Release date: May 23rd, 2001 (OVA), October 1st 2003 (TV series)
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 90 minutes (OVA), 13 hours (TV series)
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Koji Masunari
Writer: Hideyuki Kurata
English language voice cast: Kimberley Yates, Tricia Dickson, Hunter MacKenzie Austin, Sara Lahti, Rachel Hirschfeld, Amanda Winn Lee, Crispin Freeman, Jaxon Lee
It’s quite interesting how difficult it is not to have any pre-conceived ideas about movies before seeing them. We – creatures of the 21st century – are constantly subjected to promotional campaigns and related material. Information oozes out of the pores of culture through computers, television and smartphones by means of talk shows, news, interviews, advertisements and perhaps most importantly, online publications.
If you don’t see much about a film before its release, that in itself says something about it in this context – the film’s journey from completion to the cinemas is often very telling in some ways about what you can expect.
Now, move on from film into the domain of Japanese animation and you suddenly find yourself in the dark. For most people there is Hayao Miyazaki and then there is everything else. They may have also heard about Ghost in the Shell. I’m somewhat more knowledgeable on the subject but far from an expert; and because I feel like I’m in a dark room, I’m never quite sure what I should see next.
This, however, makes the selection process really quite exciting as it was in this dark room I came across a gem which is now one of the closest to my heart. The story of this finding is as simple as it is random: I was watching trailers on the DVD of Ninja Scroll (1993) and I fell in love with Read or Die right away. The trailer was so cool that I didn’t even Google it; I just had to go out and get it.
I soon realised that there was more to Read or Die than just one disc. The OVA (original video animation) is divided into three segments for TV broadcast but it’s basically one single animated feature that was later followed by a series of 26 episodes to conclude a story of epic proportions.
Aligned with an ongoing Japanese narrative concept, Read or Die takes place in an alternate universe where some things are the same and other things are different. In this world everything seems to revolve around books. The British Empire still exists in its full glory and the British Library Special Operations Division is the most powerful organisation in the world. This government branch employs a number of agents with special powers, amongst them our protagonist, Yomiko Readman a.k.a. “The Paper”; a talented but reluctant agent. While she is a powerful Papermaster – meaning that she has the ability to bend paper material to her will – she is also a bibliophile who would rather spend her time reading books and working as an ordinary teacher.
However, she is recruited by Joker, Director of Operations at the British Library for a mission at the precise moment she finds a rare book in Japan. The book turns out to be ‘Unsterbliche Liebe’ or ‘Immortal Beloved’, a collection of love letters written by Ludwig van Beethoven to an unknown woman. What is special about this book is that it contains music notes composed by Beethoven to accompany these letters which will have a key role in a near apocalyptic climax in the OVA.
The following events later become known as the “I-jin incident”, which sets the stage for the TV series that will introduce the Paper Sisters: Anita, Maggie, Michelle and their client and world renowned author Nenene Sumiregawa. Their story begins five years after the OVA in Hong Kong with the Paper Sisters’ first encounter with Nenene, a famous author suffering from a writer’s block since the disappearance of her best friend Yomiko Readman. The British Empire has lost its position as world leader with political uncertainty left behind and as we follow the new protagonists, Yomiko’s lack of presence is hovering above every scene.
Director Koji Masunari described Read or Die at a press conference as an attempt at pure entertainment that does not try to give the audience much to think about. Ironically, he and his team created a story so complex that I struggle to summarize it. The director admitted that he was surprised by the interest and passion his film generated; it looks like Koji Masunari and screenwriter Hideyuki Kurata were not aware of their own narrative intellect.
Read or Die is not about any one thing. It shows us the fall of the British Empire and its relentless struggle to get back to the top at any cost. It turns out that Mr. Gentleman, the man leading the United Kingdom might be a deity of some sort, which leads to a biblical story of a forced resurrection. But beneath the big picture of supernatural forces, cloned historical figures, powerful governments and secret societies fighting for world domination, we come to know Yomiko Readman and then we go on to follow the everyday lives of the Paper Sisters and Nenene Sumiregawa.
The origins of the Papermasters’ ability to manipulate paper are unknown and someone seems to have tempered with the memories of the Paper Sisters. Yomiko’s relationship with British Library agent Nancy Makuhari is an ongoing subject of debate amongst fans as it is heavily implied to be romantic with a truly unexpected twist; during this love story, the two women switch roles: teacher becomes student and student becomes teacher. There is perfect balance between an epic overarching story punctuated by character driven pieces. The dynamic between the six female leads is really wonderful to watch and easy to connect to – toward the end of the series I almost felt like they were members of my family.
It is with the TV series where Read or Die comes to its full conclusion – in fact I personally regard the OVA as part of one single series in which there is a five year time gap between the first three episodes and the rest of the series. This time gap adds a lot of intrigue and mystery to the narrative composition. The true Read or Die experience is a series of 29 episodes with the OVA merged together with the story of the Paper Sisters.
The art design is state of the art with exquisitely chosen colours and rich detail in every scene. The character design for Yomiko Readman and Nancy Makuhari was slightly changed from the OVA to the TV series, which was somewhat puzzling and unnecessary. At a press conference, a journalist asked whose idea was to switch frequently between close-ups and long shots during battle scenes to which both character designer Masashi Ishihama and screenwriter Hideyuki Kurata quickly jumped to praise director Koji Masunari. This impressive and very cinematic visual style was Mr. Masunari at work. The English dubbing is superb; especially the work of voice actress Tricia Dickson, who took the role of Nenene Sumiregawa, did a remarkable job with her character.
Ironically, the trailer that I saw on the Ninja Scroll DVD is merely the opening sequence for the OVA that is played before the individual episodes and hardly contains anything from the actual anime. It nevertheless conveys the feeling of Read or Die superbly and when I went onto watching the entire series based on this random and tiny piece of information I was not disappointed a bit. I couldn’t be happier to have accidentally stumbled upon it in that dark room unaided by popular culture telling me that Read or Die will become a treasured piece in my DVD collection.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.