Fans of the weird, the insane and the crazy, take notice. If you haven't watched Dead Leaves, there's a whole world of exuberant excellence you haven't explored (yet), and it's just begging to be discovered. As long as you don't mind your fix coming in animated form, there is probably no film out there that can match the pacing, insanity and overall rebelliousness of Imaishi's first feature film. The result is still unmatched today.
I've said it before, but 2004 was a particularly excellent year for Japanese animation. Several high profile titles (think Innocence, Howl's Moving Castle, Mind Game, Steam Boy) all wedged themselves in this one year release slot to compete for best anime of the year. And then there was Dead Leaves, clearly overshadowed by all these big names but using its underdog position to amaze an unsuspecting crowd of animation fans all over the world.
Since its initial release I must've seen the film at least 5 or 6 times, but it never seizes to amaze me with its excruciating pacing and high density weirdness. Every time I watch Dead Leaves I fear time might have diminished the impact of the film, but it still stands proud after all these years and it always manages to surprise me time and time again. Even though the film is only 50 minutes long, it feels as if there is enough content in there to make a feature twice as long while still firmly holding on to the crown of adrenaline-inducing action cinema.
If you're watching this film for the sake of plot and story though, beware that Imaishi has his own unique take on cinema. Whatever plot there is, is shouted and yelled in short sentences of maniacal dubbing. There are several moments where flashbacks are initiated, only to be terminated 15-20 seconds later for lack of interest. There are characters literally saying that any kind of decent explanation of events is just holding things up, so if you can't stomach that you should lower your hopes and ignore this film altogether.
While Dead Leaves is a film that could only have been made in Japan, it's definitely not your average, traditional anime. Its art style is crude and edgy, equally mixing influences of the Japanese and Western world of animation and comic books. While individual frames might still look a little bland, rest assured that the crazy editing will make up for that. Nothing seems to ever stand still, instead everything and everyone moves at a highly exaggerated pace with highly exaggerated moves. There are split screens, 1-second alternating shots, impossible camera angles and shaking cameras to spice things up, all tangled up to create one of the most visually in-your-face cinematic experiences you'll ever encounter. Add to that an impressive level of detail (frame-by-frame exploration of a film has never been as exciting as here) and what you have is a killer visual experience that becomes tangible.
Make sure to choose the Japanese voice track when you watch this film. The Japanese dub is incredibly animate and exciting, sporting many adlibs and improv moments throughout. The English dub lacks appropriate pacing and the white-boy trash cursing isn't half as effective as the Japanese yakuza-inspired dubbing. The score is pretty cool too, with some decent electronic tracks, some nice pumping beats and even some classy drum 'n bass breaks. It is not as daring as the visuals though and as someone who has the proper experience in electronic music there is some obvious room for improvement, but as it stands the soundtrack definitely meets its goals.
But the coolest thing about Dead Leaves is its unabashed approach to the juvenile style of cinema it sets out to deliver. The film is filled to the brim with crude jokes, inappropriate images and a general, shameless lack of good taste. There are subtle sex jokes, obvious sex jokes, drill penises, splatter gore, unspeakable perversions and a complete and utter lack of political correctness that pervade every pore of this film. The thing is that Dead Leaves delivers it with such overwhelming faith and enthusiasm, and with such surprising technical excellence that it will leave you completely flabbergasted. That is, if you can actually stomach the juvenile joy of this production.
Apart from some unfulfilled potential in the soundtrack department, the film has a little trouble one-upping itself during the finale. At that point the film clearly reached the limit of its creators' creativity, which leaves you with a slight presumption that the finale could've been just a little more impressive. By itself the finale is still a piece of incredibly zany cinema, but looking at the things that came before I guess I'm not 100% happy with how the last battle turned out. It's a rather moot point though, if you consider that no other film can match what Dead Leaves as a whole has on offer in the way of adrenaline, action and weirdness.
There is an unexpected purity in the way Dead Leaves presents its material, especially considering the way it renounces all that is considered good taste and proper cinema. For a film that's almost 8 years old, it's quite unusual not to be surpassed by any of its direct competitors (think Redline). It's a real shame that Imaishi never got the chance to direct a second feature-length film, on the other hand it increases the film's unique flavor. Fans of animation and high adrenaline cinema owe it to themselves to check this out, as long as you can embrace the juvenile pleasures of this film there is nothing to stand in your way of pure bliss. Dead Leaves remains one of my absolute favorites and a completely unique experience, even 8 years after its initial release and after countless viewings.