Nothing Judge Joel Pearce sees shocks him anymore. Except for Gigli.
"Nothing I see shocks me anymore"—Pandy
In the realm of action anime, Dead Leaves is the approximate equivalent of The Family Guy. It does all of the things that most action anime directors realize are too far beyond the boundaries of good taste, and does them with a big smile and a poke in the ribs.
The story, as much as there is one, involves two people waking up naked in a city of the future. Our two anti-heroes are Retro, a boy with a television for a head, and Pandy, a girl with a red patch over one eye. Since neither of them can remember anything from their past, they go and do the next best thing—go on a murderous rampage until they are thrown into a strange prison/mutant lab on the moon. Once there, they escape their shackles, rally the rest of the prisoners, and try to escape and murder every one of the guards in the facility (not necessarily in that order).
And that's about it. On my first viewing, I thought that perhaps there was more to it than that. I thought that maybe the extreme level of violence, culminating in the line from Pandy quoted above saying that she can no longer be shocked by anything, could be a statement about violence and audience desensitization. After all, anime fans pick up movies like Dead Leaves in order to see the crazy violence and fan service, right? Why let a long, drawn out plot and intricate character development get in the way? The cyclical nature of the narrative could suggest that the directors wanted to say something about the downward cycle of violence, and how it affects society. And a number of the characters evoke memories of the early Hollywood animation depiction of minorities, which could be part of some broader exploration of racism and eugenics.
As I watched the film another couple of times and checked out the interviews with the cast and crew, I realized that there was no reason to explore deeper meanings or analyze Dead Leaves on an intellectual level. It doesn't have an intellectual level. Every moment of it is childish. It's like Heavy Metal without the heavy metal. It has a character that's aptly named Dick Drill. It has crude sexual dialogue and poop jokes. It has the plot depth of Quake 3. It feels like Sam Raimi and Jean-Pierre Jeunet collaborating on a Warner Brothers cartoon.
And it's a hell of a fun ride.
For one thing, it's always a fun movie to look at. Production I.G. is noted for the quality of its animation, and Dead Leaves lives up to that reputation. The whole thing looks as though it's been ripped kicking and screaming from a comic book page, with the frames and sound captions intact. It's a great look for the film, and the solid blocks of color help to keep the action clear once the bullets start flying. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is that the action never gets confusing. Even when everything on the screen is moving around, it's easy to tell what's happening. The characters each have a distinct look and move perfectly. The continual action is creative enough to never get repetitive or boring. This is one of the most violent films I have ever seen, but it's never too gruesome to take.
I don't think an American animation studio would ever dare make a theatrical release that's under an hour in length. Manga's willingness to do so is the other thing that makes watching this a lot more fun than it deserves to be. Any longer, and I think it would have worn out its welcome. I remember feeling disappointed when I first watched Production I.G's Blood: The Last Vampire. I wanted to spend more time with these characters, learn more about what had come before and what happened afterwards. I felt no such desire at the end of Dead Leaves. It works as a completely self-contained narrative, without having enough mystery to leave an audience wondering anything at the end.
Fortunately, Manga has put a great deal of care in producing the disc as well. The picture transfer is as good as any animation I have seen, with clean sharp lines and accurate colors. As is usually the case with cel animation, the black level isn't quite as black as it should be, something that ought to be eliminated now that these elements are handled digitally. There are a few brief moments where the transfer can't keep up with what is happening in the animation, but I think it's a limitation of the medium, not a problem in the transfer. The sound transfer is just as good, with a wildly active track that's every bit as dynamic as the film's visuals. The Japanese dialogue is better, as the English voice actors are often much too liberal in their translation. Still, both tracks have plenty of surround use, a thumping bass track and well mixed music.
This release doesn't skimp on the extras, either, although I found them to be the most disappointing aspect of the package. All of the interview segments are long but follow the same formula: Various members of the cast and crew sit on a stage and joke around with each other about being drunk, whether or not the film is better to watch if you are drunk, how much they joked around during production, about Dick Drill, and about how little meaning we are supposed to pull from Dead Leaves. The first one of these was entertaining, but after about an hour of them, I was getting tired of the same old jokes. The commentary track is a bit better, although it is sorely lacking in real content as well. There is some discussion about the changes the project underwent during development, though, which was interesting to hear. The other major extra is some footage of the major voice actors doing their thing. They seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and the ad-libbed lines that they contributed are quite funny.
Essentially an hour-long action sequence, Dead Leaves isn't for the squeamish or the intellectual elite. That said, fans of slick, violent animation will probably have enough fun that they won't notice the relative absence of plot and character development. The DVD has a great transfer and more extras than I wanted to watch, so fans of Production I.G. and gratuitous violence will probably want to pick it up.
Dangerous or not, I have decided to release Retro and Pandy into the unsuspecting world. Don't say I didn't warn you.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
• Director's Commentary
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