Read or Die Anime Review
R.O.D. (Read or Die)
US Release By
Superpowered Spy Action/Adventure
3 30-minute episodes
2001-05-23 - 2002-02-06
What's In It
- Asskicking Bookworms
- Deep Diving
- Famous People Gone Bad
- Weak Bladders
- Disgruntled American Fathers
- Incredibly Old Gentlemen
- Messy Apartments
- Polite British People
- Violence: 3 (significant)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 0 (none)
- Language: 1 (mild)
In an alternate world where the British Empire has remained a major world superpower, a part-time teacher named Yomiko Readman is also employed by the British Library Special Operations Division, a secret branch of the British Library. When Yomiko impulsively buys a copy of Ludwig van Beethoven's Immortal Beloved, she is caught up in a plot by cloned historical figures known as Ijin who want the book for sinister purposes. Yomiko is deployed with Nancy Makuhari and Drake Anderson to stop the Ijin's plans, which are more deadly than anyone at the British Library can imagine.
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Read or Die starts off with a bang--literally--and jumps head-first into its premise of a believable modern world full of unbelievable things. If over-the-top superpowered action is your cup of tea, R.O.D. should not disappoint--the action sequences are incredible, with succulent high-budget OVA animation, exciting fight coreography, and all sorts of creative uses of the characters' superpowers. The lack of backstory for the alternate world lead to the series feeling a bit jumbled, and the relatively uninteresting ultimate villain is a dissapointment, but the characters are interesting and likable, and most of the villains are clever enough. The Japanese acting is quite good, the English dub holds its own, and Taku Iwasaki energetic, jazzy score is a perfect fit from opening theme to credits.
I have zero complaints about Read or Die's technical aspects and I mostly enjoy the show's fun, over-the-top execution. It's a bit of a shame that the writing end up going too far over the top, resulting in some laughable and eye-rolling moments. ROD is still a solid recommendation with its exciting fight choreography, interesting Western influences, and likable characters.
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It's always interesting to see what will happen when an anime storyline is set in a Western nation. The accuracy of the depiction can range anywhere from the streets of Chicago being replicated with remarkable authenticity to the city of New York being represented as a resort town. Read or Die falls somewhere decidedly in-between.
R.O.D. starts off with a bang--literally--at the White House, where the famous building is represented accurately and promptly blown up by a man who can shoot electricity from his fingers. As a familiar-looking President is ushered out by his body guards they are ambushed by Gennai Hiraga, a famous and long-deceased samurai. The opening scene sets up exactly what you can expect from this OVA: unbelievable things happening in a believable world.
The United States is not the primary setting for Read or Die, but rather Britain, and that's where we meet our heroine. Bibliomaniac Yomiko Readman's life is consumed with books. As she wakes up to meet the day she has to step lightly on the few spaces of floor left while the camera shows notes from Yomiko's roommate reminding her to do simple daily tasks... like eating.1 As scatterbrained as she seems, Ms. Readman proves herself quite adept in combat situations with her creative manipulation of paper as a weapon.
In ROD, some people can manipulate paper to form shields, weapons and even aircraft. Others can pass through solid objects or float on clouds. And it's when these powers are on display that Read or Die absolutely shines. The action sequences are incredible, with succulent high-budget OVA animation. The fight choreography is exciting and the characters' superpowers are used in interesting and varied ways across land, air and sea. There's also something about Yomiko that really makes you root for her when she squares off against an enemy.
I won't try to hide the fact that over-the-top superpowered action anime is absolutely my cup of tea. Having said that, I have to admit the OVA can feel awkward and jumbled, especially in the first episode. The show does not explain the powers these characters have or the Special Operations Division of the British Library Yomiko works for--all these elements are just taken for granted with no solid explanation about the formation of the agency or what its role has been in the past. This makes the anime a bit of an awkward entry point,2 but if you think about it too much you might feel the whole OVA leaving you behind. Even with the rapid-fire set up, I appreciated the series' nods to British spy films. Usually when anime characters are leaping around with superhuman abilities it's in the framework of a long-running Shonen Jump property. Read or Die presents a refreshing change of pace in that regard.
Before long the supporting cast start rolling out, and they're certainly a colorful lot. Yomiko's superior, the pleasant and ever-patient Joker, doesn't have much to do besides hold down the fort. However, the operatives he sends to assist Yomiko are an interesting duo. Drake's grumpy attitude and perpetual frown make him an amusing counterpart to Yomiko's naive cheerfulness, but it's Nancy Makuhari who is the more interesting of the two. Her figure is fun to look at, but her developing friendship with Yomiko is what makes her engaging.
On the flip side, the antagonists of Read or Die defy expectations. The main villain especially is not the sort of historical figure one would expect to be behind all the chaos. The show pulls out a variety of famous people, from Jean-Henri Fabre to Genjo Sanzo, for Yomiko and her allies to fight against. The abilities the enemies use are based on what they were famous for and it's only after some research that I realized how clever some of the powers are.
Unfortunately, once the head bad guy reveals himself and his ultimate plan involving a well known classical composition, the OVA ends up jumping the shark. The story progresses in a relatively straight forward manner with the expected betrayals and twists, however, the main threat that has to be dealt with in the third episode is just silly. I can suspend my disbelief quite a bit, even more for anime, but Read or Die's story tested how far I'm willing to let go. To be honest I had mixed feelings about Read or Die the first time I saw it, but subsequent re-watches have helped me to appreciate the strengths it has more than the weaknesses. It's also worth noting that the follow-up television series eventually expands on the OVA's plot in a very worthwhile way.
The quality of the acting in the Japanese version is quite good overall. Reiko Miura is enjoyably sincere as Yomiko and the main villain mentioned earlier has a dry and creepy voice that is especially effective during a chilling speech he makes (which is sadly hard to hear as it plays in the background). Hozumi Goda is appropriately polite and proper as Joker, and I also liked Michiko Neya as Nancy; she and Miura work well together. The English version, for its part, is well directed, with appropriately sweet and sultry voices for Yomiko and Nancy. I enjoyed Drake's irritated tone, and Joker's faux-British accent is relatively convincing. The dub script thankfully doesn't try to inject juvenile swearing into the dialog, as is often the case with Manga Entertainment titles.
As for the soundtrack, not since Cowboy Bebop has the music in an anime gotten stuck in my head to such a degree. The jazzy score recalls popular spy movies, but Taku Iwasaki makes this work his own. The music is fun and exciting, with a fast tempo that adds to the intensity of the combat. Considering how most orchestral scores sound the same nowadays, the fact that Iwasaki managed to create memorable themes is a significant accomplishment. I also appreciated that the opening and ending music stayed in line with the score instead of injecting ill-fitting J-pop songs.
I really like Read or Die overall. I have zero complaints about its technical aspects and I mostly enjoy the show's fun, over-the-top execution. It's a bit of a shame that the writing end up going too far over the top, resulting in some laughable and eye-rolling moments. ROD is still a solid recommendation with its exciting fight choreography, interesting Western influences, and likable characters.
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Apart from the Read or Die TV series, which is a direct sequel, the fairly recent Night Raid 1931 also features superpowered spies in China during pre-WWII, though that series ends up focusing more on the real events that transpired between Japan and China during that time. L/R (Licensed by Royalty) is an even bigger send-up of spy movies, without the superpowers, while Giant Robo has the superpowers in an even more stylized alternate world. For more unbelievable events transpiring in a believable world try Durarara!!, and if you liked how Read or Die's music and animation worked in conjunction the classic and also high-budget Cowboy Bebop should be right up your alley.
Notes and Trivia
Read or Die started as a light novel series by Hideyuki Kurata. There are 11 Read or Die light novels so far and supposedly the 12th book will be the last, however, it has been delayed for years as of this writing. While the light novels are not available in English, there is also a manga adaptation by Kurata that is available from Viz.
Yomiko Readman is a double-language play on the word "read"; Readman is obvious, and "Yomiko" literally means "reading girl" in Japanese.
Footnote 1: There's actually a notable translation error during this scene on Manga's DVD. Each note in Yomiko's apartment is signed "Nenene," who is a character featured in the TV series, books and manga. The translator must have mistakenly interpreted the signature as a quirk in Yomiko's personality, so the subtitles repeat the last word on each note three times. (ex: "Eat this up! Up! Up! Up!" vs. "Eat this up! --Nenene".) This makes it seem like Yomiko writes notes to herself, which is not the case.
Another significant translation error occurs when Yomiko is buying the the book The Immortal Beloved. When she asks to buy the book, the price the man quotes is several times more expensive than the 3500 yen that is subtitled. In the dub the man simply replies "thirty-five hundred".
Footnote 2: The OVA is not based on previous material from the series of light novels by Hideyuki Kurata, but assumes you are already familiar with the premise.
US DVD Review
Manga Entertainment put more effort into this disc than usual for the company at the time, but overall it fails to hit the mark. The compression doesn't always hold up by today's standard, but the video is still passable. Perhaps the video would look better if Manga hadn't included fairly pointless 5.1 English and Japanese upmixes. Unlike real a 5.1 mix, the upmixes just put more audio in the rear speakers without discrete separation. For example when a character enters a room you can hear their footsteps in the rear channels for no particular reason. Thankfully there are corresponding stereo options which sound fine. Extras include an under-edited interview with a few members of the Japanese staff along with rather well-written biographies on the various historical figures featured in the show. Unlike a lot of Manga Entertainment DVDs produced at the time, this release credits both sets of voice actors properly.
The series is also available on Blu-ray from Aniplex in a snazzy collectors set with R.O.D. the TV for a steep $200 retail. The 4:3 video is upconverted from standard-def and the English subtitles fix the errors found on Manga's DVD. Both Japanese and English 2.0 mixes are included however while the Japanese audio is uncompressed PCM the English dub is unfortunately a Dolby Digital track encoded at only 384kbps.
While things get bloody toward the end, overall 13-Up should be fine.
Violence: 3 - Though there are images of people lying in a lot of blood, the on-screen deaths are not as bloody.
Nudity: 1 - Nancy knows how to fill out her form-fitting outfit, and her chest sometimes jiggles.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Nothing beyond Yomiko and Nancy having a discussion about romance.
Language: 1 - Mild in both versions, although the dub gives Nancy an amusing comment about what kind of performer her codename Miss Deep would be more suited to.
Available in North America from Aniplex as part of a limited-edition bilingual Blu-ray set that also includes the TV series. Was previously available on a single bilingual DVD from Manga Video, out of print as of this writing.