Read or Die: The Crystallization of Kurata’s Obsession

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Tokyo, Kanda, Jimbocho. It’s the biggest district of bookstores in Japan. Some even say it is the biggest of the world. Genre, publisher, second-hand, pocket version, etc. are mere labels for the dedicated reader. In this district, buildings intertwine everywhere, almost forming a labyrintha labyrinth of books, and one where it’s easy to get lost. It’s a paradise for sometheir own book-filled Shambhala, a paper-flooded Agarthaand is known to satisfy even the most demanding readers. Jimbocho is an exquisite dish specifically cooked to satiate the immeasurable appetite of those starving guests.

It is in this alluring place that an eccentric individual lives, a woman who goes by the name of Yomiko Readman. You should know her, and if you don’t, you might want to reconsider that. A 26-year-old woman, apparently unemployed. Works as part-time teacher every now and then. Half British, half Japanese. More importantly, she happens to suffer from bibliomania. She is perhaps one of the most intriguing female characters that not only anime but also Japanese subculture as a whole had the fortune to be graced with.

Yomiko is basically a paper user, a person who is capable of manipulating paper at will and using it as a tool, a weapon, you name it. It’s unclear where this ability comes from, but it’s thought to be related to how much readers love books, and booksor paper in this caselove readers in return. Thanks to her ability and unprecedented levels of bibliomania, she’s able to join The Library of Great Britain, a spy organization that is in charge of acquiring as many books as possible from all corners of the globethe more unusual they are, the better. See it as a kind of CIA with the mission of bringing to Great Britain all knowledge known to humanity. Things get even more interesting when she meets Nenene Sumiregawa, a young, best-selling Japanese author of whom Yomiko has always been a fan. They both live in Jimbocho and spend time together whenever Yomiko is free. There are moments where everything goes James Bond-level batshit with Yomiko and Nenene traveling half the globe, and other more quiet moments like both of them working part-time at a bookstore.

Each book usually hinges on how their relationship is depicted, the missions Yomiko is sent on, how Nenene faces being an author, and the way their respective lifestyles affect them. There are, however, plenty of differences between the novels, OVAs, manga, and TV series in the R.O.D universe.

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Nenene when she was abducted by a “passionate” fan. The guy tattooed passages from her books into her body. This is probably how anyone from Tanoshimi would look like in real life :-)

So, something some of you might been wondering is: what’s the real difference between the novels, OVAs, manga, and TV series?

Before jumping into that, however, it’s necessary to explain the essence of the franchise. It’s a hodgepodge of several genres that is handled really well even across mediums, and morphs as it moves from one to another. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscopeall the versions differ from each, but they also share many elements.

Simply put, the main differences are the characters and story development. The basic premise is roughly the same across mediums. Yomiko meets Nenene. Paper users exist. The Library of Great Britain exists. Nenene is a best-selling author. Yomiko lives, or lived, in Jimbocho, although the building is named Kurata Building in the TV series, and Yomiko Building in the novels. From there on out is when things start to diverge. Nancyan agent of TGOB and one of Yomiko’s friendsdoes appear in the novels, OVAs, and TV series, but her role varies. Drake has a prominent role helping out Yomiko in her missions, but in the second half of TV series his role is downplayed, compared the his role in the novels. As I said, character and story development are the major differences. Everyone but Yomiko and Nenene have two versions.

So in this sense, the OVAs and TV series are not an adaptation per se, as they offer a fair amount of original content based on the setting and utilizing moments featured in the novels. The order in which you consume any part is irrelevant, as upon consuming the next, a whole new picture will open up for you. Yomiko’s favorite bookstoreToto Booksfor example, is one of the few connections that occupy the same role in all versions. But the circumstances are different: Nenene seems familiar with the store already in the anime, while Yomiko introduces her to the store owner in the novels. In the beginning of the TV series, Nenene indicates it’s been 10 years since her debut, and she debuted when she was only 13she meets with Yomiko when she is 17 in the novelsso she is 23, already an adult when she meets the sistersthe main characters of the TV series for the most partin Hong Kong. You can see pictures of Nenene in her high school uniform with Yomiko throughout the anime, but it’s never revealed when those were taken. As I was rewatching the anime, I couldn’t help but wonder if it isn’t actually a sequel to the novels. Given the progression of the novels, however, that’s not possible. 

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The novels focus more on the intimacy of the characters and how they get to know each other on an alternate universe,

To put it simply, there exist two universes in R.O.D: one where the sisters exist and Yomiko disappears (anime version), and another where there are no sisters, but Yomiko and Nenene stay together (novels’ version), but are younger. In one universe, Nenene is a teenager; in the other, she’s already an adult. Both universes are connected by various common elements, but exist parallel to each other. They know about the existence of each other, but never directly address it. In the novels the main antagonist is the corporation Dokusensha, whereas in the OVAs and TV series the antagonist is a clusterfuck of Joker/Dokusensha/The Library of Great Britain. The novels have the better villains as they’re more fleshed out, and you understand their situation because of thisit’s no longer a battle of good vs evil. Each side has their reasons, and you are made to sympathize with both Dokusensha’s agents and The Library of Great Britain staff. In this sense, the novels are more cerebral and emotional, and will change your perspective on the characters and story.

Nenene doesn’t meet Wendy in the TV series, but they’re best friends and get along really well in the novels. The books go into detail about how Nenene and Wendy originally met in the UK, as well as how Nenene gets involved with Yomiko’s missions. They also go deeper into Yomiko’s past and contains lots of content you can’t get in the other versions.

The main reason I recommend the novels is what’s hinted at in the OVAs and episode 18 of the TV series: Yomiko’s fiancé. The guy is just like her, Half British, half Japanese. A kind man called Donnie Nakajima; he’s the previous “The Paper,” and Joker’s former best friend. Yomiko was already quite passionate about books when she met him, but was still fairly “normal,” with a more stoic and introverted personality. He gave her the last push and taught her to love books wholeheartedly. It’s because of him that Yomiko’s bibliomania reaches almost detrimental levels. Little by little, the novels reveal bits of Yomiko’s past, from the moment she meets Donnie when she’s 15, to the point where she occupies the highest rank within the organization with only 26 years. I won’t go into any more spoilers, but this was one aspect I truly appreciated. Learning more about Yomiko, and why she is the way she is, because in the words of Joker (novels’ version), she was different before Donnie’s death.

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                                           “フッ。よせよ。あたしに惚れるとケガするぜ。”                                      Nenene and Wendy’s friendship is one of the most charming aspects of the novels. It’s a shame Kurata didn’t transfer that to the TV series so more people could known about it,  but hey,  at least it still exists in the novels.                     

Curious Fact #1

In 2004, Kurata traveled to the US to attend Anime Expo in order to promote R.O.D, and kept in touch with a girl he met there through e-mails. He tells you about the whole saga in tiny bits, one atogaki at a time. But in one, he says it fell through, and that he’s been watching a shitton of movies, and burying himself in books to keep his mind off it. It’s this experience that inspired his famous line “Women exist either on paper or in a JPEG (perhaps a MPEG) for me.”

Speaking on the characters and the work itself is fundamental, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on what makes R.O.D truly fascinating, which is its creator, Kurata.

Kurata or Die

The whole R.O.D franchise is an idea that has stemmed from a man whose main drive in life is to read books, watch movies, and perform plenty of other activities related to media. He not only consumes his media, but becomes one with it, both emotional, and even physically. We are talking about a guy who reads 200 books and purchases 100 DVDs a month; most of his income goes directly to that. You can actually see that.

“The nature of books, and why we read them in the first place are the foundations upon which R.O.D is built, at least in the words of Kurata. He loves books so much, R.O.D is the only thing he could think of to write about. He wanted us readers to explore these questions and possibly find the answers alongside Yomiko and Nenene in the story. When you consider Kurata’s background, all of this seemed inevitable.

Upon finishing high school, he had decided to embark on a journey to Tokyo. In other words, he moved there because “Tokyo was filled with more movie theaters and bookstores” than his native Ibara, so without having any lodging, he just arrived. Four years of working and living like a riajuu would follow, until he met fellow writer and now long-time partner in crime Yosuke Kuroda (Mobile Suit Gundam 00, My Hero Academia, High-school of the Dead). Shortly after meeting, Kurata and Kuroda would become founding members of Orphee Studio, which would later lay the groundwork for anime series such as Brigadoon, Gun X Sword, Kamichu!, among others. Before that, however, in the 90s Kurata alternated between writing novel adaptations and pitching different anime scripts until R.O.D was born in 2000.

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The original Die Hard movie happens to be one of Kurata’s favorites. Vol. 2’s premise is based on it. Others of his favorites include The Blues Brothers (1980), 野獣死すべし (1980), and 男たちの挽歌 (1986).

But what exactly is R.O.D to Kurata? It’s his baby, and Yomiko his own Jane Bond. He envisioned R.O.D as a series of novels, but quickly decided to expand it into several mediums. Given the experience he gained writing anime in previous years, and his reputation at the time, it wasn’t hard to get the project off the ground. This would’ve proved more difficult to carry out had he not been affiliated with a multimedia studio like Orphee. It’s at this stage that he poured his everything into every novel and decided to write the OVAs and subsequently the TV series.

In a sense, R.O.D is almost like an autobiography of Kurata. It is the representation of a person giving in to his desire and obsessions, just like Yomiko. Through R.O.D he shares his joy, fear, hope, inner-self and zeal for all he holds dearly. He shares with the reader, just like Yomiko shares with Nenene, or the sisters share with each other. It’s not something many authors can claim to have done. Kurata mentions throughout the novels that authors may not necessarily depict their ideals, but authors might just vomit text according to what they’re feeling or thinking about in that instant. A fleeting mood might even be the reason for a writer to publish a book.

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Suzumushi is another connection briefly alluded to in the TV series (right). The bookstore is featured in a short story from Vol. 7. Yomiko and Nenene work there part-time for a day.

Some readers may not draw the line between a work and the author. Both concepts are not inherently equivalent. The fact that you like an author’s work doesn’t mean you like the author, nor know him. You don’t have a way to know, unless the author is honest about himself throughout said work. Fiction, at least for Kurata, can’t exist in vacuum, because the act of creating presupposes the existence of other works of fiction. However, a specific work can exist in relation to its creator. Kurata makes a point of this quite a few times. An author will not always be brave, or perhaps fool enough, to imprint on his body of work his very psyche, his perception of the world. Kurata strips himself naked, showing what he truly feels and is passionate about, fearless of what people may think. He’s very upfront about it from the get-go in the novels.

It’s easy to laugh it off and think it’s an exaggeration now that he’s relatively successful, but it’s totally different when you’re in the plotting stage and are afraid to show your drafts to an editor. An unemployed depressed woman who can manipulate paper at will while spying and fighting crime? I’m sure there would be a couple of publishers interested nowadays, but would it blow up like it did in the early 2000s? We’ll never know. I just want to kiss Kurata’s editor at Shueisha for riding along, and believing in his passion and ideals.

That passion and talent would later translate into what makes the R.O.D franchise as a whole so fascinating and genre-busting, as well as what makes the totalization of any part of the R.O.D universe problematic. He has created each version with the purpose of making the characters likeable by everyone regardless of their knowledge of any of the parts. I love the sisters in the TV series and wouldn’t trade them for anything. But neither would I trade away Yomiko and Nenene’s relationship in the novels, which differs slightly from the one depicted in the TV series.

The works benefit from each other by strengthening your affection for each character and making you want to spend more time with them, be it in a visual or textual way. This is the real charm of R.O.D and showcases Kurata’s knack for devising intriguing, likeable, and original characters.

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Marianne, just like Gentleman, is one of those characters that appear briefly in the OVAs and TV series, despite being fairly prominent in the novels, especially in the later half. She met a 15-year-old Yomiko, and is a lifelong friend of Joker. 

Curious Fact #2

Kurata starts each novel with a monologue on books, paper, and human beings. The style of the monologue changes with each volume. In his words, there are only two types of readers: those who wholeheartedly love books and the pleasure that stems from reading them, and those who like the idea of themselves reading books.

The conclusion is the novels deepen your connections with the characters and expand on the alternate relationships of some of them such as Nenene and Wendy’s, or Yomiko and Donnie’s. They offer a different R.O.D universe. The TV series, while not devoid of problemssome of the animation no longer holds ups, the second half loses momentum, and after reading the novels, it feels like you’re not seeing the characters’ true natures despite all media working together, still has a fantastic soundtrack and charming characters all the way through. In short, reading the novels will open up a whole new panorama, different to that of the TV series and OVAs.

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Yomiko’s now deceased fiancé, Donnie Nakajima. Yomiko’s past alone makes the novels worth reading. Her current square-shaped glasses belong to him.

Ultimately, any of the R.O.D versions have something to offer, something to reflect upon, and to be passionate about. Passion is indeed a word I tend to use frequently when I talk about Kurata, but I believe the guy is more than just that. The word alone is not enough to describe how enthusiastic he makes me feel not just about media, but about everything, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. His understanding of subculture extends beyond Japanese subculture to subcultures as a whole everywhere, be it the filming industry, manga industry, or animation industry. Media in all its aspects is Kurata’s area of expertise. He’s a jack-of-all-trades of media. And it’s no surprise, given he’s dedicated his whole life to this purpose.

I am a fan of the idea that a creator can reveal their true self through their own art, and in the process inspire others to do so themselves, as well, in whatever medium they choose.

R.O.D is the crystallization of Kurata, for he either reads or dies…

…and he truly means it.

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Read or Die: The Crystallization of Kurata’s Obsession

3 thoughts on “Read or Die: The Crystallization of Kurata’s Obsession

  1. Wow, this was a great post! I never knew this series existed and now I’m hating why I didn’t hear about this sooner. Thanks so much for talking about the differences in each adaptation. Yomiko’s past intrigues me too. What Japanese reading level would you rec this to? Or do you have any recs for reading Japanese material? Thank you!

    Like

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