Kurau: Phantom Memory is a character-driven sci-fi series from 2004 that stands the test of time. It does so not simply because of the clean, classic animation, the evocative soundtrack, the adept world-building, or the lack of filler episodes. No, it does so primarily because of its thought-provoking exploration of a relationship that is deeper than friendship, family or romance. It is the kind of relationship that, by its absence, haunts one like a phantom memory—a fleeting impression of a loving presence from whom we’ve been separated, but whose company we were designed to keep. In this sense, Kurau: Phantom Memory is the closest I’ve seen to a depiction of the kind of trusting, intimate relationship that Jesus speaks about in John 15: Kurau is a picture of abiding love.
Before we dive in though, a caveat: in its details, the relationship between the two alien Ryna sapiens at the heart of this story, Kurau and Christmas, is quite different from our relationship with our Creator. Kurau and Christmas are both creatures after all, and not creator and created. But the nature of their existence as paired lifeforms—not individuals who form a bond but rather a Pair that has always existed together—captures something of the spiritual connection we hold with our Creator. Just as Rynax Pairs are not meant to be apart, so too were we never intended to be separated from God. And just as their separation is haunting, and their reunion life-changing, so too is it with us and the One in whom we abide and who abides in us. So with that in mind, let’s get started!
(Major spoilers near the end.)
The story begins dramatically with the arrival of a Rynax Pair—two energy lifeforms—to our world and their devastating separation. Kurau inhabits the body of a 12-year-old girl, becoming the first Ryna sapien, or Rynax to take on bodily form. Now a humanoid, she is able to catch her Pair, a glowing point of golden light, and absorb it into her chest, but there is no indication that her Pair has survived.
Kurau grows up, taking on aspects of the personality of the girl from whom she inherits her name, sharing some of her memories and loving the girl’s father as her own. But when we see her ten years later, she’s a very different young woman. Her expression is hard and her eyes like steel. She’s cocky and brash. She’s had a hard life, forced to separate from her father at a young age and now living in secret, dodging the authorities.
Kurau works as an independent agent, a sort of spy for hire who’s not afraid of using force when the situation calls for it, which it does most days. She has become a serious risk-taker and is reckless to the point of daredevilry. Sure, as a Ryna sapien she can access a kind of energy that enables her to float and dematerialize, but still. Her powers are not always reliable, so the risk is real. More importantly, she is reckless despite having promised her father that she would take care of the human body she has claimed as her own; despite loving and respecting him, she does not keep her word to him and continues to put herself in harm’s way, as if by compulsion.
Maybe the risk-taking is what makes her feel alive. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Kurau is in rebellion. It’s not a wild and prodigious sowing of oats like a certain younger son; but it is nonetheless a ringing statement of discontent, of loneliness, frustration and purposelessness. Night after night, Kurau comes home to an exclusive, expensive, but oh-so-empty apartment. No wonder the soundtrack’s haunting theme for her is named “Lonely Freedom”.
And then one night, everything changes. Her Pair rematerializes, looking just like Kurau herself ten years earlier. Instead of a loud whoop or a celebratory dance, Kurau simply sighs in relief, the tears falling silently, her expression softening for the first time as she drifts back to sleep. Sometimes, the moment that changes our lives doesn’t come with fanfare or a dramatic story. Sometimes, things just settle gently back into place with a sigh.
The change in Kurau is visible immediately. When she rises the next morning, she’s full of a joy that lasts beyond the day she spends with Christmas, as she names her Pair, and into the evening when she goes to work. There, even her cynical boss notices that something is up as his normally dour-faced top agent hums to herself, shifting from foot to foot in a kind of subdued dance while scanning the day’s jobs. She even smiles.
But even more telling, Kurau turns down the type of dangerous gig she had previously lived by, doing for Christmas’s sake what she’d been unable to do to keep her promise to her father. Suddenly, giving up her addiction to danger is the easiest thing in the world, now that it’s done out of a desire for her loved one to feel secure. What was impossible out of obedience—even obedience partnered with personal conviction and commitment—is made possible, even natural, in love. Word.
And that’s the only explanation Kurau’s boss can think of too for the change he sees in her as he asks whether she’s got herself a boyfriend, unsatisfied with her explanation that her little sister has come to live with her. This moment is so apt because it captures the challenges of articulating an encounter with love that doesn’t fit easily into the world’s framework, where romantic love is privileged as the transformative experience of love.
There’s something elusive and almost transcendent about the relationship between a Rynax Pair, something that defies definition—just as there is in our relationship with God. Kurau uses the metaphor of family, of sister; Christians use the metaphors of friend, father, brother, companion, savior, bridegroom—the list goes on and on. From Genesis to Revelation, scripture continuously introduces new ways of depicting who God is to us, adding layers of nuance as the metaphors are extended over diverse situations and centuries. God’s interactions with each individual throughout the Bible, no matter how lofty or lowly they are, fleshes out the picture of his love for humanity, and yet still one has the sense that nowhere has relationship with him been conveyed in its entirety. “My God has come to live with me,” we might say…but I suspect doing so would be greeted with the same perplexity as Kurau’s boss expressed with her reply.
Anyhow, back to Kurau. The change in her demeanor and lifestyle is immediate. But there’s a longer, slower transformation that unfolds in her as well, as her relationship with Christmas begins to shape how she relates to others. Initially, Kurau’s whole world is focused on Christmas and keeping her safe so that they can enjoy life together. But Christmas is a curious, friendly girl and welcomes others into their little circle, much to Kurau’s initial dismay, forcing Kurau to cast aside her instinctive isolationism and start dismantling those walls she’s built up, brick by brick, during the years of their separation. Sounds a lot like a journey of faith, right?
Kurau’s new, relational life begins with Doug, the former government agent who gradually becomes their closest ally and a dear friend. Then, when the Pair flee to Okinawa, Christmas befriends the locals, and she and Kurau discover together the healing power of a good laugh and a bit of fun.
Christmas is also the reason that Kurau reunites with her estranged father, and her Aunt Kleine and Uncle Frank as well. As a child, Kurau possessed the capacity for relationship with others. But somewhere along the way she lost hold of those dear to her, and lost sight of herself as someone who was anything apart from the loneliness she was feeling. Christmas enables these relationships to be restored.
But it is when they discover that they are not the only Rynax trapped on earth, hunted and exploited by the government, that the deep change that has been developing in Kurau becomes apparent. Without hesitation, Kurau, the former loner without moral conviction, commits to rescuing the Rynax. And when it is revealed that a number of the Ryna sapiens are bent on retributive destruction, Kurau expands her protective mission to include humanity as well. She goes from leading a narrow, self-centered life, to shouldering the biggest mandate in history: saving the world.
The thing is though, it doesn’t come across as clichéd. Instead, it feels perfectly natural for Kurau to become such a hero because of the way that love is steadily expanding her world and understanding. As this precious relationship with her Pair fills her life up with love, it truly does overflow to those around her. And not just by accident, like the image of the overflowing cup may imply. No, it happens because in being filled up with love, Kurau herself changes into someone who is capable of sharing only love with the world around her. Kurau becomes a picture of the one whom Jesus describes: the one who brings good things out of the treasury of their heart, so that their goodness is catching. Love transforms Kurau’s very substance and not just her actions.
This is expressed beautifully in a scene where Kurau and a hostile Ryna sapien, Yvon, exchange memories in the midst of an explosive confrontation. Kurau sees his suffering: forced into a human body, separated from his Pair, wandering alone for weeks in search of another like him, boiling with rage and hurt. Yvon sees Kurau’s memories too, and although she had a similarly traumatic start to life on earth, and indeed walked out not merely weeks or months, but a full decade of loneliness and isolation, this is not what Yvon sees. He does witness her initial separation from her Pair, but the subsequent images are all joyful memories, recently made with Christmas, rather than those from the years of trauma, fear and anger Kurau experienced while she thought herself alone. Those memories are no longer at the forefront of who she is.
This scene speaks so powerfully of the capacity for love to heal our memories; of the timelessness of love, which can travel back to those points of wounding that often define our worldview and bring relief from the sting. It is love that can ease our shoulders free of the pressure of fear that pretends to be wisdom, telling us not to trust, not to reach out, not to risk being hurt.
The things that had happened to Kurau in her decade alone were the (very good) reasons for the brick walls she’d raised up around herself. But as her time with Christmas created new memories and filled her days and heart with a counter-narrative to the one she’d lived out so far, Kurau was set free from the dictatorship of those hurts. Parting from her father, an isolated childhood, the uncertainty as to who or what she was, the frustration and angst that powered her recklessness—all these things have faded for Kurau so that after their memory exchange, Yvon is jealous that she has lived such a happy, loving life. He does not know her painful story because she is no longer defined by it. Instead, she’s defined by Christmas’s love, and her own love as well.
Kurau’s new life has brought healing to the old, lonely life. Her former self has passed away, and she is a new creation.
Christmas’s capacity for love has expanded right alongside Kurau’s…
It is that love that she extends also to her enemies: protecting the government agent, Ayaka Steiger, who has been pursuing her all this time; saving the lives of Ryna sapiens who sought to kill her and who injured Christmas; serving painfully as a portal through which the Rynax might return to their world; and ultimately using her last bit of strength to protect the body she had inhabited all those years so that the human Kurau might return to consciousness. She lays down her embodied existence to redeem an enemy, save those in rebellion against her, protect the people that sought her death, and keep her word to her father. Sounds pretty familiar…
She does it because she has known a special love—an abiding love. And now all she can do is to extend that love until there is nothing left of her. “No greater love hath anyone than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is the fruit of abiding love, explained Jesus, and it is the culmination of Kurau’s transformative encounter with love in this series too.
This word “abide” is the one used in the NKJV translation of John 15 to describe the intimacy that Jesus invites us to share with him: a relationship of mutual abiding, he in us and us in him. It’s an unusual word that we don’t much use anymore, meaning that it may have lost its impact. Sometimes it’s translated as “remain” (NIV), or “in life-union” (TPT), both somewhat dry, passive terms. But my favorite “translation” comes from an admittedly odd source, the lolcats Bible Translation Project, which renders Jesus’s invitation this way: “Curl up in my heart a-purring as I curl up in yours.” Now that is evocative!
This is how Kurau and Christmas live. For ten years, Christmas remained curled up in Kurau’s heart. During that time, Kurau felt utterly alone because she did not realize that Christmas was there with her. But when Kurau dematerializes at the end of the series, and it is now Christmas’s turn to feel the devastation of loss and the pressing weight of solitude, Christmas does not harden the way that Kurau did. She doesn’t change in that way because she has something that Kurau did not: she has memories, and not just phantom memories, but robust, living memories of the one she knows remains in her heart; and with these memories, she has hope—not without sadness or uncertainty, but yet still hope.
There’s a reason why the religion that God laid out in the Old Testament for his people the Israelites centered on acts of remembrance: scripture on the doorpost; memorial stones; special clothing and hair care, foods and recipes each with their commemorative meanings; feasts and fasts throughout the year to celebrate all the miracles rescuing Israel. There’s a reason too why Jesus directed us to remember him when we eat the bread and drink the wine. Surely it is better to keep him in our minds and hearts at all times, and yet even so, he made a point of instructing us to be intentional and deliberate in carrying out a specific act of remembrance to him. There is power in remembering; remembrance renews relationship.
And so Christmas remembers Kurau. She goes to the hillside meadow where they spent time together, sharing their hearts and dreams. She remains and abides and curls up as she waits in hope.
Christmas waits in the meadow where she shared her dream that was of both the past and the future; where the gentle voice said, “I am always with you”…
And then one day, after ten years of waiting and hoping and remembering, Kurau returns.
This is not just a satisfying ending to a thought-provoking series. It is also a reminder of why it is that we abide and keep on abiding even when that intimacy seems to have dematerialized and we wonder if perhaps we just dreamed the whole “relationship with God” thing up.
Like Christmas, we cling to what will truly protect our hearts when we are tempted to fear or become embittered, to lose hope or rebel in frustration and disappointment. We cling to the certainty that God and his abiding love remain, even when we do not feel or see it; even when it feels like he has disappeared, and we cannot seem to hear that gentle voice, though we know it is true, “I am always with you…”. We keep remembering that abiding love and how it has already changed our lives. We let it suffuse our memories and shape our attitude to the world and interactions with others. We let it keep on abiding in us, gradually, steadily bearing fruit that we can then share with others, strengthening them, nurturing them, loving them.
It may be a slow and humble thing, this abiding love, but is it ever astounding when you think about it—exactly like this series, Kurau: Phantom Memory, that so stands the test of time.
Kurau: Phantom Memory can be streamed on Funimation. So worth it! Also, I prefer the sub for this one, but it’s up to you.