Read or Die

I've always been a sucker for James Bond films. All three box sets sit upon a shelf in my house, and even the latest film has a spot (though I wasn't particularly impressed.) When Read Or Die makes it onto DVD in the US, it will proudly be placed beside them--this is one of the most enjoyable spy thrillers in a long time, animated or otherwise, and the new Bond pictures could only hope to be as breathlessly entertaining.

Read Or Die is about Yomiko Bookman, a mousy, intelligent substitute teacher who also happens to be a part of a secret British organization that employs spies with a few extra hidden talents. When I-Jin, a rogue terrorist group, starts stealing rare books by attacking Washington, D.C., Yomiko is brought in to help sort things out. Known by her code name, "The Paper", she becomes intimately involved when I-Jin operatives try to steal an original Beethoven manuscript from her own personal collection. Her one weakness is her compulsive passion for books, and she gets in amazing predicaments trying to save her tome. As it turns out, her quest is important, for that book contains secrets that could spell worldwide disaster. With the help of two other agents, Drake Anderson and Nancy Makuhari (AKA "Ms. Deep"), she will cross the globe to stop I-Jin and its deadly scheme.

Just recently finished, with its third and final OVA released in February 2002, Read Or Die is another exceptionally animated work, reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop and Lain. Though a few shots are quite static for dialogue-driven moments, the action is great and superbly rendered. With minor bits of computer animation blended in, it often looks sumptuous. The soundtrack is also noteworthy--with an opening theme that crosses the 007 theme with Charlie's Angels, a broadly militaristic closer, and a great score, it's another one for somebody like TokyoPop to license. I'd buy it.

Without a good story, though, all of that would be meaningless. Read Or Die is riveting from the very start. Like the best spy thrillers, there are lots of unexpected twists and turns, and the characters are developed amazingly well for what amounts to about an hour and a half of footage. There is an original manga series on which this is based, which gives the characters some background, but the storyline here is completely separate from anything within the comic. That normally sounds a death knell over lesser series, but here it works brilliantly. After watching the first episode, I was desperate to find the second and third. None of it disappoints. Every episode is worthy, and if word gets around, this should be flying off shelves when Manga Entertainment eventually releases it.

I'll mention two things that might be bothersome to a few readers. First, Read Or Die is an action romp first and foremost. The main character and others throughout the show have uniquely special abilities--superpowers, if you will--that are taken for granted. There's no origin story given. Perhaps it exists in the manga, but you won't find it here. Thus, if you can't handle people whipping out secret abilities without any explanation, you might be annoyed, though I found that the show moved so quickly that I really didn't care. Also, be aware that the first episode includes an enormous fight sequence through NYC, including around and on top of the World Trade Center towers. Just a warning for those particularly sensitive to that.

Read Or Die is far too good to be confined to a three-episode OVA series. I'm hoping that it's successful enough to spawn many more sequels--this is the kind of show I'd like to see keep going.

Read or Die -- violence (very briefly graphic) -- A