The term “over-the-top” will not suffice for something like Dead Leaves: it’s more of a fall-off-a-cliff-and-no-bottom-to-hit. It is not so much a form of entertainment as it is an attack on the senses, where the barest germ of a story is used to fuel one transgressive blast of imagery after another. In the words of an old beer commercial, it refreshes the parts other anime cannot reach.
I’ve seen Dead Leaves twice now, and what I find most unnerving about it is not the thing in itself but the implications of its very existence. First there was stuff like Excel Saga, which machine-gunned everything in sight for the sake of parody and moved four times faster than anything else out there. Now comes Dead Leaves, which moves four times faster than Excel Saga and has proportionately less to hold it back — you know, little things like story, characterization, and plot. I was reminded of Ken Russell saying that in the future all movies would be twenty minutes long, with all that boring people stuff left on the cutting room floor.
To say that Dead Leaves pushes the envelope (in terms of animation, or imagery, or what have you) isn’t so much praise as it is merely description. Every trick in the book, from split-screen imagery to slow-motion to X-rays to rotoscoping, gets thrown at the screen, so they deserve points for at least being completist in their quest for total overkill. I dunno, though. Is this what animation, or filmmaking in general, is going to be like in the future? Just a mindless barrage of sensation, like the stuff spilling out of the TV sets in George Lucas’s dystopian THX-1138?
Dead Leaves opens with two bizarre mutants — the vaguely feminine Pandy, so named because of the blotch over one eye, and the TV-for-a-head Retro. They wake up naked, cold, starving, and without a clue as to who they are. But they quickly discover they’re very good at creating mayhem, and devastate a sizable chunk of the city they’re in for the sake of a meal and a set of wheels. This of course brings the cops after them, in a freeway battle that makes the thirty-cop-car pile-up in The Blues Brothers look downright staid in comparison. Retro and Pandy put up a fight, but in the end they’re busted and sent to prison.
Prison, in this universe, is the Dead Leaves facility on (what’s left of) the moon. There, Pandy and Retro are packaged up like sausages in straitjackets, wheeled about via conveyor belt to meals and work, and have their feces liposuctioned right out of their intestines on schedule. They’re no less weird than the rest of the inmates, who are also reject clone mutants like the two of them. (The design team has great fun giving each one of the other prisoners their own bizarre physical attributes; one of their buddies was ostensibly patterned after the salaryman in Tetsuo — or, rather, a very specific physical attribute of that character that I will leave to your imaginations.)
This is of course no fun, and it isn’t long before Pandy and Retro are breaking not only their own chains but everyone else’s. Jailbreaks do not sit well with the two vicious wardens of the prison, Three-Six and Three-Seven, who yank levers and unleash various robot hordes to make the rioting prisoners’ lives very miserable. While all this is unfolding, though, Pandy encounters various weird clues about her past life: What is this strange storybook tale that keeps running through her head? And why does her eye tingle so viciously in the presence of the bad guys? And how did she manage to get several months pregnant in only one day? And —
There’s a lot more, of course, but the main reason for Dead Leaves’s existence is to give us a battering of the senses, to explore every conceivable (and inconceivable) visual excess short of pure white noise. At one point Retro and Three-Six don robot battle suits and blow the cheese out of each other at pointblank range; by the time they’re finished, both are standing on mountains of empty shell casings. (The same gag was used, more or less, in Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus, but he went one better: after the point-blank gunfight, a whole fusillade of bullets, fused head-to-head, dropped to the ground.) Pandy’s unborn child even gets into the action, too, bringing a new definition to the term “born to kill.”
Production I.G are among Japan’s most technologically sophisticated and artistically accomplished animation studios. They’re most famous right now for having done the animated segments for Kill Bill, but they are also responsible for the Sakura Taisen movie, the vastly underappreciated Kaidohmaru and the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series. The breadth and diversity of these projects is a good hint as to how skilled they are, and they’ve invested Dead Leaves with all the wizardry and prowess they can muster. Imagine one of KMFDM’s album covers springing to life and fusing with Ralph Bakshi’s bastard offspring, and you’ve got something like the look-and-feel of Dead Leaves. It’s worth seeing once, if only to soak up the crazy atmosphere they’ve created.
Three-Six and Three-Seven gear up to terminate with extreme prejudice,
while Pandy and Retro have to deal with accelerated parenthood.
But as visually impressive as Dead Leaves is, there’s not much inside. It’s a thrill ride that verges on becoming a migraine headache. Students or buffs of animation will probably want to study it in more detail than that, but for the rest of us, one go-round will suffice — if even that. What’s most disheartening about it, though, is the way it’s being praised as one of the Next Big Things in animation, as if total carnal overload were the only path left to the art form. At one point late in the action Pandy gasps, “You know, nothing I’ve seen shocks me anymore.” She could have been speaking for the prospective audience for Dead Leaves.