A woman and a man with a retro-style TV for a head find themselves sitting across from each other with no memories of their pasts. They are compelled to go on a violent crime spree, which ends with them getting arrested by the police and thrown into Dead Leaves prison. From there, they stage a break-out and fight through hordes of prison security before finding out what their incarceration was really about.
I’m reminded of a quote from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The Federation President says: “Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.” Obviously, that’s a rubbish quote. But in the context of this Dead Leaves review, it carries a certain wisdom to it. Just because you can make a movie about a guy with a television head and 45 minutes of nonstop gunfights, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you must, or should, or that it’ll even be any good. This most basic morsel of logic, apparently, was completely overlooked by executive producer Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and Production I.G.
Sometime after the jailbreak scene, during what appeared to be an interminable chase scene, I thought to myself “it’s got to be pretty close to the end.” I checked the time marker and it was only about halfway. If something can distort your sense of time to such a degree, it usually means it’s either really good or really bad. In this case, it means Dead Leaves is a godawful abomination. But the worst part is not that I actively hate it. No, that would indeed mean it produced an emotional response. Dead Leaves failed to do any such thing, distilling my reason for watching it to the most barebones of reasons: I wanted to write a review, so I had to watch it all the way through.
This OVA is like a gen x-er’s adolescent fantasy put to screen, except it was released about 20 years past due. The stupid soundtrack, the nonstop combat, the sassy anti-heroes, they all reek of the mental masturbation of a rebellious teen run through a filter to make everything more X-TREEEEEME. But for a work so frenetic and hyperactive, it still somehow manages to be tedious. This is an anime involving superpowered beings, a complete disregard for reality, massive action set pieces, and some unbelievably ridiculous characters. And yet somehow, it never once entertained me. Think about that. Not one frame of animation produced anything even vaguely resembling excitement in me. Dead Leaves is not an anime, it’s a goddamned magic trick.
You get a mostly disposable cast, with the two main characters being Pandy (the woman) and Retro (TV-head guy). Pandy is cool, collected, and sassy whereas Retro is hyperactive and disrespectful of authority. How much does this read like the premise to an 80’s comic book written by a 14-year-old?
The rest of the cast is literally disposable. They’re all clones, so if one dies, there is another clone ready to act as a replacement (although why you’d want to replace an inmate is lost to me). The fact that the prison guards and civilians all have the same expressionless faces is an obvious metaphor for the establishment. And since it’s the establishment, you have to fight it, man.
Throughout the OVA there are maybe two dozen lines of dialogue. And in those lines, you eventually find out why Pandy and Retro lost their memories, and what the deal with Dead Leaves is. All of this adds up to pretty much no effect, and that’s a pretty good analogy for the characters right there. There is nothing that makes them interesting, nothing that makes their sass or attitude worth watching. Pandy and Retro are simply there because hey, the guns aren’t going to fire themselves. Because of that, the production is robbed of its drama, excitement, and indeed any other human connection. There’s nothing at stake, nothing to make you care about the outcome of the absurdly long chase scenes and gunfights. It would be like having to go to a little league game that your kid wasn’t playing in.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Production I.G. They’ve always gone for style over substance, prioritizing the visual and animation techniques over proper storytelling. It’s the same deal with Dead Leaves, except the visuals aren’t even that good. The overall style is reminiscent of old-school American comic books and adult-oriented cartoons, which is fine. The bold lines, sharp angles, and striking use of primary colors lends it a distinct feel (which, by the way, is still trying way too hard to be X-TREEEEEME). But the animation work isn’t any good. It’s choppy and chaotic, making it way too hard to see what’s going on. It’s too hard to track any of the characters or make sense of what’s happening. And instead of going for some creative combat action, director Hiroyuki Imaishi’s way of upping the ante is to literally just put more bullets on the screen. The same single-mindedness can be found in the sound design. Need voice acting? Overact all your lines! Not enough excitement? Turn up the techno!