Dead Leaves is the very definition of style over substance, but don't let that stop you from seeing it. The style is so compelling, you won't miss the substance. The imagery, the animation, the frantic, non-stop action, are mesmerizing.
Story arc, shmory shmarc. Sometimes you just gotta let the animators run wild. Dead Leaves is only 55 minutes long, but it has enough action to fill 10 movies. It was directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, who specializes in fast-paced, hyper-stylized animation.
There is a mixture of art styles, including a slick and strange sort of art deco abstraction with lots of bold straight lines against flowing organic shapes. There is also a more traditional comic book noir style with pure black shadows and sharp shapes of color. There are anime tropes, like split screens, motion lines, and extreme close-ups. It’s all an exuberant firehose of assorted imagery.
There is a science fiction narrative somewhere under all the explosions and screaming. The two protagonists, Pandy and Retro, begin the film with amnesia, and slowly come to realize that they are a pair of mutant spies who have escaped from a prison on the moon. Their backstory comes to them in random flashes that mix in with the action. Then, slapped on top of that, is a coded symbolic prophecy that wheedles its way into the fray like a reoccurring dream. The story is as jumbled and chaotic as the images, and together they fuel the relentless pace.
There’s sex too, and fortunately, it isn’t the traditional anime fare where a thin and pale waif of a woman is ravaged by a muscle-bound, macho asshole. The sex in Dead Leaves is mostly played for humor. The two protagonists go at it while both of them are bound in straitjackets. There are lots of dick jokes and fart jokes and semen squirting jokes, and a guy with a giant drill bit for a penis. It’s all just part of the onslaught. As a result of Pandy and Retro’s awkward tussle, Pandy gets pregnant. Later when she is in the middle of a fight, a tiny hand, holding a giant pistol, emerges from her nether regions and blows her opponent away. It’s a lot to take in.
Dead Leaves was released in 2004 by Manga Entertainment and Production I.G. It doesn’t come from a manga or television series, it’s a one-off ejaculation of creativity. It would be very difficult to sustain such an anime over numerous episodes. The closest thing would be Imaishi’s Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, an adult television series that follows two fallen angels, anarchist sisters named Panty and Stocking, who fuck, kill and make snarky comments like some deranged hentai version of the Powerpuff Girls.
One of the strengths of the anime genre is its variety. Personally, what I look for are directors who find interesting ways to use the medium. Dead Leaves couldn’t work as a live-action film. I suppose with a billion-dollar budget and a ton of CGI you could get close, but animation allows an artist a fluid medium where 2-dimensional images can freely exist alongside 3-dimensional ones, along with text and movement to create a uniquely dynamic arena. Above all, Dead Leaves is a tour de force of craft. Its virtuosity isn’t expressed in storytelling or character development, but in a mastery of rendering, composition, movement, and timing.
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