12 Days of Christmas Anime, Day 12: The Many Christmases of Kurau: Phantom Memory

For Ayaka Steiger, Christmas is awful. 

When she was still a child, the conflicted antagonist of Kurau: Phantom Memory lost her entire family on Christmas Eve to a group of gunmen with a grudge against her father, a top agent with the government’s secret service, the GPO. As an adult, she has followed in her father’s footsteps and now dedicates her every waking hour to serving in the GPO as an exemplary agent, rising quickly up the ranks. She is efficient, dedicated, and most of all, detached. One might even say remote.

Ayaka insists on going by her first name; hearing her father’s name is just too raw.

For despite the semblance of progression her career implies, Ayaka’s life has remained suspended in that moment when she realized that the pretty lights she saw brightening her home were not Christmas tree fairy lights, the blue flames of a rum-soaked plum pudding, or the flickering of a yule log in the fireplace, but were instead the muzzle flashes of semi-automatics. With those flashes, she was rendered an orphan and her childlike delight in the season’s first snowfall—which had moved her to run outside and climb the hill at the back of the house so as to better enjoy the wonder of it all—was burned away, abandoning her to a grim, lonely world where the truths are all harsh and reality is cruel. The cold of that Christmas Eve seeped into Ayaka’s bones and froze her heart solid, leaving behind a young woman determined to fill her father’s shoes, while yet refusing to allow herself to enjoy a life that her family could no longer be part of.

Ayaka does not mince her words when she learns that another character is named Christmas.

Yes, sometimes Christmas is awful. 

Granted, usually not for reasons as extreme as those that taint the holiday season for Ayaka—but still. Christmas can be a time defined by high expectations of family togetherness and cheer that play out more like a suckerpunch than a jolly Dad-joke punchline. It can be a time when exhaustion, stress and, for those of us in the Northern hemisphere, bad weather and winter illnesses derail plans to enjoy the company of family and friends. It can be a time when loneliness feels most palpable for those who find themselves on their own, or a day when the absence of a loved one is most sharply felt. In short, Christmas can be a time of deep disappointment and alienation.

One of the things I love most about scripture, is that it doesn’t dodge the hard truths of life in this world; it doesn’t just slap a dollop of balm and a band-aid onto the wounds of the heart. Instead, it is full of stories of disappointment; of broken families and personal, private traumas—the kinds of stories that Ayaka might relate to. And not just the Old Testament, with its tales of deadly sibling rivalry, unhappy marriages and family feuds, but the New Testament too, the story of Jesus’s own life here on earth; of God’s own life among us. 

Right there in John 1:13, as the gospel-writer is first introducing Jesus’s mandate as the Messiah, the pain of broken families is acknowledged. This verse recognizes that not all human lives are conceived in a context of love or consent. But it also makes clear that this is precisely what Jesus came to heal and redeem, so that regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth and the realities of one’s family life, every single one of us might become children of God, reconceived and reborn by and in his love.

It’s also there in Jesus’s own family story, particularly the John 7 account of the Festival of Booths (or Tabernacles), a Jewish religious holiday similar to Thanksgiving. The festival is a time of remembrance, when families come together to celebrate God’s faithfulness in providing both the yearly harvest and the historical rescue from Egypt and sustenance throughout forty years in the desert. And like Thanksgiving, there’s a family feast! 

But during the Festival of Booths, Jesus’s family did not come together. Instead, his brothers used the holiday as an occasion to mock him, making it clear that they did not accept him. Jesus refused to rise to their baiting though, and chose to mark the holiday season differently, going quietly to Jerusalem with his friends and preaching to those who would receive him.

Later, during Jesus’s final Passover, this pattern repeated itself. Like the Festival of Booths, Passover is rooted in rituals of remembrance, culminating in a feast shared with family. But his brothers were nowhere to be seen in that loft on the edge of Jerusalem, where Jesus instead ate his final meal with his friends. His brothers weren’t ready yet to be part of his family. 

But scripture doesn’t stop with accounts of family brokenness. Instead, it follows these stories until wholeness and restoration triumph—often taking only a few years; sometimes needing generations; but always getting there in the end. It’s there in the stories of Rahab, Tamar and Bathsheba, women who were objectified and used and who would have been rejected as unclean under the law, but who became Jesus’s matriarchs. It’s there in the tale of Joseph, the spoiled son who matures into a protector and is reconciled to his family, just as his own father was reconciled to the brother he had cheated. And it’s there in Jesus’s own story with his earthly brothers: after the crucifixion and resurrection, two of them, James and Jude, realized who their brother truly was and became pivotal leaders in the early church, even writing the books in the Bible that bear their names.

Thankfully, that awful Christmas and the scars it left her with are not the end of Ayaka’s story either. And beautifully, as her tale of redemption plays out, she does not remain an antagonist. As with James, it proves to be the one whom Ayaka initially opposes that brings healing and redemption into her life. 

Kurau and Ayaka face off. (Kurau is armed with Special Powers.)

Kurau, the protagonist, is a Ryna sapien, a being made from the combination of a human body and a Rynax energy life-form from another world. (This is where the sci-fi element comes in!) The GPO is determined to control all Ryna sapiens and tasks Ayaka with capturing Kurau, who has been living under the radar for ten years; living in “Lonely Freedom”, as the theme song reiterates mellifluously (and not nearly often enough). Kurau is lonely because Rynax exist in Pairs, and her Pair was injured during their migration to our world. Her Pair has been recovering all this time, hidden away beyond reach somewhere inside Kurau.

In the early hours of one beautiful morning, Kurau’s Pair finally materializes as a little girl—one who looks just like Kurau from ten years earlier. Rynax don’t use names, but Ryna sapiens do, and so, giddy with excitement, Kurau names her “little sister”.

She names her Christmas. 

So you see, there’s more than one Christmas in Kurau.

All that Kurau will say about this unusual name is that it feels warm; it is a good word; it warms her heart. It is not until the final episode (23 episodes later!) that we learn the full story behind Kurau’s Christmas, the Christmas that inspired her Pair’s name and which may very well have been the same year as Ayaka’s awful Day. (In fact, given their age difference, I’m pretty sure it was.) 

Though by no means horrifying like Ayaka’s Christmas, Kurau’s Christmas was still tragic in its own way. This is because it was the last Christmas she shared with her mother, who died soon afterwards. It could have become a point of pain disfiguring her young life (and that of the Rynax who subsequently took over her body and inherited some of her memories and personality traits). Indeed, Kurau’s loneliness after the loss of her mother is what called so strongly to the Rynax a few years later, and made the creation of the first Ryna sapien possible.

Once she becomes a Ryna sapien, Kurau experiences further tragedy as she must separate from her father—her love for whom remains as strong after her transformation as it was before. Never again can she celebrate Christmas with her family. That Kurau feels this loss deeply is evidenced by the fact that the only belonging she carries with her in her minimalist, itinerant lifestyle is a photograph of little Kurau and her parents that fateful Christmas.

But Kurau does not shut herself off from the warmth of her Christmas memories just because it proved fleeting; she does not let her years of loneliness and orphanhood crowd it out or render it bittersweet. Instead, she keeps it somewhere near the surface, ready to hand, so that the instant she needs to name her Pair, the first “good word” she thinks of is “Christmas”.

Wow. Just wow. (Selah.)

This ability to hold onto the good in life, the beautiful and the profound, is so true to Kurau’s character as a whole—which is why I really, really recommend this series. 

Gradually, one encounter at a time, Kurau’s generous, principled, kind nature reveals itself to her pursuer, her antagonist Ayaka Steiger. Gradually, one infinitesimal realization at a time, Ayaka begins to trust Kurau and find much to challenge her worldview, and her way of navigating the world too.

Finally, during Advent (marked out by a trusty chocolate calendar!), Kurau welcomes the GPO agent into her makeshift home with her Pair and Aunt and Uncle, and over a family dinner together, Ayaka’s heart begins to beat once more. For the first time in a long while, she makes a decision for herself and not out of consideration for her father’s example. She switches sides, seeking now to aid Kurau and her Pair, Christmas. 

Ah! The social awkwardness of a healing heart!

I’ll leave the fate of Kurau and Christmas for you to discover. But as for Ayaka, ten years later, in her final scene, we find a woman who is much changed. She now lives where before she only functioned. She is helping to reform and reforge the GPO and so build a new world. And beyond work—for now she actually has a life outside of work—Ayaka has a family of her own. At last, she is able to let others into her heart again. She has a husband and a daughter and a son whom she teases. Her expression has softened, and she is capable of joy once again. She smiles.

And I daresay that thanks to Kurau, Ayaka Steiger celebrates Christmas once again.

Yes, Zuko—er…I mean Ayaka—you are.

So with that, dear reader, let me close with my wish that you too may find a Happy Christmas, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in today, or what disappointments and heartbreaks you may have experienced on this Day in the past.

And if this Day isn’t beautiful to you yet, then just know this: your Christmas story isn’t over! There is more to come, and it will be good.

Kurau: Phantom Memory can be streamed on Funimation. And what a great way to spend the Christmas holidays!


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