The original Read or Die OVA was one my first anime DVDs, and remains one of the best pure action titles that I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. Combining slick animation, esoteric historical references, snappy dialog and colorful characters, it was a short but sweet series that simply oozed “cool” from beginning to end. I really fell for the lead character, British Library agent Yomiko Readman, who was everything I could ever ask for in a heroine: intelligent and resourceful, definitely on the nerdy side, and the very epitome of bookish. I was delighted to see her return in the sequel, R.O.D. -The TV-, which was more of a continuation of the original manga than the OVA really was. So it’s a wonder why I never got around to reading the manga until now.
My fondness for Yomiko (and by extension, the entire Read or Die universe) was based on her appearances in the OVA, where she balanced her obsessive devotion to books with an equally strong resolve to complete her missions. Despite her appearance and demeanor, she was a capable combatant, overcoming her opponents through her masterful and creative use of paper. Her cheerful personality and thoughtful compassion for others made her even harder to resist. It’s little wonder that when I finally registered for an account at MAL, she was the first to go on to my list of favorite characters.
And yet, there’s a moment near the end of R.O.D.-The TV- where her status as a “strong” character is nearly completely undermined, not only resulting in a somewhat anticlimactic finish to the series, but perhaps even causing me to question just what it was that I liked about her in the first place. This scene (skip ahead to 1:13) shook the confidence I once had in her, but I brushed it off as a product of lazy writing; certainly not her finest moment, for sure, but not one that was going to redefine her for me.
This brings me to back to the original manga, which takes place before both of the anime series and introduces us to a younger, less-experienced Yomiko. She’s still developing her skills in the field, but clearly displays the bibliophilic chops needed to become a legendary paper master. We also meet Nenene Sumiregawa, the favorite young author of both Yomiko and a certain crazed fan who’ll stop at nothing to have her all to himself. Volume one is a rather silly read, with shameless fanservice, slapstick humor, forcefed undertones of yuri and a Hollywood-style chase scene. I’d say that this was my favorite volume of the series, but I think that says more about the books that followed than anything overwhelmingly positive about this one.
What follows for the rest of the series is a pretty ridiculous plot involving a mysterious private school, a legendary “underground library,” lengthy flashbacks that don’t tell us anything about the characters that we really want to know, sinister double-crossing among Yomiko’s fellow agents, and a frustratingly-long descent into a series of mental breakdowns that renders Yomiko into a quivering, blubbering mess of a woman. To be fair, no well-rounded character should be perfect and without their faults, and for Yomiko to be able to grow and develop over the course of the entire R.O.D. franchise, she might need to be put through the wringer a few times before coming out as a truly strong, resilient character. But did this process really have to be so unpleasant to read? A good portion of volumes three and four finds her surprisingly pliable and receptive to her opponents’ simple psychological tricks, reducing her to a near catatonic state for several unenjoyable chapters. The artists’ willingness to dwell on her mental suffering for so long almost makes me wonder if they really like Yomiko at all (or Nenene, for that matter, who’s shown chained, collared, and gagged in several scenes).
In short, what I wanted from Read or Die was more of the intelligent and colorful action that I enjoyed so much from the anime series, and hopefully more of the gawky but sexy Yomiko stepping up and asserting herself like I always thought she was capable of (rather than being repeatedly torn down and built back up by the words of others). What I got instead was, well… something quite different. Had I read these books before watching any of the anime series that followed, I’m not sure I would have come away with a good feel for the characters, or any kind of positive impressions that would have left me craving more of their adventures. I don’t think I’d call Read or Die a truly bad manga by any means, but its plot feels like a pileup of far fetched ideas that never really coalesce, and its potential for humor and charm is never fully realized. That’s a shame, since the creators went the extra mile in shining the spotlight on their heroine’s cruel downfall, even before readers have much of a chance to develop any real empathy for her.
Here’s hoping that the R.O.D. franchise returns in some shape or form in the future. Is it truly great, or am I simply projecting my best hopes onto it in the name of a few deserving characters? I can say with confidence that the anime does deliver some great action scenes, whereas with these books, it’s often difficult to tell exactly what is happening from panel to panel. Sound effects feature prominently in dramatic panels but are often more confusing than helpful — what, exactly, captions such as “Hyuuuuuuu” or “JAGA JAGA… GA” signify is beyond me — although whether these were the work of the original creators or the English language translators, I can’t say. I’ll admit that I’m hardly a manga connoisseur by any means, but I think I’ve read enough to understand its basic language and flow, and I found many pages here to be awash in visual clutter to the point of confusion.
The ultimate resolution of Read or Die will come as little surprise to many readers. Hopefully most will find it gratifying enough to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. But in the end, I couldn’t help but feel let down by this title, which never approaches the grace or cool of its animated follow-ups, choosing instead to wallow in silly cliches and tiresome nihilistic despair.