Reviewby Mike Crandol, Jul 5th 2003
Read or Die
Nerdy Yomiko Readman is obsessed with books. As "Agent Paper," she works for a secret branch of the British Library, where her power to telekinetically control paper helps her on missions to retrieve rare manuscripts and protect the world from evil. But all Yomiko really wants to do is read her new book. Unfortunately it has been stolen by the I-gin, clones of historical figures who believe Yomiko's book holds the key to unlocking Beethoven's lost "Death Symphony." Anyone who hears the tune is compelled to commit suicide, and the I-gin intend to broadcast it all over the world. Only Yomiko, along with fellow superagents Drake and Miss Deep, has a chance at stopping them.
Reading is cool, kids. If you read enough books, you might just end up attaining super paper-powers and working with an elite team of superheroes on all kinds of wacky, book-related adventures.
At least, that's what Read or Die would have you believe.
Starring a team of superpowered secret agents who work for the, ahem...British Library, the series follows the adventures of a mousy girl named Yomiko Readman, a.k.a. "Agent Paper." With the magical power to control all things paper, Yomiko and her fellow agents protect the world from those who would use, ahem....books for evil purposes. This is grand anime camp in the Giant Robo tradition, but it falls short of living up to its full potential. The top-notch animation and music, exciting action setpieces, and likeable (but distant) characters must be weighed against a rushed and ridiculously half-baked storyline riddled with enough plotholes to make Evangelion look downright coherent.
Read or Die's story is weak not because it is campy, but because it is not very well thought-out. Hokey elements such as the never-explained superpowers and over-the-top villains are actually a lot of fun. But characters triple-cross each other without any apparent motivation, and the crux of the plot revolves around obtaining possession of a "lost" book whose location is known to everyone and their brother. The double agent planted in the Library's team has multiple chances to swipe the book, yet actively helps the heroes retrieve it from another one of the bad guys working for the same man. Beethoven's "Death Symphony" contained in the tome's pages is a nifty idea, but if the archvillain has a clone of Beethoven himself why does he need the book in the first place? And how many lapses in storytelling can really be explained away by saying, "oh, that was just a clone!"? Once you start asking questions, there's no end to them.
The swiss-cheese storyline might have been easier to overlook had there been time to flesh out the characters a bit more. Yomiko, along with weapons expert Drake and the unfortunately named Miss Deep, are an entertaining trio with some really cool talents. Deep's ability to move through solid objects is a power that lends itself well to animation, and the creators dream up some exhilarating action sequences that showcase her skill. Yomiko's unusual powers are also excitingly realized as reams of scrap paper become lethal weapons. The cast is fun to watch in action, but you never get to know them as well as you want. The dynamic between the innocent Yomiko and the more jaded Miss Deep makes for a fun personality clash, but the girls are so busy fighting wacked-out supervillains there's hardly any time to explore it except in a few rushed sequences. Likewise, Drake's woe-as-me attitude hints at another potentially intriguing character who's too busy blowing stuff up to make him truly interesting. One is left wishing the story would slow down long enough for these characters to sit down and have a really long talk with each other; in the end it would have made the action sequences far more enjoyable.
Not that one can't appreciate the action for its own sake. Read or Die features tons of the most sprightly animated fights of any anime from the past few years. Where else can you see an electric samurai blow up the White House, giant grasshoppers wreak havoc on Tokyo, or an 18th-century glider undertaking an aerial bombardment of New York? All this and more is brought to life with a beautiful attention to detail that makes one forget how utterly ludicrous it all really is. Taku Iwasaki's music is also an enormous boon to the production. Perhaps best known for Samurai X's hauntingly melodies, Iwasaki goes in the opposite direction here and produces a rockin' score in the tradition of James Bond and other spy movies. The music and animation make Read or Die entertaining despite its shortcomings and at the same time bring the series' thematic failings into sharper relief. In the end the high production values are all that save it from mediocrity.
The voice actors make the most of the limited material and turn in some fine performances. Both Reiko Miura and Kimberly Yates convincingly portray Yomiko's naiveté and obsessive nature. The rest of the cast has a lot of fun with the hammy dialogue, and the English translation stays faithful to the original while adding even more humor to the production. As Amanda Winn-Lee deadpans, "'Miss Deep' - sounds like a porn star."
Manga has put together a solid package for this release. 2.0 & 5.1 audio tracks are available for both Japanese and English language versions, and the digital transfer looks nice and sharp. In addition there is a fair amount of extras, including interviews with the creators and original trailers. Most useful are the biographical notes which provide background on some of the more obscure historical figures who dominate much of the action, such as Jean-Henri Fabre and the Mata Hari. But be warned, there are spoilers contained therein.
Had a little more care been lavished on the story and characters, Read or Die could have been one of the all-time great OVA series. As it stands, it is an opulent but rather forgettable viewing experience. The art and animation definitely make it worth a rental, but ultimately Read or Die can't quite fill its own shoes.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : D-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Incredible animation and music
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