DIRECTED BY: Hiroyuki Imaishi

FEATURING: (voice), Jason Lee (voice)

PLOT:  A man with a television for a head and a woman with mismatched eyes wake up with amnesia, are imprisoned on what’s left of the moon, lead a revolt, have a baby, and kill lots and lots of people.

Still from Dead Leaves (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTDead Leaves moves so fast and makes so little sense that it’s almost the equivalent of putting an ultraviolent manga in a high-speed blender and trying to read it while the pieces swirl around.  The plot is nearly incomprehensible, but somehow involves mutant clones and a psychedelic caterpillar.  Weird?  Hell yes.  Recommended?  Well, definitely not to epileptics.  Even for older folks with a healthy neurobiology, the breakneck pacing is as likely to induce a headache as an adrenaline rush.  It’s definitely one-of-a-kind, though, and as an experiment in compressing as much berserk and illogical anime flavor as possible into as short a running time as possible, it’s worth a look, and maybe even an eventual spot on the List.

COMMENTS: Dead Leaves really is something to behold.  It seems to have been conceived, and composed, under the influence of an entirely new drug: amphetashrooms.  The film is essentially one fifty-minute long chase fight/scene, with a very few timeouts to catch your breath.  The female pink-eyed Pandy and TV-headed male Retro wake up, rob a bank, are imprisoned, break out, fire thousands of rounds of ammunition from weapons that conveniently appear when needed, and fight an ever-mutating horde of bad guys; Retro loses his head both literally and figuratively during the journey.  The violence and gore are extreme, but so ridiculous—with characters spontaneously transforming into human arsenals and showers of spent yellow bullet casings flying so thick that they sometimes obscure the carnage—that it becomes almost non-representational.  Animation styles change every few seconds (and sometimes even several times within a second), as the artists involved employ a variety of abstractions, split screens, shaky pans, replicate comic book panels complete with text, etc.  The artwork is so full of slanted planes taking off at all different angles that it looks like something dreamed up by a comic book Pablo Picasso armed with a primary color palette.  Dead Leaves must have looked fantastic as concept art; ironically, no single shot is held long enough onscreen for the eye to soak up all the detail the artists sweated to put in each frame.  The same level of detail was not spent on the storyline, although it can be as mentally confusing as the canvas is visually confounding.  Plot strands regarding the two main character’s amnesiac secret identities, experimentation on imprisoned moon clones as a form of genetic warfare, and a confusing caterpillar metaphor (which seems to relate to the title “leaves) never come together.  The writers give plenty of hints that these omissions weren’t accidental.  At one point, as a minor character is delivering some much needed backstory, Pandy’s mind starts wandering, and her internal monologue regarding another, irrelevant, memory drowns out his explanation of the couple’s origins; her ruminations magically and nonsensically lead us to the next plot point.  During the final showdown and it’s aftermath, it’s dim Retro who summarizes the audience’s reactions to the plot shennanigans: “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” “I’m not sure I get it,” “This is insane!” and, finally, “Does it really make any difference?”  Retro himself is a screechy shoot-first reprobate that only a teenage male could identify with; Pandy is preternaturally cool and sultry, for contrast’s sake.  There are frequent wang and poop jokes.  The entire enterprise seems like an experiment in conceding to the sad postmodern condition: information overload delivered at fiber optic speed, amorality and vulgarity as a natural background, adult craftsmanship unabashedly placed in service of juvenilia.  The movie almost works as a parody of the pop anime genre; all of its illogical excesses are magnified, and at the same time they’re concentrated and stuffed into a short attention span format.  There’s 90 minutes of material here, but, like a Keystone Cops slapstick sequence, the film’s been sped up 33%.  As an experiment in excess, Dead Leaves is worth watching, but if you’re over 30 you’re likely to find it wearying, as well as empty.

At the time of this writing Dead Leaves is available to watch for free on YouTube (it’s also on Netflix’s streaming service).  The DVD edition adds numerous extras, including subtitled director’s commentary, scenes from the film’s theatrical premiere, a Q&A session with the director and voice actors, interviews, and footage of the producers and animators getting sloshed playing a drinking game.


“…’over the top’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. More like ‘over the edge and into the never ending abyss.’ ‘Dead Leaves’ is faster, louder and crazier than just about anything I’ve ever seen.”–Gopal, Beyond

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “NGBoo,” who accurately characterized it as “fast, loud, wicked & filled with ultimate animated weirdos.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD LEAVES (2004)”

  1. “High-speed blender” part of the text pretty much summarizes what people can expect out of Dead Leaves. I’m glad this anime got an excellent review and I hope that someone else will dare to watch it. :))

  2. Oh dear. I watched this on the basis of surprisingly good notices elsewhere, But you know what? I found it wearying as well as empty. Yes, I am over 30. However, in my defense, I will say that, according to a test based on my ability to absorb imagery seen extremely briefly, I have a very high IQ indeed. Which should put me in an excellent position to appreciate this film. Unfortunately, I perceived huge chunks of it to be incredibly repetitive, not especially well drawn, and shown at more than twice the speed they should have been in the hope that nobody would notice the failings I’ve just mentioned.

    One of the characters has a TV for a head. So what? It has nothing to do with the plot, it isn’t explained, and more to the point, he’s a drawing – his left leg could be a toilet if the artist felt thus inclined. Similarly, another character’s penis is a huge rotary drill. Why? Who cares – Japanese TV will not show male genitals, so they use this excuse to get in a few very basic knob jokes, plus, hey, his willy’s enormous and it can drill through walls! How funny is that?

    Really, this is the story of two unexplained people who kill a lot of unexplained people drawn slightly less well than they are until everybody’s dead, then it just sort of stops. Along the way we get a chance to be terrified by the prospect of a female whose reproductive organs have gone berserk, but since she doesn’t at any point get raped by an octopus, I assume this is meant to be funny.

    Frankly, this is 80% boringly repetitive speeded-up violence, 10% Japanese run-of-the-mill horrified fascination with scary sex, and 10% pretentious rubbish involving a nursery rhyme which has nothing to do with anything. As you can see from the above picture, it’s drawn in a different style from yer average bog-standard animé. Also, it moves twice as fast, and therefore gets to the same place in half the time. If that’s enough to recommend it to you, have fun – if you hate it after all, you’ve wasted less than an hour of your life. So there’s that.

    Alternatively, watch Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”; nobody gets killed with machine-guns, but it features a woman having long conversations with a guy whose entire body is a candlestick, so it has an equal claim to be on this list.

  3. Makes more sense as an abstract/sensory experience, I think. It feels like a rave with strobe lights and house music and smoke and songs with super-high BPM’s that blend together and suddenly switch rhythms without ever slowing down. In case you couldn’t tell, I formed this opinion during the end credits, when this kind of music was actually playing.

    I’ll give it some credit for a few things… even though there was no semantic relationship between components, they fit together like a puzzle, forming a surprisingly cohesive arc — the robbery as a prelude, the imprisonment and escape as the gradual rising action, the battle with the warden as a climax, and then the caterpillar episode as an uber-climax to bring the whole thing home. And that caterpillar sequence, and the role of the baby in the resolution — “Mama…” — that was striking and compelling for me, and sort of brought the whole thing together, providing some enigmatic unity to the central relationship between Pandy and Retro. Structurally, it was surprisingly calculated.

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