This week I’m reviewing something a little shorter. It’s an OVA, or original video animation, of Read or Die. Based off a light novel (the OVA is in fact a sequel taking place a few years later) the OVA was done by Studio DEEN in 2002. It’s a short story about a young half-British half-Japanese bibliophile named Yomiko Readman. In a world where Britain never lost its world empire, Yomiko is part of a secret British intelligence organization known as the British Library. She’s an agent who goes by The Paper, referencing her mastery over paper. That is to say, she has total control over paper insofar as forming it into shapes and creating objects and such from it.
Considering the shorter nature of the title, Read or Die is technically 3 OVA episodes about 30 minutes long. To that end, watching them all back to back makes it play more like a movie. In fact, the first time I watched this (dubbed, on Adult Swim) it was broadcast as such. I loved it then, and I’ve since watched the subbed version which was also quite good. To that end, since it plays more like a movie and less like a long series with several arcs, the plot is condensed and doesn’t particularly tackle any major philosophical points or the like. There aren’t very many incredibly dramatic moments, and it’s really meant to just be a fun ride. The story starts by introducing the main character, Yomiko Readman in her apartment. Which is, of course, a horrible mess of books everywhere, and serves to give you a first look at her character. She heads out to a book store soon after she wakes up, and finds a very rare book, and is almost immediately afterwards attacked by some crazy guy riding a giant mechanical grasshopper. The man is in fact a clone of Jean Henri Fabre, a French entomologist. As the show goes on, it turns out all the antagonists are clones of past historical figures (primarily Japanese, of course). That’s something I didn’t figure out when I first watched this, and in fact only learned about it today during my research. But I do think it’s neat and adds a bit of flavor to the villains and makes then, at least slightly, less one-dimensional.
Anyway, back to the plot. Yomiko fends off the crazy clone, and is escorted to the British Library. It turns out the rare book she picked up has some dangerous writing in the margins. Apparently Beethoven wrote a “lost symphony”, and this music supposedly causes people to go crazy and commit suicide. Surprisingly, this is not the first time I’ve heard of this kind of plot line, though that doesn’t have much to do with Read or Die’s plot. It’s not the most compelling plots, but there are enough bright colors and explosions and fanservice that it kept my young teenage mind compelled to watch all the way through. So the leader of this super human group of clones, led by another clone of Ikkyu Soujun, wants take this symphony and play the song across the entire world. The British Library puts together a team of Yomiko Readman, Drake Anderson (a former Green Beret), and Nancy Makuhari (a woman with the ability to phase through solid objects) to put a stop to the nefarious plot. From here on in, Read or Die follows like a typical special agent action type movie. There are a couple of twists and turns, a few mildly dramatic moments, and some fun times had by all. In all honesty, it comes across as kind of generic, but not in a particularly bad way. It’s certainly fun enough to watch, but if you’re expecting some kind of groundbreaking OVA, you probably want to watch something else.
Moving on to the characters… There aren’t very many fleshed out characters in Read or Die. That’s only to be expected, considering its length and scope, but just a little disappointing. When I watch or read a series, character development and interaction are the two biggest selling points for me. However, in Read or Die, besides Nancy, everyone is pretty one-dimensional. Of course, Yomiko’s one-dimensional quirks are incredibly endearing to me. She’s a huge bibliophile, and she has this cute innocence to her that isn’t really ever compromised over the course of the OVA. In addition to all of this, she’s a very capable agent in her own right, wielding formidable paper manipulating powers. While that may sound vaguely non-threatening, she manages to use her powers to great efficacy and does complete her objectives given to her. Of course, Yomiko goes through no real development in the OVA. She accomplishes her goals, and while she does meet new people and her life is changed to a degree, she doesn’t go through any major character shift as a result of the events that occur to her.
Contrasting Yomiko’s innocent and sincere nature is Nancy Makuhari, code name Miss Deep. Of course, she doesn’t like the name since she thinks it makes her sound like a porn star. Nancy plays the role of the femme fatale character, but like Yomiko, she is also a very capable agent. Due to their personalities, Yomiko and Nancy’s personalities often cause them to be at odds with each other. However, as events go on, they became close friends and forge a pretty strong bond. Their relationship comes to a head at the climax of the story, where Nancy has to make a choice between her mission and Yomiko. I’ll leave the ultimate result of the plot out of this, but needless to say due to her relationship with Yomiko, Nancy makes the greatest character development out of all the characters in Read or Die.
The rest of the characters aren’t particularly interesting or important. The villains have pretty black and white motivations, and aren’t particularly interesting in their own right. While it is kind of cool that they’re all clones of famous (though I must confess I’ve never heard of any of the clones other than Beethoven) people, they’re pretty much villains for the sake of being villains. The other agent assigned to work with Yomiko and Nancy, Drake Anderson isn’t particularly interesting either. He probably has the most screen time other than the main two characters, but he’s just another soldier. Honestly, he’s what most people would think of when people think “agent”, though I guess he’s a kind of out of his league considering Nancy and Yomiko have superpowers. The last two characters of any slight importance are Joker and Wendy. They both work at the British Library. Joker is Yomiko’s superior in the organization, and Wendy is his aide. They’re pretty much only around to tell Yomiko what to do next. All in all, the supporting characters aren’t particularly interesting, though I guess Wendy’s kind of cute, being half-Indian and half-British.
The art for Read or Die the OVA is definitely higher-quality than a lot of other shows, but that’s the byproduct of having a higher budget to cram into a smaller amount of time. As a result, general art and animation quality is much higher than that of a regular several episode anime series. Insofar as character design is concerned, I do quite enjoy Yomiko’s design. She has glasses of course (what self-respecting bibliophile wouldn’t?) and her unkempt hair offers her just a bit of charm that shows her disregard for her own looks in lieu of her love of books. As for her outfit, she’s dressed rather conservatively, but she comes across looking incredibly cute without much fanservice involved. To contrast, Nancy’s pretty much all fanservice, what with her skintight suit and her ridiculous proportions. But of course their outfits fit their personalities. Yomiko’s innocent and sincere personality, coupled with her conservative and generally messy appearance, reflecting her single-mindedness about books, and Nancy’s more sultry mature personality, coupled with her provocative outfit showing off her womanly charms. The entire point is to contrast the two of them, and show to some degree how opposites can attract. As a result, I did enjoy both of their character designs (of course, Yomiko’s just too cute with those glasses and her hair).
Insofar as the animation is concerned, the situation is much the same as with the art. Due to the higher budget offered to an OVA, and the less animating there is to due, the animations generally seem fairly high-quality. The action scenes are well-done and fluid. They’re a treat to watch and it helps to keep your interest as you watch all the neat explosions happen. Of course, animation’s not my forte so I can’t really speak as much to general techniques or other quirks done in the show. All in all it feels like a fairly standard, well-done job that gets the point of the show across fairly well.
The last section to cover is the music. The music is actually one of the most memorable parts of the show for me (for once). There are some really great tunes in there, composed by Iwasaki Taku (he did some pretty nice tracks for Soul Eater, Gurren Lagann, and the currently airing Ben-to). The music reminds me of a James Bond secret agent thriller sort of movie, and is excellent. In particular, I enjoyed the song Rod no Teema (which I have below this paragraph). In addition to the jazz-like spy tracks he puts in the show, Beethoven (who’s actually one of the characters) plays some of his own music for the show. All in all, the soundtrack was pretty stellar and one of the better parts of this OVA.
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