Read or Die deserves its place on the list of Best Anime Ever, but I’ve always had a extra fondness for it, both because I identify with the heroine at times and because it was one of the first truly great anime I watched when it was actually coming out, as opposed to it being presented to me as part of the canon. I can still remember watching it for the first time (a pirated copy on my old Dell PC, please don’t tell on me) and realizing that this was something special and much better than the endless action shows I’d been watching to that point.
There have been two animated series so far (based on the original manga and spin-offs), set in the same continuity — a three-episode OVA series and a full-length TV show. The OVA series comes first, both chronologically and in-universe, so let’s look at that.
Some of the appeal of the show should be obvious just from the plot summary, which goes like this. Yomiko Readman is an aspiring substitute teacher in Japan, but her night job is as an agent of the British Library Special Operations Division, dedicated to fighting book-related disasters the world over. She has the supernatural power to manipulate paper, causing it to form objects, cut things, and so on. In the OVA, she battles a shadowy group that has stolen the preserved genes of historical geniuses (i.e. Beethoven, etc) and cloned them as steam-powered supervillains.
Yomiko is an early example of a “moe” character — the fact that she has superpowers is balanced by her adorable incompetence at everything else and her general kookiness. She lives in an apartment building that she has entirely filled up with used books (a fate many of us have contemplated at some point?) and is socially awkward and ditzy compared to the other secret agents. The secondary characters are well-drawn, too — even the villains are interesting, quite a feat considering the short run time.
The plot, as it goes forward, isn’t particularly complex, but the action is spectacular — fantastic animation combined with excellent character designs make for some of my favorite fight scenes in all of anime. It also helps (a lot) that the music is excellent. Here’s the opening (warning, contains semi-nude female silhouettes):
(Also, my favorite track from the soundtrack.)
Given its limited length (90 minutes-ish) the OVA series doesn’t do as deep a job on character and plot as most great TV series, but I was amazed at what they managed to cram in there. It’s very accessible, too — if you have someone who is lukewarm on anime but open to awesome (if a bit wacky) superhero stuff, this might be the thing to show them. Highly worth checking out.
The TV series, by contrast, is a different sort of beast. With 26 episodes, they’ve got a lot more space to work with the characters, do foreshadowing, and develop a complicated plot. Like many two-season shows, though, it has pacing problems in some places.
The TV series takes place some time after the events of the OVAs. Yomiko, now a famous agent, has mysteriously disappeared. In the meantime, three sisters, Anita, Michelle, and Maggie, all with some aspect of her paper-control powers, work as private detectives/mercenaries. They get hired to protect a famous author who was Yomiko’s best friend, and thus get involved with her former employer.
Like the OVA, the TV series has spectacular action and great music. Some of the stand-alone episodes, particularly towards the beginning as they’re establishing the main characters, are wonderful little mini-adventures, with a variety of weird (and book-related, of course) villains. Once they get started on the main plot, the show picks up considerably. The biggest downside of the TV series is that it peaks around episode 13 (which is admittedly pretty awesome) and the final story arc feels like a bit of a letdown afterward. It doesn’t quite follow the old-school 26 episode formula, but it’s close. (Intro characters -> filler -> intro plot around ep 6 -> filler -> plot twist around ep 13 -> filler -> intro final story arc around ep 22 -> conclusion. See, for example, any of the Slayers series, which follow the formula more or less precisely, mixing “save the world from demons” plot with “random side adventures” filler episodes.)
What it loses in tight pacing, though, it makes up for in emotional depth. The relationships between characters are well-drawn and genuinely touching, and for once aren’t all about who falls in love with who. (The most important are between the three sister, and Yomiko and her best friend.) It’s sometimes rare in anime for characters to rise beyond their stock attributes, and even rarer in what is basically an action/adventure/superhero show.
In the end, in spite of its flaws, ROD TV is great. It’s not quite the close-to-perfection of the OVA series, but achieving that on a larger canvas would be really difficult. If the idea of book-oriented superheroes seems attractive at all, I highly recommend it. (Though you should watch the OVAs first, to fully appreciate the second half of the plot.)
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.