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Casting around for something to watch that wasn't all boys all the time, I googled for lists of feminist anime a while back, and this was one of the recommended series. As a book person, the title jumped out at me. Having finally had a chance to check it out, I can now say that it's mostly quite good.

"Read or Die" started out as a series of pulp novels, then became a manga series, with a second spin off "Read or Dream" manga series set in the same universe, and finally got made into a direct to video miniseries, followed by a 26 episode TV series. The novels have never been translated into English, and I have not read the manga. But I have now watched both the miniseries and the TV series. Knowledge of the manga or novels is not necessary to enjoy either anime, but the extensive print based backstory appears in small unexplained details and lends the anime series a lot more texture and depth than it would have if it was a totally original creation. Also refreshingly, nobody brings the story to a halt to explain what is going on, yet at the same time, it's perfectly possible to figure out everything you need to know (Hollywood scriptwriters could learn a lot from this series).

Set in an alternate universe in which rare old books containing esoteric knowledge are the key to global power politics, Read or Die follows the adventures of the agents of the Special Operations Division of the British Library as they guard the UK against biblio-based threats. Like Mission Impossible meets the Avengers, as imagined by bibliophiles, with James Bond movie style villians.

As the miniseries begins, evil and mystically enhanced clones of famous historical persons are stealing rare books around the world. A clone of samurai Gennai Hiraga, armed with a backpack that lets him send explosive lightning bolts from his hands, destroys the White House (by mistake, he meant to attack and rob the Library of Congress).

Cut to the Jinbocho used bookstore district of Tokyo, where our ditzy bibliophile heroine, Yomiko Readman, leaves her book-crammed apartment for a day of happily buying dozens more books. Her face is on a poster behind the cash in at least one bookstore, with the note, "please be extra nice to our best customer."

Yomiko finds a book that the bad guys want, and a clone of Jean-Henri Fabre attacks her with a giant mechanical grasshopper and swarms of trained wasps. But Yomiko is not just a meek bibliomaniac, she is also a Papermaster, able to psychically control sheets of paper to do her bidding, whether to form a bulletproof shield, razor sharp ninja stars, or a tether strong enough to hold down a mecha grasshopper. Yomiko may be meek, but don't try to steal a book from her: soon the grasshopper is scrap metal and the clone is wasp food. And we get an Avengers-style "we're needed" moment when Yomiko's boss in the British Library tells her to come back to HQ for a mission briefing.

Everybody has code names. Yomiko is "the Paper," her boss is "Mr Joker," and she is teamed up with Nancy Makuhari, AKA "Miss Deep," who can move through solid objects, and with "Drake," an ordinary ex-special forces soldier without superpowers. Their mission: stop the clones from stealing more books, find out the enemy plan, and thwart it.

It's all great, over-the-top fun, made better by the odd couple relationship between meek, childish Yomiko and competent, gun-toting Nancy. Meanwhile Drake, whose job is to keep Yomiko safe so she can use her papermaster powers, is a sort of Willie Garvin-style character: he has a crush on Yomiko but it seems to be entirely nonsexual.

The downside, if you can get over Yomiko's stereotypically girlish demeanor, is the fanservice. At various moments both Yomiko and Nancy either end up in awkward poses designed to show off their breasts or rear ends, or move in a way that causes their breasts to bounce and jiggle (clearly demonstrating that the artists have never heard of sports bras). Nancy's outfit, a skintight catsuit with a Power Girl-style cleavage window, is also rather annoying. This crap doesn't happen constantly, but when it shows up, it's distracting and throws you out of the story.

The TV series is in some ways superior to the miniseries. There's less fanservice (a few moments every few episodes instead of every episode), the characterizations are sharper, and 26 episodes gives room for a bigger, more varied story.

ROD starts with a focus on the characters of the spinoff manga "Read or Dream." Six years after the events of the miniseries, Michelle, Maggie and Anita are all papermasters who run the "3 sisters detective agency" in Hong Kong. They are hired to bodyguard bestselling Japanese author Nenene Sumiregawa, who is visiting the city on the occasion of one of her books being made into a movie. After they thwart an assassination attempt by an obsessed fan, Nenene's editor hires them to go to Tokyo and provide more long term protection for the author.

The first dozen episodes alternate between domestic comedy as the author gets over her dislike of the sisters and the disruption they have brought to her lonely life, and action as the sisters take on book retrieval gigs for the China-based Dokusensha corporation (the contract with Nenene's editor does not provide enough to cover the sisters' book buying bills).

Then things shift into high gear as the four women find themselves dragged into a power struggle between the British Library and Dokusensha. Yomiko, Nancy, and Drake reappear, and it's the papermasters versus their former employers in a fight to save the world, again. If the first dozen episodes are mostly self-contained one or two part stories, the last dozen episodes form a single, non-stop story that almost demands to be binge watched.

Once again, the best part of the series are the ways the women bond with one another. The three sisters are sisters by choice, not genetics, and the depth of their commitment to each other is repeatedly tested and repeatedly reaffirmed. Nenene is in love with Yomiko, and all her novels were really written for Yomiko to read. When Yomiko went into hiding five years previously, Nenene developed writers' block and has been unable to write anything since then. She finds the three sisters annoying and in the way at first, especially after they move into her apartment, but she gradually warms to them and resumes writing as her bonds to them strengthen.

Again there's a bit of fanservice, which is again annoying, but not as often or as much as in the miniseries (nobody wears boob window catsuits, and breast jiggling happens only a handful of times in the whole series).

All in all, It's a very nice melding of sisterhood and girl power with high stakes spy action. I'm very glad to have watched both series, and I might even try to read the manga someday.

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