If books are supposed to be an escape into the fantastic, Yomiko Readman (English language voice by Kimberly Yates) has it backwards. She lives an incredible life as a secret agent with superpowers, but spends most of her time buried under a mountain of books. The bibliophile’s posterchild, she’s so enraptured in her reading that she’s oblivious to everything around her: bustling pedestrians, speeding cars, and a 20-foot giant grasshopper hopping through traffic. When the oversized insect steals a precious book out of her hands, however, Readman’s powers come into play. She becomes, simply, The Paper.
As her codename suggests, Readman commands power over all things paper. She can shape loose pieces into an impenetrable shield, throw them like daggers, even fashion a parachute. In an anime world dominated by giant robots, gun-slinging mavericks, and sword-wielding demon killers, The Paper makes for the most delightful, if not unlikely, of superheroes: a young woman whose library card is one of her greatest weapons.
Read or Die—created by director Koji Masnuari, writer Hideyuki Kurata, and character designer Masashi Ishihama—imaginatively revamps the basic formula of special agents vs. evil masterminds by introducing the Royal British Library’s Division of Special Operations, the bookworm’s equivalent of James Bond’s M5 outfit. With the help of Joker (Crispin Freeman), a dashing but uptight handler, Readman is part of the Section A Special Library Force. She’s joined by Drake Anderson (Jaxon Lee), a.k.a. Mr. Drake, a commando specialist with no super powers, just big guns and bad attitude. Completing the trio is Nancy Makuhari (Amanda Winn Lee), a.k.a. Ms. Deep, a nimble pistol-packer with the power to phase through solid objects.
These three are tasked with defeating a team of the I-Jin: evil clones of powerful figures from history and legend that includes everyone from Chinese/Japanese mythic hero Genjo Sanzo (Chad Fifer) to Japanese inventor Gen-nai Hiraga (Dean Haglund) to pianist Beethoven (yes, that’s right, Beethoven is a Big Bad). They’re all led by Ikkyu (Daniel Raymont), a mysterious Zen monk who needs a special book that’s key to killing off the world’s entire population.
Like Ms. Deep and The Paper, their adversaries are equipped with a range of powers. At the beginning of Read or Die, Hiraga uses his electrically harnessed might to demolish the White House (à la Independence Day) while Sanzo breathes fire and coasts on clouds. Read or Die‘s plot is no more sophisticated than your average Batman sequel: evil genius threatens to kill all of humanity, blah blah blah. The series’ true charms stem from how creatively every detail is imagined and executed. In one of the best scenes from the first episode (of three total), Ms. Deep and The Paper face off with an I-Jin cloned from German flight innovator Otto Lilienthal (Hal Lublin). Lilienthal uses a rocket-powered glider to jet across the Manhattan skyline and The Paper trails him by fashioning a giant paper airplane big enough for her and Ms. Deep. The sight of them chasing Lilienthal through downtown New York in a paper airplane is comical, even ridiculous, but it’s also giddy fun to watch as Readman’s origami triumphs over the I-Jin’s technology.
In a similarly fantastic scenario, Sanzo chases The Paper and Ms. Deep into the sea. Just as they’re about to reach safety, Sanzo utters an incantation that parts the water (hello Moses!), revealing buried ruins that become the battleground between the two agents and the I-Jin. The series’ visual and narrative creativity recalls that of Hiyao Miyasaki (Spirited Away) whose brilliantly inspired worlds in animes like The Castle of Cagliostro, Castle in the Sky, and Princess Mononoke have helped take Japanese animation far beyond the static, conventional landscapes of Disney productions.
Like Miyasaki’s films, Read or Die conspicuously places young women of considerable complexity at its center. With her supersized spectacles and floppy tangle of hair, Readman is neither Hello Kitty cute nor schoolboy fantasy (unlike Makuhari, with her Lara Croft-ian cleavage). Every bit the uber-bookworm, Readman is a congenial introvert, a klutz outside the world of paper, and single-mindedly obsessed with books to detriment to her personal safety. Yet, these very qualities make her a delightful heroine to watch. She literally stumbles into her battles, often times armed with little more than a postcard. Against seemingly superior foes, The Paper holds her own, whether deploying a coil of ribbon as a cable or transforming a billfold of dollars into a blade.
Even more compelling than the war between Ikkyu and the World is the relationship between the two women. Readman spends much of the series seeking approval from the alternately aloof/affectionate Makuhari. It’s obvious from the beginning that Readman harbors a puppy dog crush on her stylish, sexy, older sister figure (complete with Sapphic undertones) even as Makuhari begins to slide closer to her historical namesake (accused WWI spy Mata Hari). Drake might have his firearms and Ikkyu his team of I-Jin, but the duo of Ms. Deep and The Paper dominates most of the scenes in Read or Die. While they seem mismatched in demeanor, their partnership is strong enough to stand against the most powerful of adversaries, giving the audience not one, but two heroines to champion in their own way.
If that wasn’t enough for bookworms to rejoice over, the DVD packaging also includes an interesting adaptation of the common “chapter selection” feature. Instead, they entitle it the “Bibliography” and true to namesake, it features book recommendations that provide more information on themes or characters. For example, for the chapter where the Library Special Force readies their trip to India, the bibliographic citation is for E.M. Forester’s A Passage to India, complete with Library of Congress Call Number. That attention to detail is a welcome surprise and reflects the inventiveness of the entire series.