COMICS: John Reviews “Read or Die Vol. 1” by Hideyuki Kurata and Shutaro Yamada

Read or Die Vol. 1

Read or Die Vol. 1

Today’s review will be the first in a series of three books that all feature a particular similar plot and setting element: Bad-ass secret agent librarians!  I would be willing to bet  that this excites me more than it does any of you, but hopefully my irrational enthusiasm will be infectious.

Read or Die, the first tale of bad-ass secret agent librarians is also the most famous of the three, having enjoyed critical and commercial success in several different media.  Beginning as a series of Japanese light novels, Read or Die transitioned first to manga, then to an anime OVA, then back to manga for a sequel entitled Read or Dream (which was then adapted into an anime television series.)  While I loved the OVA, I could never get myself to watch more than a few minutes of the TV series and found myself hoping that the original manga volumes were closer to the former in style than the latter.  Much to my delight, the manga series do correspond directly to their animated counterparts (with Read or Die being an action series and Read or Dream being more of a situation comedy/drama.)  While the manga differed from the anime in several ways (some drastically so,) I will try to examine the story from an uninitiated perspective.  This is my first time reviewing a translated manga, though, so bear with me if I’m not completely culturally adjusted.

Read or Die follows the adventures of Yomiko Readman (a.k.a. Agent Paper), operative for the British Library, the “Last Literature Defense-Line of the UK.” Yomiko’s love for books is unparalleled: She literally experiences a book through every one of her five senses.  Her bibliophilia is developed to such an extreme extent that she is able to become the latest in a line of Paper Masters, people who can control paper the way Magneto controls metal or Swamp Thing controls plant life.  She can make paper conform to any shape she chooses, and alter its properties to make it strong enough to stop bullets or sharp enough to cut through solid steel.  As Agent Paper, she tracks down rare and missing books for the British Library and fends off book-related threats.  Volume 1 opens with a brief book-retrieval mission, then follows it up with a personal mission of Yomiko’s: To get the autograph of her favorite young-adult novelist.  What sounds like a simple excursion turns out to be an epic adventure, culminating in a battle where Agent Paper must (and I’m not kidding about this) Read or Die…

Though only alluded to in dialogue and flashback sequences, Yomiko’s backstory and the origin of her powers are well-developed.  By contrast, the anime offers no explanation for these things at all and hopes that you won’t bother to ask questions.  The opening sequence is action-packed and dramatic with humorous bits sprinkled in for good measure, which is exactly the type of story Read or Die is meant to be.  The autograph story is entertaining, but many parts of it are confusing and others are downright disturbing.  Again, I’m not used to manga, but I wasn’t expecting so many sexual themes.  I certainly wasn’t expecting the villain to explicitly threaten to rape his captive (on top of a pile of her own books, no less!)  If this is indicative of most manga, I’d worry about all those pre-pubescent children spending hours unsupervised in the manga section of Borders at their local mall.  It made Doctor Light’s reprehensible behavior in DC’s Identity Crisis seem tame by comparison.  There was also a great deal of sexual tension between the two female leads, which I suppose is nothing unusual in the manga world, but it all felt more than a bit like slashfic to me.

The art is, as far as I know, typical manga faire.  Nothing really stood out to me as exceptionally breathtaking, but the level of detail was far above something like Crayon Shinchan.  All but one of the characters (who is much younger in Vol. 1 than in later stories) look like their anime counterparts, and none of the designs were confusing. Some of the action sequences were a bit unclear at times, but I’ll chalk that up to my relative inexperience at reading panels right-to-left.

Taken on its own merit, Read or Die is a fairly entertaining manga that earns bonus points among the literary crowd for its setting, if not for its subject matter or themes.  Watching Yomiko commanding paper to her will (in clever and inventive ways) as she battles a character with equal control of fire is unquestionably exciting and riveting.  Compared to the OVA, what it lacks in quality and clarity of action sequences it makes up for in depth of  character interaction and development.  I would recommend that interested readers first watch the OVA, then see if they want to follow Yomiko’s further (albeit less cinematic) adventures.  Oh, and play the theme song (featured in the video below) while you read it for an even more exciting experience. If that theme music doesn’t scream “awesome action spy show,” I don’t know what does.

EDIT: and just for fun, here’s a cute little music video cut together from the OVA and TV series entitled “Chick Lit,” set to the tune of “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors” by Moxy Fruvous.  You don’t need to know anything story-wise to follow it, and there are no spoilers.

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