A medieval samurai with the power to cast lightning bolts blows up the White House while looking for a book. Only one woman can save the world... Yomiko Readman, agent of the British Library!
Read or Die is a three-part OVA that's basically a Bond film with X-Men superpowers. It's got a Bond-esque theme tune, tea-drinking stiff upper lip Britishness and lots of kick-arse action scenes, albeit with a quirky slant. The baddie's soldiers are resurrected obscure geniuses like Jean-Henri Fabre (a nineteenth-century entymologist), Gennai Hiraga (Japanese scientist and artisan from the Edo period) and Hsuan Tsang (seventh-century monk and the inspiration for the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West). This wouldn't be so bad if they didn't all have superpowers in some way connected with their historical reputations.
Meanwhile our heroine Yomiko is codenamed The Paper for her paper-controlling abilities, which are more formidable than they sound. She can make paper harder than steel and form it into chains, weapons and vehicles. This makes for wonderful eye candy. Read or Die has some of the best action scenes I've seen anywhere, with wildly inventive combats between superpowered foes who can make almost anything do anything.
That's only half the story, though. Having lulled me into enjoying it as jolly nonsense, the last episode explored unexpected depths. Am I the only person to suspect lesbian overtones? Had either Yomiko Readman or Miss Deep been male, this would have been a love story... and a proper one, not just 007-esque "shag the latest girl" silliness. The ending is bittersweet, but I didn't mind that since the story continues in the R.O.D. TV series.
What I like best about Read or Die is its tongue-in-cheek quality. The world's fate lies in the hands of the British Library. The villains are totally bonkers. The show hurtles along at breakneck speed, surfing the wave of its own outrageousness with a deadpan conviction that's hard to resist. It creates a deliberately ridiculous scenario and then milks it for all it's worth. Best of all is Yomiko Readman, the world's most unlikely superheroine. She's a nerdish bookworm whose apartment is a temple to the written word and has to leave notes to herself to remember to eat and sleep. She can kick arse like Batman and Spiderman rolled into one, but it's all in the cause of being able to ask nicely if the supervillains could return her book, please?
Having said that, my friend preferred watching Miss Cleavage... sorry, Miss Deep. In true Bond film tradition, this show is probably more enjoyable if you're male. Americans might have to grit their teeth, though. Read or Die is hardly up there with the likes of Battle Royale 2 (which is practically Al-Quaeda propaganda), but it does give us a nuke-happy American President pissing his pants and having to be overpowered by his aides.
This show made me laugh with its Bond-ness, knocking Austin Powers out of the park, while putting enough spin on the formulae to become worth watching in its own right. Obviously 80% of its appeal is down to the awesome visuals, but for once I didn't mind that. Firstly, it's a Bond film! Secondly, the remaining 20% was loopy, amusing and in the end genuinely emotional. The worst criticism one could level at this is that fundamentally it's just an action movie, but that's rather like grumbling that the Mona Lisa is another bloody painting. By the throwaway standards of three-part OVAs, it's a work of genius. My feelings about its follow-up TV series are more mixed, though.