You know, I have waited far too long to cover this manga, especially when you consider that I use its lead character as my icon both here and at Infinite Rainy Day. Let's dive into the rousing (if slightly continuity addled) world of Read or Die!
READ OR DIE - R.O.D. (Rido oa Dai), written by Hideyuki Kurata & drawn by Shutaro Yamada. First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2006.
Yomiko Readman is a young woman with an immense love of books and a special skill. She can manipulate paper at will, and the only limit to her power is the amount of paper available and her own imagination. She also serves as a secret agent to an equally secret library, one that is tasked with protecting the world's rarest and most valuable books. Her latest assignment gives Yomiko the chance to meet her favorite author, the teenaged prodigy Nenene Sumigawa. When an insane fan kidnaps Nenene with the intention of forced marriage, it's up to Yomiko to save the day.
It can be hard enough to review a manga based on a series without turning it into a list of "The show did X, but the manga does Y!" Now imagine how hard it is to review this one when you take into account the continuity of the R.O.D. franchise. It started as a light novel series, which in turn became a 3-episode OVA. There was a spinoff manga with a completely different story which became a full-length TV series that was in the same continuity as the OVA. Then there's this manga, which continuity-wise sits somewhere between the OVA and TV show but tells a completely different story in turn. This sounds horribly convoluted, but the good news is that you don't really need to know a lick of it to enjoy this manga on its own. Even a newbie to the world of R.O.D. can appreciate it as the silly, over-the-top bit of action it was always meant to be.
I think the ultimate appeal of Read or Die, regardless of what format it comes in, is Yomiko herself. She's at once cheerful, naïve, resourceful, and proactive. She's the kind of woman who can all but squee over her favorite books but when the stakes are high, she can still protect herself and save the day by turning something so thin, fragile, and common into her weapon. She's not a love interest, she's not a sidekick, she is her own woman. Best of all, it's all done in a humorous and surprisingly light manner, which helps to minimize the disconnect between the scenes between Yomiko and Nenene and all the secret agent stuff. Her friendship with Nenene is rather adorable in its execution, as the rather prickly Nenene warms up to Yomiko. Mind you, I can hardly blame her for doing so when Yomiko herself is so unguarded and such a hopeless fangirl. Of course, the creators are not above using their friendship as an excuse for some yuri-tinged fanservice, although it never gets too intrusive or exploitative.
The action pieces are just as equally entertaining. Kurata seems to be a guy whose approach to action is go big or go home, and he certainly delivers on that front. From the beginning we get things like fights on top of a moving truck, and it escalates until Yomiko has to face off against a fire user who acts like your standard sexy evil seductress and looks like a fire-themed version of Cutey Honey. Meanwhile, Nenene is having to grapple with a megalomaniacal fan who wants to control his favorite author so that together they can create what he deems the ultimate literary work. It's clearly a riff on Misery, but again he's taken it to almost cartoonish extremes, which keeps it from getting too dark and keep it in line tonally with the rest of the volume. Does all of this story make sense? Oh goodness no. Does it matter in the end? Not really. Read or Die only wants to be big, dumb shonen fun, and it succeeds in a big way at just that.
Yamada's artwork is a perfect match to the story, as it is just as fun and lively as the story itself. Every character, hero and villain alike, are hammy as hell and seem to bounce and bound through every panel and page. The character designs are actually pretty nice, as they're round and lush while still wild and expressive enough to fit with the story. He's not above throwing in some cheesecake, but thankfully the ladies all possess proportions that can be found in this universe. What, you though there were plot reasons for Yomiko to play dress-up at Nenene's place? The only place where he plays things conservatively is with the panels. He tends to keep them small, and to keep things from getting too cluttered he tends to leave the backgrounds out. This allows everything to flow smoothly from panel to panel, and the end result is just as much of a delight to look at as it is to read.
There's actually some nice commentary from Kurata talking about the series as well as some comments on Yomiko's various redesigns from light novel to screen to manga. There are also some sketches of her done by some of the animators from the OVA as well.
Read or Die is a silly little shonen romp with a great heroine, a lot of crazy action, and plenty of spirit and liveliness to go around, and it's an utter delight to read.
This series was published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available. All 4 were published and it is currently out of print.