R.O.D. The TV Series (Volume 1: The Paper Sisters) Review
Having actually studied as a librarian, I found the idea of a bookworm protagonist whose super powers involved the manipulation of paper to be immediately appealing (and a little bit wacky too). Thus was born my interest in the precursor to this TV series, the 3-part OVA known as Read or Die. But while that trio of 30-minute instalments was based upon the original novels by creator Hideyuki Kurata and featured a single central character (librarian Yomiko Readman) as its main focus, its eventual popularity soon led to the production of a full 26-episode follow-up for Japanese television with new characters and a much expanded storyline. It's that latter show that I'll be covering in this write-up.
R.O.D. (as the TV series is generally abbreviated, as it's based on events that occur across the Read or Die and Read or Dream manga) is yet another example of how the growing Western interest in animé is accelerating the whole process of bringing Japanese properties to market in the US (and, consequentially, the UK as well). The OVAs only appeared on the scene during 2001/2002, and - despite an initially uncertain reception in Japan - waxed in popularity to the point of the TV series soon being commissioned and finally aired in late 2003 / early 2004. By this time, the Western fanbase had more than caught up with its native counterpart and the first DVD volume hit the shelves in the US by the summer of last year. With Geneon's American street date for the final disc slated for the end of next month, MVM is now beginning to dole out the R2 releases of this very enjoyable series.
This first volume ('The Paper Sisters') gets things off to a good start with four episodes that introduce the audience to our core cast of characters. The key players from the OVAs aren't immediately in evidence, although there's strong foreshadowing that at least one of them may appear later in the series. Instead the new pivotal role here is occupied by Nenene Sumiregawa, a Japanese novelist whose last book went directly to the top of the bestseller charts… but who hasn't quite been able to complete her next project in the intervening four years, and thus is beginning to fade from public awareness. Part of her problem is that her best friend (none other than Yomiko Readman) vanished under mysterious circumstances and Nenene hasn't really been able to concentrate on her writing since.
Nevertheless, one has to make a living, and when Nenene's editor phones to tell her excitedly that a Hong Kong production company has bought the film rights to her last book and that she needs to fly over to meet with the team, she accedes (albeit listlessly). However, soon after her arrival something happens to shake her out of her languor… shame though that it has to take the form of a nutcase failed writer trying to kill her! Luckily for Nenene, she finds herself defended (and, against her will, befriended) by a trio of unexpected allies: Michelle, Maggie, and Anita of the Paper Sisters Detective Agency (rendered in the English dub as the 'Three Sisters Detective Agency'). Like Yomiko Readman before them, these three are all 'paper masters' in their own right, gifted with telekinetic powers that let them make seemingly ordinary paper do absolutely miraculous things and adopt very un-paperlike physical properties.
Although so far I only have these early episodes to go on, my impression is that those of you who have seen the Read or Die OVAs will be pleasantly surprised by just how different a show R.O.D. is… while at the same time finding it similarly engaging. Whereas the 3-part OVA had a sort of 'James Bond' feel to it – what with Yomiko Readman being a 'secret agent' and all – the TV series works on a very different level and is carried primarily on the strength of the character dynamic between the four female leads. Nenene at first manifests as a very negative personality (particularly when compared to, say, the idolising Michelle), but this show employs a number of key foils, not only between Nenene and Michelle, but between Michelle and Maggie and between Maggie and Anita (the latter being almost as grouchy as Nenene, only in a pint-sized version). While it will require some willing suspension of disbelief to accept the idea of the three sisters permanently moving into Nenene's place, it's nothing compared to the zany concept of 'paper masters' in general, ne?
1: 'The Papers Have Landed'
Without much enthusiasm, Nenene assents to her editor's request to travel to Hong Kong and meet with the production team that will adapt her last novel to the big screen. But when a psycho labouring under his own failed writing aspirations decides to target this 'upstart foreigner', Nenene surprisingly chooses to stand her ground rather than flee back to Japan. But even with the police forces on high alert, things would have gone badly for her if it weren't for the intervention of the Paper Sisters Detective Agency and their miraculous powers.
2: 'Rise Up Oh Dregs of Humanity'
Despite being safe and sound back in Japan, life hasn't quite settled down into its usual routine for Nenene. Perhaps it's the relentlessness of her current case of writer's block. Maybe it has something to do with a renewed interest in her work since the announcement of the upcoming film. Oh, let's be honest… it's all Michelle, Maggie, and Anita's fault. After saving Nenene's life, the three sisters have been hired as her 'bodyguards' by her editor (not that he bothered to mention this to Nenene, of course!). But as they seem to live in their own little world divorced from mundane reality, they're soon broke and homeless and end up moving in with our fave author. But it's just for a few days, right?
3: 'Let's Meet Up in Jinbo-Cho'
Don't be silly… it soon becomes clear that Nenene won't be able to unload Michelle, Maggie, and Anita quite so easily, and so she acquiesces to clear out a disused room in her place for them on the proviso that they do the cooking, cleaning, etc. (Well, except for lanky Maggie, who is so tall that she doesn't even fit on the spare bed, and who happily claims the under-stairs cupboard as her 'room'.) Of course, considering that the only thing that really grabs their interest is books, it's not long before the three plan their very own trip to Jinbo-cho [a district in Tokyo famous for its bookstores]. While Anita wishes she were in Disneyland, her older sisters are busily 'buying' out entire bookshops… and the rumour mill starts up that voracious reader/bookbuyer Yomiko Readman must have returned at long last!
4: 'The Seventh Grade Course'
To allay suspicions from the neighbourhood busybodies, Nenene insists that Anita enrols at school like a 'normal' kid. Of course, this requires some forged paperwork and, erm, tuition fees. While Michelle proposes that the three of them moonlight for an old client of theirs (Dokusensha, Inc.), both Anita and Maggie seem not particularly thrilled with the notion. And as for what Anita's first day at school is like… well, let's just say it's an adventure.
Considering that this TV series isn't even two years old, it will shock no one to learn that the picture quality is top-notch. It's clear that a lot of attention to detail was invested in the video side of the production, with crisp lines, deep tones, a broad palette, and no obvious encoding problems manifesting anywhere during the four episodes on this disc. The show is presented as it originally aired, in a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, and doesn't suffer any macroblocking or edge enhancement issues as far as I can tell. A really great looking transfer that you won't be embarrassed to play for friends on a monster TV (if you have one).
Perfectly respectable audio is the name of the game here, with this disc offering both the original Japanese Dolby 2.0 soundtrack or a more expansive English dub in Dolby 5.1. Whilst the DD 5.1 dub doesn't pull out all the stops, it does put the surround capabilities to good use on more than one occasion during the DVD… though primarily for peripheral atmospheric effects or the occasional fluttering of papers across the forward or rear soundstages. The voice acting seems a little stiff on the English dub, but not at all awful (in fact, Anita's VA really hits the target), but I generally only spot-checked that and instead listened to the entirety of the Japanese soundtrack as my primary focus. No evidence of dropouts and a good balance between sound effects/music and the core dialogue means there's nothing bad to say about either version of the audio.
The main menu on this disc is a simple animated affair built around a book theme and underpinned by the show's exceptionally-catchy opening theme tune by YKZ. The real special features are restricted to an art gallery containing almost two dozen production sketches and full-colour stills, the set of original Japanese previews for episodes 1-4, and a commentary track for episode 1 featuring a trio of producers involved in the English dub of R.O.D.: Kevin Chu, Jonathan Klein, and Talesin Jaffe. Somewhat ironically, although this commentary track features the very guy responsible for the English subtitles production for this series, there are no subs provided for the commentary itself. (What an oversight!) Luckily, there's nothing too groundbreaking revealed in the commentary, so you're not missing too much.
Giving credit where it's due, however, Geneon did some nice work on the presentation of the Japanese previews. Usually this sort of extra is only available in one language, and if there's any English voiceover whatsoever then subtitles are generally dispensed with. Here we have an example of it being done properly instead: the original Japanese audio is switchable on the fly with an English dub of the selfsame dialogue (not just a bland voiceover, but the actual VAs have been wheeled back into the recording booth to voice the previews) and you can also view subtitles covering every single thing that's said. Oh, and of course there are a handful of trailers for other upcoming DVD releases at the very bottom of the extras menu.
Read or Die
was a charming and inventive (not to mention often quite silly) OVA and R.O.D. the TV series certainly carries on in this same vein. Those of you familiar with its predecessor can expect a rather different character dynamic to hold sway in this extended television production, but this is not a bad thing at all. As for fans of the amazing action scenes involving 'paper masters', well, never fear, this series has them in spades, and they are rendered lovingly with a sufficiently high production budget, so the visuals in this animé are rock-solid. Which only leaves the question of story. While this first volume takes its time laying the groundwork for what is to come, I don't feel as if it's dragging its heels at all; enough is happening in the lives of Nenene, Michelle, Maggie, and Anita that the fact that an overarching plot has yet to manifest doesn't worry me. I'm looking forward to volume 2, where I anticipate the plot will thicken (so to speak).