Dead Leaves (2004) Movie Review

“Over the top’ is an expression loosely thrown about by film critics to describe anything a little too far out of the ordinary in terms of violence, sexual content or any other thematic material of a transgressive nature. However, in the case of the Japanese animated film “Dead Leaves,” ‘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. Looking at the credits, it’s easy to see why. The director is Hiroyuki Imaishi, who was the animation director for the brilliantly empty “Fooly Cooly” series, so viewers should have a pretty good idea of what they’re in for. My advice? Just have your Dramamine handy.

The film is about two bizarre looking characters, Pandy, a girl with a pink patch around her left eye, and Retro, a guy with a TV set for a head. The two wake up cold, naked and starving in an empty field outside the city with no recollection of who or where they are. What they do know is that they’re awfully good at causing mayhem and destruction, and wind up leveling a good portion of the city in their search for food, clothes and means of transportation. Of course the cops come after them, culminating in a highway chase that makes all the car chases you’ve ever seen, combined, pale in comparison. They get caught and are sent to prison at the Dead Leaves facility, which resides on what’s left of the moon.

And here’s where things start to get crazy.

The prison is fashioned after a meat packing facility, where all the inmates are bound up in straight jackets like sausages and wheeled around on conveyor belts between their cells, the mess hall and the labor camp. And the less said about the bathroom facilities the better. Throughout all this, we get bits and pieces of a story involving the brutal and corrupt jail wardens, the origins of Retro and Pandy, Pandy’s pink eye, and of course her accelerated jailhouse pregnancy. These tidbits are strung together with scenes of extraordinary violence and reflexively crude humor.

Just about anything you can think of, and many things that you never would have, happen as Pandy and Retro plot their escape. Heck, even Pandy’s unborn child gets in on the action. It’s an ear-splitting sonic assault coupled with a cacophony of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual tricks that threaten to overwhelm themselves into white noise. The whole affair puts me in mind of the sort of thing thought control indoctrinators would use to cleanse the mind when re-educating the masses in films like “A Clockwork Orange,” “THX-1138” and “1984.”

The hyper-kinetic style, vivid color scheme and blistering pace of “Dead Leaves” is also reminiscent of “Liquid Television,” that animated short film series that aired on MTV back in the early `90s. That show was a showcase for the cutting edge in animation technology, from traditional hand-drawn cells to full blown CGI and, for better of worse, storytelling abstraction. The results were usually eyeball searing collections of astonishing and often grotesque visuals strung over frequently incoherent storylines.

But “Liquid Television” was fine because it only offered shorts in 5 to 10 minute bursts, whereas “Dead Leaves” runs a full 55 minutes, which means that once the visual and aural noise settles into the background, the film’s empty core becomes all too obvious. Fortunately, though, the film ends just as abruptly as it begins, so this central shortcoming is of little consequence to the viewer.

Much like the films of Japanese director Takashi Miike, “Dead Leaves” defies being rated on any meaningful scale, so I’ll sit firmly on the fence with this one. Loud, audacious, grotesque and deviant on several levels, “Dead Leaves” is an assault on the viewer’s senses and sensibilities. It’s an exhilarating thrill ride that overstays its welcome and verges on causing a migraine. While it is a brilliant display of what is possible with modern animation techniques, it also calls into question the direction animation is taking. Much like today’s Hollywood , sensory overload is now considered an acceptable substitute for coherent storytelling.

Hiroyuki Imaishi (director) / Takeichi Honda (screenplay)
CAST: Takako Honda …. Pandy
Nobuo Tobita …. Drill
Kappei Yamaguchi …. Retro

Buy Dead Leaves on DVD