Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Random Movie Report #26: Read or Die

I can appreciate a good anime as much as the next man, even if I don't catch it that often. I don't really know enough about what's good in the genre (apart from Miyazaki), so I just occasionally pick stuff up on a whim. I remembered seeing a message board post or two about READ OR DIE, and so as I was beefing up my Netflix queue to Hulk-esque proportions, I placed it on there, and the rest tells itself. That was uninspired. Anyway, READ OR DIE is not so much a film as it is an OVA (Original Video Animation), and though it's feature-length it's divided into three "Episodes". Whatever. It's as close to a movie as makes no ends.

And it's a very pleasant little surprise. The title's bibliophilic implications are a part of the story, but it goes in some very weird directions and becomes a unique brand of spy adventure that is at times deliberately goofy but doesn't sacrifice drama. However, the reason to see this is for its protagonist, a girl who is not only endearingly geeky, but makes that into her greatest power.
Yomiko Readman loves books. A lot. Her small apartment is piled with them, and all the money she earns at her substitute teaching job goes towards buying more. Bookstore staff bow to her when she leaves, and keep a picture of their best customer posted so they know to treat her well. Shortly after buying an original German-language copy of "Immortal Beloved", she is attacked by a man riding a giant grasshopper who wants the book for himself. She manages to defend herself and her first edition, and reports to her second job, as an agent for the British Library's little-known elite espionage division. It seems that other rare one-of-a-kind books are being targeted for theft by a cadre of criminals born from the DNA of historical geniuses. As "The Paper", Yomiko (voiced by Rieko Miura) is teamed with "Ms. Deep" (Michiko Neya), a mysterious woman with a shady past and the ability to pass through walls. And Yomiko? Well, she gets her name from her ability to shape hundreds of sheets of paper into aircraft, shields, parachutes, etc. A sort of Paper Lantern, if you will. The Paper and Ms. Deep end up becoming close friends as they set about trying to protect the books and work out what, precisely, they're being collected for.

READ OR DIE was based on a manga series, and like a lot of manga adaptations it has the feel of being sharply condensed. We don't know how Yomiko fell in with this lot or where her power comes from, and the core story has to move along very quickly (I do plan to pick up the Manga at some point- and to be sure, knowing Japan, I don't expect every question I have to be answered.) So it's just a little thin on the actual story, but maybe to compensate for this, the overall tone is fast and jazzy and encourages you not to sweat the details. I appreciated that.

One complaint I would lodge with the story is that the focus on books and reading seems to actually get lost about halfway through; I was perhaps expecting something like the anime version of THE NAME OF THE ROSE. Granted, part of the problem is that some of the villains are historical and literary figures perhaps better known in Japan than in America (I actually had to do some websearching to figure out who the head villain was supposed to be.) Nonetheless I felt that the concept wasn't being explored fully. (There's also a TV series, though Yomiko is no longer the main focus and so, really, what's the point?) That said, I realize that with less than ninety minutes allotted for this sort of thing the filmmakers could only do so much.

These quibbles aside, READ OR DIE does feature what I may consider, in my highly biased opinion, the greatest anime protagonist of all time. Yomiko Readman is, on the one hand, disarmingly normal, a very believable sort of nerd with a chipper attitude and tiny quirks (her apartment is littered with little reminders to "save up! up! up!" and "lock up! up! up!") that make for a certain subtlety of characterization. But despite her vulnerability, Yomiko is powerful. Even when she isn't using her paper-bending powers, she has a heroine's resolve, especially when it comes to keeping hold of her beloved first edition. And she eventually develops a more important attachment to her partner Ms. Deep (indeed, their friendship is so close that it nearly approaches the level of lesbian subtext, though that could be my mind filling in the blanks.)

READ OR DIE is a sort of apéritif of anime- something light and fizzy with a bit of kick to it, with the effect of stimulating the appetite. I would like to see more of these characters, and of this world, and I suspect that was the point. If so, well played. The spirit of this thing is infectious. I feel a need to buy more books. You can never have too many of them, after all.

Written by Hideyuki Kurata
Directed by Kouji Masunari

Grade: B

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