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Dead Leaves (2004)

Sharon Mizota

Beyond the gross-out factor, Dead Leaves is also a self-consciously stylish orgy of animation aesthetics and techniques.

Dead Leaves

Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Cast: Kappei Yamaguchi, Takako Honda, Yuko Mizutani, Nobuo Tobita
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Studio: Manga Entertainment
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2004-09-28

In a pre-screening appearance included on the DVD of Dead Leaves, director Hiroyuki Imaishi warns the audience that to enjoy the film, they should lower their moral standards to the level of a 14-year-old boy. The caution is apt: the latest anime from Production I.G. (Kill Bill, Ghost in the Shell) is rife with the explosive gore, bawdy sexual references, and scatalogical humor that characterize much adolescent entertainment. But beyond the gross-out factor, it's also a self-consciously stylish orgy of animation aesthetics and techniques.

The plot is simple enough. Pandy (Takako Honda), a tall, pale beauty with a bright red stain around one eye, and Retro (Kappei Yamaguchi), who has a television in place of a head, find themselves naked in the middle of an open field, with no recollection of how they got there. To secure food and clothing, they embark on a wild crime spree that earns them a trip to the notorious lunar prison, Dead Leaves. They soon discover that the prison is a top-secret cloning facility, its inmates the grotesque victims of genetic experimentation.

The prison setting, with its cast of bizarre inhabitants, affords more than ample opportunity for outrageous toilet humor. Each prisoner is wrapped in a cocoon-like straightjacket with only two holes: one for the face and one for the other end. Like helpless larvae, they are shuttled from their padded cells to the "dining hall," where they are fed through tubes. They are then immediately dispatched to another room, where they are forcibly voided by another set of tubes connected to the opposite orifice. The scene would be utterly nightmarish if it weren't so monstrously light-hearted. A bewildered Retro complains to his neighbor that he doesn't have "to go," only to discover that he not only has no choice, but that he actually enjoys the high-tech enema.

A fascination with assholes and buggery is further elaborated in Chinko, a.k.a. Dick Drill (Nobuo Tobita), whose penis is a huge, metallic drill. A permanent hard-on, Chinko's drill cannot be contained by his straightjacket. It's a literal manifestation of unruly, adolescent male horniness; true to form, Chinko is always looking for an opportunity to "drill" the other inmates, male and female.

While using such homoeroticism for easy laughs, the film posits heterosexuality as downright revolutionary. After Pandy and Retro copulate noisily in their shared cell, they not only receive the adulation of their eavesdropping neighbors ("The sex you had was awesome!"), they are also miraculously able to break their bonds and free themselves.

And what's sex without violence? Most of the film is given over to dense, fast-paced action sequences, in which the hail of bullets, blood, and body parts goes straight for the optic jugular. Extreme, visually bombastic action scenes are nothing new in anime, but Dead Leaves gives them an original aesthetic treatment. Rather than strive for life-like detail, the film employs a flat, comic-book style that emphasizes pattern, repetition, and color over realism. When Pandy and Retro lead the inmates to fight the prison guards, just before the melee begins, the scene cuts to a black screen that slowly fills with the disembodied heads of the guards. The effect is repeated with a motley assortment of the inmates' heads. The effect is jarring and powerful, heightening tension in the same way as a close-up on a single face or gaze might in a conventional treatment. The film also inserts text "sound effects" like "Pow!" or "Blam!" alongside the action, and often splits the screen into multiple panels, echoing a comic book format.

Manga Entertainment executive Kaoru Mfaume calls the film's look "an abstract modern art car crash." In that vein, on the DVD's commentary track, Imaishi draws attention to scenes executed by different star animators. The scenes are so crammed with impossible camera angles and split-second cuts, that the film resembles a cavalcade of virtuoso moments, like solos in a jazz performance. In the opening chase sequence, Retro leaps gracefully from car to car, unscathed amid a barrage of police fire, and Pandy single-handedly takes down a giant predatory robot. The showdown between prison guards and inmates becomes a rain of body parts and anachronistic spent shells. And the film's final sequences are simply baffling, morphing from a cartoon world into something resembling a drug-induced hallucination, complete with giant cosmic caterpillar and a mutant gun-slinging baby.

The rest of the DVD extras illuminate, not only the process of creating the film, but also the attitude behind it. A panel discussion with the cast and crew culminates in a five-minute discussion of feces, in particular a variety dubbed "twirl shit." Footage of a drinking game, "Truth or Doubt," shows each of the obviously drunk filmmakers telling a behind-the-scenes story about the film. The others have to guess whether or not it's true, and those who guess wrong must imbibe a mysterious blue cocktail. One of Imaishi's stories is a description of a background detail in a fight scene in which a penis gets cut off and lands in someone else's mouth.

Such casual depravity suffuses Dead Leaves with adolescent glee. While the film revels in perversity for perversity's sake, its saving grace is that it wraps juvenile defiance in a savvy, art-smart package. Closer in spirit to U.S. counter-culture classics like Fritz the Cat, or Frank Miller's graphic novels than most anime, it's one wild ride, gorgeous and startling. Though it repeats timeworn rebellion narratives, it looks oh-so-cool in the process.

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