that includes romantic and protective feelings.
This setup mirrors certain real-world lesbian relationships where an older woman will take a younger one under her wing (and presumably into her bed). I know several couples that fit that pattern, and it usually makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps I'm a square homophobe and that's part of the discomfort, but the difference in age is the real key. Kurau Phantom Memory provokes the same discomfort. Kurau is well into adulthood, and is an accomplished troubleshooter and warrior. When she expresses intense and sexually evocative emotions for the innocent, childlike Christmas, the dynamic becomes rich with confusing currents. These currents will be delicious to some and offensive to others. In other words, it is a prototypical shoujo-ai in this regard.
Yet Kurau Phantom Memory is not typical at all for its pairing of magical girl antics with hard-edged, battle-filled sci fi. Every tender, romantic moment is punctuated by a hailstorm of gunfire. Kurau never achieves the gravity of Matoko, but she gets close. The first episode in particular takes pains to establish Kurau as a grim, unsmiling implement of fiery death. Kurau Phantom Memory does not compromise on the action or the emotion.
The lack of compromise has side effects both good and bad. On the bad side are several moments of emotional manipulation that never quite achieve seamlessness. An easy target is Dagu, who keeps a picture of his son with him on stakeouts. There is a painful flashback to an uncomfortable meeting between Dagu and his son, who reveals that his ex has been badmouthing Dad. The scene is obviously there to establish Dagu as a noble adversary. Similar touches pepper the introduction of Kurau, Christmas, and Dr. Amami. But you know what? Obvious emotional manipulation is emotional nonetheless, and the tactic is somehow not irritating here.
That brings me to the good side effect, which is that typically annoying characters aren't. Dagu is a good example—the pesky detective on the trail of the heroine. Such characters invariably suck. They wave their arms in wacky spirals and yell "I'll get you, you pesky brats!" Likewise, the innocent "child as impediment and comic relief" character is for once completely acceptable. Christmas is set up well, introduced logically (if abruptly) and given more integrity than most of her ilk.
Lesbiansim is not the only emotional current in Kurau Phantom Memory; Kurau and her father/researcher have a complex relationship, too. A quickly sketched—but potent—scene shows the moment when Ryna-Karau realizes that she must be responsible for the body she inhabits. Unlike free-form energy beings, humans are fragile. His concern and her acceptance of that concern form but one of many emotional themes that run through the show.
The best part is that noteworthy production house BONES (of RahXephon, Full Metal Alchemist, and Wolf's Rain fame) is behind the series. They make a quality effort on all fronts. The static art is detailed and the animation fluid. Energy and bullets light up the screen, set against a grimy urban backdrop. The opening song is excellent and the score is generally good, with a few generic notes creeping into an overall effective mix. Strong (if strongly referential) character design seals the deal; BONES has crafted another superior showing.
ADV has drawn criticism for some licensing hangup related to this series. I don't know any details except that it is mentioned in the same breath with Kurau on several Internet chat rooms. The series is but three years old, so whatever the licensing issue was it didn't take long to resolve. Sometimes, I think people just love to complain about ADV. The English dub is competent without being noteworthy. Likewise for the extras; clean credits, a trailer, and production art are routine extras. More interesting are the detailed liner notes and a glossary of terms that explains some of the show's themes.
Though its central character and basic universe are strongly reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Kurau Phantom Memory strikes its own emotional balance and puts a fresh spin on well-worn plots. Admit it; you never get tired of watching hot anime chicks kick ass. That this gal has a heart is a bonus.
The jury is still out, but Kurau is in the good graces of the court for now.
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