“A guy with a TV for a head and a girl with a panda-like mark on her face find themselves naked on Earth with no recollection of how they got there. After attempting to violently acquire food and clothes, they get arrested and sent to the Lunar prison Dead Leaves… and things get weirder from there.”–Dead Leaves synopsis from the listicle “15 Bizarre Anime That Make You Wonder ‘Wtf Did I Just Watch?’
DIRECTED BY: Hiroyuki Imaishi
FEATURING: Voices of Takako Honda, Kappei Yamaguchi, Amanda Winn Lee (English dub), Jason Lee (English dub)
PLOT: Pandy, a woman with mismatched eyes, and Retro, a man with a television for a head, awaken naked with no memories and immediately go on a crime spree. Quickly arrested, they are sent to Dead Leaves, a prison housed on what remained of the crumbling moon, where they have sex and then arrange a prison break. Pandy grows pregnant and comes to term in a day, and faces a giant caterpillar monster with the help of her precocious newborn son.
- The directorial debut of Hiroyuki Imaishi, who had worked as an artist on many animes, including the TV version of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and it’s bizarre theatrical incarnation.
- Released as an OVA (original video animation, a common direct-to-video release strategy in Japan).
- Dead Leaves was made with the American and European secondary markets in mind. The English dub was made contemporaneously with the Japanese version.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dead Leaves‘ images, while carefully painted, streak by almost too fast for the eye to register, leaving an impression of havoc rather than focusing on particular images. Since the main characters—especially monitor-faced Retro—appear most often, it’s their faces that stick most in the memory.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: TV-headed Retro-reprobate; penis drill; inexplicable psychedelic caterpillar
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Leaves moves so fast and makes so little sense that it’s 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.
Short clip from Dead Leaves
COMMENTS: Although the director advised the audience at Dead Leaves‘ premiere to get drunk before watching the film, it actually seems to have been conceived and composed, and most likely is best viewed, under the influence of an entirely new drug: amphetashrooms. Leaves 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. It’s “edgy,” both in the commonly accepted and in a more literalist interpretation—that is, it’s full of edges, corners, and sharp bits that come at the eye like shrapnel. As if the screen weren’t busy enough, the action often switches to split screen formats so we can see bullet casings flying from different angles. Naturally, the climax, with a giant rainbow-mawed caterpillar floating against a lava-red sky before exploding in an array of overlapping concentric circles, pushes the visual trippiness to the limit. 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. Retro interrupts another attempt at exposition with an exclamation of juvenile glee—“I’m a spy!” Later, Pandy seems to have figured out the most pertinent parts of her past history, and starts to explain things only to cut herself short: “details don’t matter.” The script’s refusal to explain what’s going on becomes a running joke (one that’s better appreciated on a second viewing). During the final showdown and it’s aftermath, it’s dim Retro who summarizes the audience’s reactions to these 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?”
The movie is on the side of Pandy and Retro, despite the fact that the former has few virtues and the latter none at all. They never deny their criminal nature; they embrace it immediately upon waking, when their first act together is theft, followed quickly by mass murder. The citizens they exploit have faces stamped out of the exact same blank-eyed mold. The police force is even more homogeneous: not only are their bodies standard issue, they have to dress exactly alike, too. Citizens and officials alike are all just disposable cannon fodder for Pandy and Retro’s rampages. The bad guys, on the other hands, are all uniquely drawn and full of life. Besides the notorious “Drill Dick,” there is a walking eyeball, an elephant-human hybrid, and a cross-eyed macrocephalic doctor in desperate need of an orthodontist. Even the most of background characters is a grotesquerie suitable for his own spin-off adventure. On a plot level, this fact is explained by the conceit that the prisoners in Dead Leaves are all (for some reason) genetic mutations. The real reason is that the filmmakers favor the rebels and the anarchists as more admirable and real than the conformist citizenry. Sex—unleashed libido, giving in to pleasure—magically frees Pandy and Retro from their shackles. At every opportunity the movie champions impulsive destruction and self-indulgence as the mark of a true antihero trapped in a world of boring, disposable squares.
Retro 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. Almost every character shouts their lines. The filmmakers give the violent, sex-obsessed, grossout material everything they have, throwing themselves into the adolescent fray like a pit bull gnawing on a toddler. The entire enterprise is a surrender to the postmodern condition: information overload delivered at fiber optic speed, amorality and vulgarity as natural background radiation, 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 Kops 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.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… primarily concerned with providing a wonderful sense of destruction; the vast majority of the cast, both good and bad, is constructed with a palpable sense of insanity, determined to scream and explode and bleed with an awareness of our enjoyment.”–Justin Freeman, Anime News Network (contemporaneous)
“Dead Leaves makes no attempt to be anything other than what it is; an action packed violent comedy. The meager plot is only an excuse to get to more action. The show begins with an extravagant opening and keeps on going getting more outlandish and weird as it goes on. And weird it is.”–John Sinnott, DVD Talk (DVD)
“Fans of the weird, the insane and the crazy, take notice. If you haven’t watched Dead Leaves, there’s a whole world of exuberant excellence you haven’t explored (yet), and it’s just begging to be discovered.”–Niels Mattijs, Screen Anarchy (DVD)
Dead Leaves – The Dead Leaves page at production I.G. studios only has a synopsis, directors bio, and a few small stills
IMDB LINK: Dead Leaves (2004)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Dead Leaves (OAV) – The Dead Leaves page at Anime News Network has basic info, incredibly complete technical credits, and mostly outdated links
Dead Leaves (anime) – TV Tropes has a Dead Leaves page (the opening text reads like a review)
LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD LEAVES (2004) – This site’s original 2011 List Candidate review
DVD INFO: The 2004 Manga Video DVD (buy) comes with a load of extras, starting with a fold-out poster of original artwork tucked inside the case. The disc offers the option to watch the film in Japanese or English (and in surround sound or stereo). It has a commentary track with the director and screenwriter which offers little in the way of explanation (although it contains some tidbits about the artists who worked on the project that may be of interest to dedicated anime fans). There are also separate interviews with various cast and crew taken from three different festivals and a behind-the-scenes peek at the Japanese voiceover actors at work. Rounding things out are an ultraviolent Japanese trailer and an odd feature: a drinking game played by the director, writer, and the actor who voiced Retro (not suitable for home play, and given that they’re drinking something that looks like the fluid barbers use to disinfect combs, not many people would dare to).
Dead Leaves was available for a while (and may someday be again) on U.S. cable systems on-demand and Netflix. As of this writing, however, we could not verify that it was available on any streaming service (links claiming to offer the anime often led to a 1998 necrophilia-themed indie horror movie of the same name) except for YouTube (where it once played for free).
(This movie was nominated for review by “NGBoo,” who accurately characterized it as “fast, loud, wicked & filled with ultimate animated weirdos.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)