Kurau Phantom Memory Vol. 1
While I definitely don't love every title put out by ADV Films, I have to say that the spring of 2007 has been an especially noteworthy one for them in terms of "fantastic titles I'd never heard of before." Coyote Ragtime Show has been a fun intergalactic romp, and Utawarerumono is an intriguing mystery set in a feudalistic fantasy world. The third in this trifecta for me is Kurau Phantom Memory Vol. 1, a compelling journey into a world 100 years separated from our own. I knew virtually nothing about any one of them before they hit my doorstep. How surprising, then, for all of them to hit solid triples on their initial outings! Granted, Kurau is animated by BONES, the studio responsible for arresting titles like Wolf's Rain and Fullmetal Alchemist; maybe in the midst of all my seminary readings, I missed the buzz. It doesn't matter. Whether you've been waiting on its release for months or are reading about it here for the first time, you need to check out this show.
Kurau's life is about to change forever. Her busy yet loving father takes her to his laboratory for a special day together, but what happens next is beyond anyone's expectations. With a flash of light after an experiment goes critical, Kurau is no longer herself...or is she? Somehow, she's melded with an alien entity, a Rynax. Kurau's personality is fused and interwoven with the Rynax, who at first seems to have simply taken over her body. Over time, Kurau begins to reassert herself, but she is somehow...different. As her father's research group experiments on her over his objections, Kurau manifests powers that they can only barely understand. And the Rynax are by nature linked to a twin or "pair" that is joined to them...but where is Kurau's pair? As ten years pass, Kurau becomes an Agent who handles risky jobs with aplomb, never wielding a gun but using her power to get past security systems and pesky guards. But when her pair finally emerges, Kurau realizes that the missing part of her has finally arrived. Just at the point in her life when she feels complete, however, Kurau's identity and powers become a huge liability to both her and her pair as the mysterious GPO decides that she must be contained.
Kurau Vol. 1 is impressive aurally and visually. The soundtrack carefully weaves in and out, creating appropriate atmosphere without overwhelming the whole. (I will say that the English 5.1 mix sounds far more immersive than the 2.0 Japanese track, though I found the dub oddly disaffecting when I spot-checked it.) The visuals, meanwhile, stir up a mix of memories; we see everything from the awesome heights reminscent of Ghost in the Shell to an homage of the multi-layered flying traffic on Coruscant in Attack of the Clones. The pastiche establishes the world without feeling like a ripoff of the works it cites; the references work to clue in the audience on influences, but Kurau's world is very much its own. If there's a possible complaint, it's that the artistic style is not really detailed, so there are times when spaceships and cars look unrealistically simple. However, the argument could be made that it's an intentional move designed to focus on the characters rather than the sci-fi designs, and based on how the story develops, I'm willing to give it weight. (And if the characters remind you of Le Chevalier D'Eon, it's because they share the same designer, Tomomi Ozaki.)
Kurau is not a top-level title because of its plotting, characters, or dialogue (though there are surprises along the way). Kurau's first volume reaches that tier because of its compassion towards and deep knowledge of its characters. From the start, we know that Kurau's life has not been easy, having lost her mother at an early age. Yet she is sweetly gentle, and her relationship with her father is instantly cemented as a close one. When the doctor believes that she has been somehow destroyed by the accident, his devastation comes across as real. His pain becomes worse when he has back his daughter yet is not sure what or who she has become. Maybe it's because I'm a father of a four-year-old, but his deep concern for Kurau throughout the four episodes was emotional and very surprising for an anime. Kurau herself is intriguing, waiting and longing for her "pair" to finally emerge; when she finally does arrive, it's genuinely touching. Other relationships grow in these four episodes that link together our characters and even their adversaries in surprising and moving ways.
The direction of the show has to be given a lot of credit; while the character development is obvious within the script, the show does not overplay it. At the same time, each episode is built solidly. As of yet, there is no overarching villain, and no character ever steps into the "evil mastermind" role. While the GPO may be Kurau's nemesis, they aren't painted badly as of yet. Instead, the show builds tension throughout each chapter. One minute might leave you with a lump in your throat while the next throws you into a chase sequence. Kurau compels you to watch episode after episode...it's just that good.
I can't speak to whether or not Kurau will keep at this quality level for its entire run. However, the first four episodes have gotten me hooked, and I'll have to make the decision for myself after reviewing the whole run. Rarely is sci-fi done this well, animated or not, and I don't see it running out of juice any time soon.
Kurau Phantom Memory Vol. 1 -- violence, brief non-suggestive and non-descript nudity -- A