Read or Die
The adventures of the most dangerous bookworm you've ever met
Read or Die
Manga Entertainment
Directed by Kouji Masunari
Japan, 2003
When I received the press release for an upcoming DVD called Read or Die, I knew I had to see it. I had no idea what it was about, but with a title like that it didn't matter. (Somewhere in there there's a joke about judging a book by its cover. For all our sakes, I won't pursue it.)

It's a great title, but it's a bit misleading. The three half-hour episodes that make up Read or Die actually feature very little reading, but there are an awful lot of books. These books are extremely important—so much so, that the first episode opens with a bizarre man, whose very body crackles with electricity, destroying the White House and effortlessly putting the president of the United States at his mercy... only to leave the scene when he realizes that he hadn't reached his intended target, the Library of Congress.

Books are also important to Yumiko Readman, a perpetually rumpled schoolteacher whose apartment is a labyrinth of stacked volumes. She spends every spare yen on books (to the delight of the shopkeepers in her neighbourhood), and would seem to be a typical absent-minded bookworm if it weren't for her superpowers—which involve the ability to mentally manipulate any paper she touches.

Those powers explain her codename, "The Paper," and the fact that she works for Section A of Library Special Operations, an organization with worldwide resources (including, of course, plenty of books) and the authority to pull rank on the American military. Of course, they'll need those resources, authority, and superpowers to defeat the mad genius who has cloned some of history's most remarkable personalities and placed them in the service of his plan to—what else?—rule the world.

Yes, it's that kind of story. No doubt killing themselves with laughter the whole time, creator/screenwriter Hideyuki Kurata and director Kouji Masunari bring Yumiko together with a deadly, leather-clad babe salaciously code-named "Miss Deep" (a name she hates, but it accurately reflects her superpowers) and Drake Anderson, a hardcase soldier who has no powers to speak of but is a consummate fighter. The three agents then try to piece together the mystery of who is creating the clones, and why they're all stealing invaluable books.

Kurata and Masunari playfully balance straight action-adventure with absurd characters and situations. If you were to watch the title sequence, which riffs musically and visually on James Bond and any number of '70s TV shows, you'd be hard-pressed to believe it's the same show that has its first episode culminate in a spectacular aerial duel over pre-9/11 New York City between a glider (piloted by Otto Lilienthal) and a giant paper airplane. But it works in that strange way that seems to only be feasible in anime.

There are some false notes, though, particularly with the bits of juvenilia: the busty Miss Deep is a walking exemplar of the (in)famous "Gainax Bounce," and the American president is portrayed as a simpering fool who wets himself at the slightest provocation. The former isn't really a problem, just gratuitous; the second seriously undercuts the drama of any scene the president is in.

At a total of 90 minutes, Read or Die is just right; any shorter would make it feel rushed, and any longer would make it seem forced. It plays a little as if it's part of a larger story (Yumiko's powers are never really explained, nor is Library Special Operation's existence), which might turn off some viewers. I thought it added to the charm, dropping us in medias res like, well, a classic book. All in all, Read or Die is the anime equivalent of a light summer read. It won't strain your brain, but it's entertaining in its own right and you won't regret the time you spent with it.

Originally appeared in fps (June 23, 2003)
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