Summary: If you met Yomiko Readman on the street, you’d think she was a shy, awkward young woman who lived her life in the pages of a book. You’d be right, of course, but you probably wouldn’t guess that she’s also The Paper, an agent of the British National Library with the power to wield paper as a weapon. When a group of superpowered clones known as I-Jin attack, determined to get their hands on a copy of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved Yomiko picked up by chance from a used bookstore, it’s up to Yomiko and her new partner, Nancy “Ms. Deep” Makuhari, to stop them.
Content Warnings: Abusive relationships
Would I recommend it: Sure! It’s a fun little action romp.
In 2002, the OVA of Read or Die was released in the US, despite being a sequel to a manga that had not been commercially translated into English. Despite the lack of context, it seemed to be tailor-made to be a hit with Western audiences, driven primarily by exciting action set-pieces with superpowers and the sci-fi twist of villains based on historical figures. Its slim 100-minute running time leaves little for character development and, considering its status as a sequel, doesn’t really prioritize it. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, there is an effortless sense of characterization, allowing first-time viewers to get a sense of its two main characters as people. Yomiko Readman and Nancy Makuhari could easily have been a helpless moe girl and a fan service vehicle respectively, but are instead given a surprising amount of depth.
The first episode opens on Yomiko Readman waking up to a phone call offering her a substitute teaching job. Yomiko’s apartment is dirty and cluttered, with books stacked floor to ceiling. It becomes clear that she has trouble taking care of herself – there are sticky notes scattered around reminding her to do basic things like eat and get out of bed. With the promise of income, she pulls money out of one of her books, ignoring the note exhorting her, “Save this up! Up! Up!” She heads out, her hair a tangled mess and almost getting hit by a car, and travels from bookstore to bookstore, buying even more books. Though the show downplays it after the intro, Yomiko’s apartment and obsession over books makes it clear her problem borders on compulsive hoarding, a serious mental illness. The plot centers around the I-Jin, superpowered clones of famous historical figures, trying to steal the book Immortal Beloved from Yomiko, who chanced upon it in a used bookstore. Throughout her battles, rather than focusing on defeating her enemies, Yomiko struggles to find a chance to ask them politely for the book. Even when her life depends on it, she is reluctant to use the pages of the book as a parachute to escape a rocket rapidly approaching orbit. Yomiko’s bibliomania may come across as a cute quirk, but it seriously strains her ability to function day-to-day.
Yomiko’s partner is Nancy Makuhari, codenamed Ms. Deep, a femme fatale in an impractical outfit with the power to phase through solid matter. Though her demeanor is icily professional when they first meet, she warms up when she sees how formidably Yomiko wields her power to control paper. While most action shows featuring women use fights as an excuse for fan service, with jiggling boobs, strategically torn clothing, and exploitative camera angles, Read or Die avoids that and provides interesting, well-choreographed fights instead. Sure, Nancy’s costume leaves a lot to be desired, but other than a comment from their support technician Drake Anderson (“Today is my lucky day!”), the show rarely dwells on it.
The relationship between Yomiko and Nancy is the emotional cornerstone of the show. The two connect after their first battle together, when Nancy goes from strictly using code names to telling Yomiko her real name. Her choice to go by Nancy can be seen as analogous to switching from surnames to first names in Japan. Some people do it casually, but for others it’s considered a big step even for a couple that has been dating for months. Open and sweet-natured Yomiko cheerfully introduces herself as Yomiko Readman rather than “The Paper,” but must earn the more guarded Nancy’s trust before she is willing to reciprocate. The next episode shows the two of them relaxing together in the lounge of a submarine. Their bond is almost palpable, with Nancy braiding Yomiko’s hair as she reads a book, then gently tickling her face. Yomiko is so absorbed she hardly notices, but as most women can attest, playing with hair is a common form of casual contact between female friends and a sign of trust and closeness – after all, you are vulnerable when someone has your hair on their hands. The two talk about love and romance – Nancy is dismissive of the romance novels Yomiko is so fond of, saying that, “real love is more complicated,” and asks Yomiko whether she would have real, complicated love, or read the more simplified version in a book. Yomiko, after ruminating on it for a few minutes, says she would rather have real love, because “you’re always the main character.” Her attitude is sweetly naive, but also self-centered. Romance isn’t a story in a book, and there is no main character, after all. She views the world through the lens of fiction, expecting things to function in terms of arcs and protagonists.
When Nancy is hurt while fighting the clone of Genjo Sanzo of Journey to the West, Yomiko flies into a rage, throwing hundreds of razor-sharp index cards at him until she drives a paper airplane into his mechanical heart. Genjo survives the blow, and manages to steal the book despite their efforts, and in the hospital, Nancy apologizes for allowing that to happen. Tearfully, Yomiko tells her not to worry because, “We can look for the book again. There’s only one you,” unaware that Nancy is actually a clone herself and thus there is, in fact, more than one of her. However, the sentiment still carries weight – bibliomaniac Yomiko is concerned for Nancy’s life more than her precious book, while only days ago she was politely begging a crazed clone of Otto Lilienthal for her book in midair. Yomiko, for the first time in her life, experiences love outside of the pages of a book. Their relationship has strong romantic overtones, such as Yomiko blushing after Nancy pinches her cheeks. Her concern for Nancy, to the point of sitting by her bed without sleep for two days, shows how far she’s come even since the start of the episode. When Nancy is revealed to herself be an I-Jin of Mata Hari, Yomiko is devastated.
Nancy, however, had her own specific romance in mind when she described real love as complicated: a love triangle between herself, the leader of the I-Jin Ikkyu Soujun, and a second clone of Mata Hari. This relationship is where Read Or Die begins to unravel a bit. Nancy and Ikkyu are lovers, but since he replaced her with another, more loyal clone of Mata Hari, their relationship is… strained, to say the least. In fact, he laughs after the second clone calls her a “traitorous bitch” and appears to kill her by reaching into her body and squeezing her heart until she collapses and sinks into the floor. “Maybe she’ll sink to the bottom of the ocean,” he chuckles. Yomiko, meanwhile, witnesses all this as she’s tied up in a room slowly filling with water (in classic spy thriller fashion). When she implores Nancy, “I know you love him, but this is wrong!” she refers to Ikkyu’s plan to commit worldwide genocide, but her statement could refer just as easily to the two’s relationship. Nancy may be torn about her relationship, but Ikkyu has no such internal conflict. He’s already replaced her with a version of herself better suited to his needs: the same powers and physical appearance, but unquestioning in her loyalty and single-minded in her devotion.
In the climactic scene, Yomiko, Drake, and Nancy – who survived her clone’s assault – fight to reach Ikkyu before he can broadcast Beethoven’s Death Symphony and force most of humanity to commit suicide. While Yomiko and Drake fight other I-Jin, Nancy ends up locked in battle with her clone in order to protect Yomiko. She literally fights herself, protecting Yomiko and humanity versus seeing her lover’s plan through to fruition. It’s not just a good action scene – it’s symbolic of her internal struggle over whether or not to betray Ikkyu. True, protecting her love spells the doom of humankind, but for the single-mindedly devoted part of her, that doesn’t matter. After all, what does it matter if the rest of humanity is dead, as long as the two of them remain? But that’s not the path that Nancy chooses. The good side, the side that loves the strange girl obsessed with books who can control paper, wins out and saves the day.
This all could have added up to the most satisfying character arc of the OVA, but in its last moments, it comes apart. As Yomiko leaps from the rocket with Nancy to safety, Nancy releases her hand with a sad smile, staying behind on the crumbling rocket. Yomiko must learn to let go and convert the book she has chased halfway around the world into a parachute; Nancy, meanwhile, clings to the last vestige of her past. She takes the corpse of the man she killed, the man who abused her, replaced her, and plotted genocide, into her lap and says, “You were such an evil, cold, and brutal man. But it would be impossible to face an eternity of loneliness.” In the dub she tells him, “Not even you deserve to die alone.” In that instant, instead of a woman overcoming her past, she becomes a widow throwing herself on the funeral pyre. Her future could have held so much, yet she chooses to die alongside a man who discarded her like so much trash. It’s a jarring, disappointing end that ignores a huge amount of character growth.
Read or Die seems to be largely forgotten, and that’s a shame. It’s not often you get such straightforward, well-made action vehicle starring women that aren’t specifically engineered to get male otaku to want to protect them.