Friday, 15 April 2016

Dead Leaves (2004)

Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Screenplay: Takeichi Honda
(Voice) Cast: Kappei Yamaguchi (as Retro); Takako Honda (as Pandy); Yuko Mizutani (as Galactica); 666 (as Mitsuo Iwata); 777 (as Kiyoyuki Yanada); Chinko (as Nobuo Tobita)

[The following will be a tie-in with my other blog, 1000 Anime, which you find go to here.]

Synopsis: Two amnesiacs wake up naked near one another in a desert, a city behind them - one is a man with a television for a head named Retro (Yamaguchi), the other is a woman with a red patch mark around one eye named Pandy (Honda). Once they find clothes, they naturally get around to hijacking a car and terrorising the city streets shooting any cop cars that chases after them. When they're finally caught they're sent to a prison on what remains of the moon, ran by a mysterious young woman called Galactica (Mizutani) who lets two mutants, 666 (Iwata) and 777 (Yanada), run the establishment and torment of the prisoners. As more abilities are discovered by Retro and Pandy to their own surprise, and the later gains memories of a greater significance about Galactica, an eventual mass jailbreak is imminent as they and an entire horde of prisoners have to get passed the armed guards and Galactica's two henchmen.

While anime enforces the importance of an entire production crew to make a work, that doesn't mean distinct voices are non-existent. Imaishi however is a completely different individual in comparison to a Mamoru Oshii or Satoshi Kon - he's a sugar rush when he's being entertaining, as mad as a box of frogs at his strangest. One botch and his style could easily come off as tasteless without purpose or too hyperactive - when the hyper sexual tone similar in other anime just comes off as crass, and where the pop culture references cover gaping a charisma and plot vacuum - but he sets a high bar in terms of the quality of his work both in terms of the animation, unless he deliberately uses rudimentary animation for effect, and for the quality of the content of his work. He's unpredictable in an equal opportunity way, and even when the material is purposely trying to offend the viewer with bodily fluid jokes like Panty & Stockings With Garterbelt (2010), his characters are too likable and there's an incredible energy to everything I've seen within his filmography.

Dead Leaves does stick out in his career though, where it shows the trajectory he would go to in work like Gurren Lagann (2007) onwards but is still a directorial debut where his style needed to be refined. This is as much part of the trend of experimental shorts and mini-length one-offs for new talent that appeared in the late nineties to the mid-2000s, from the likes of Cat Soup (2001) to anything from Studio 4°C like Noiseman Sound Insect (1997), very artistically bold works that are in danger of being neglected in this decade unless someone decided to make them available for download on places like iTunes, anime which was made with no target demographic and are usually fascinating in the inventiveness they have.

Dead Leaves is a relentless, chaotic forty or so minutes, where even a series in Imaishi's future like Panty & Stocking for all its similar crude jokes and maniac fight scenes is a lot more carefully structured. The older, shorter work is actually a lot more elaborate in its narrative than the synopsis above described - quite an elaborate one in fact involving spies and the cloning of genetically modified mutants, both misshapen ones and those with superhuman abilities - but alongside its manic tone and the truncated length to work within, there's a deliberate sense that the plot is given to the viewer like a relentless barrage that flows over a viewer. Because of this, the result is as likely to catch hardcore fans of the director off-guard as it would casual viewers from how frantically paced it is.

It also has no qualms in how purposely ridiculous and tasteless it is at points. The difference is that even a work that managed to be more tasteless, Panty & Stocking, had moments of quiet and tangents that break up the pace of the material, while Dead Leaves has no qualms with bullets being wasted and characters being turned into either Swiss cheese from the bullets or exploded guts in such cartoonish manners its far from offensive.  With logic defying gun violence and ridiculous background characters, its feels influenced from videogames as most of the length is an elaborate escape, one where the fact that the plot manages to get away with a tank being acquired by the prisoners is far from something to query but establishes the tone further. Alongside this you get purposely gross or eyebrow raising material based on the basest of human anatomy, from an unexpected sex scene in a jail cell despite the two individuals wearing full body straight-jackets that look like sleeping bags to character designs for the prisoners including a man with a penis head to another with a drill penis called Chinko (Tobita) who becomes a prominent side character with the central duo. To find this stuff inappropriate is pointless when the tone is deliberately off-kilter and absurd, and Imaishi's style manages the rare skill of being able to get away with a lot and yet being so infectious that a person can find it funny even if they find the material disgusting at times or taking the cake when characters end up having to fight giant robots as in later in this anime.

Technical Detail:
As far as back here, Imaishi's work has a dynamic flash in presentation, here taking almost a cue from Western comic books in terms of the framing of scenes and the editing style. Particularly with the film's exaggerated tone, fed by its adrenalizing music score as all Imaishi anime have, this style is particularly suitable for the material even if one can find oneself disorientated by the results at points. Compared to his later work Dead Leaves certainly looks unique even compared to the later Imaishi work, a visual style and character design here that cannot help but evoke British illustrator Jamie Hewlett, the man who brought to life visually the comic book series Tank Girl and the alter-egos of Damon Albarn's Gorillaz project. It couldn't be a coincidence - Retro is a side character from Tank Girl called Tele - but it's far from a questionable practice on Imaishi's behalf with his collaborators to turn their eyes towards Western pop culture they clearly love and reference it, as it's something that he never does to the point of ripping off other material as his work rifts on its own plotlines. In fact for me Imaishi feels like one of the first anime directors to blatantly be influenced by Western pop culture to such an extent barring specific anime like FLCL (2000). He's openly influenced by Western animation particularly, clearly having fed himself on animated shows from Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon like Invader Zim (2001-2004) that people like me and many others grew up with in the nineties onward, and the kinetic nature of those programs alongside their bold visual styles have influenced him in streamlining his visuals into candy coloured fireworks.

This is more significant as, through his work with studio Gainax and his own studio Trigger afterwards, he usually has simpler character designs in his work, usually more cartoonish and even with a work like Gurren Lagann, which is the most stereotypical anime of his career, having a bold, easy to remember look to it and its characters. Unlike most anime where detail especially in character designs is of more important, limiting the amount of movement in scenes baring key ones as much as possible, Imaishi takes influence from Western animation where it's the complete opposite, reducing the amount of detail in scenes but increasing the amount of movement within them, the result of his streamlined style being a greater kinetic tone which allows him to get away with being more ridiculous and allow more fluidity in the action scenes.  

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
[Some spoiler warnings in the following paragraph]
Immediately any work which ends with the already grown up mutant baby of a character, conceived and given birth to in only a few hours, fighting another whose turned into an intergalactic, space caterpillar with Carrot Top red hair is even strange by the standards anime usually sets. Paradoxically however, while this is a work where a man with a drill penis gets shafted on the front of a motorbike intimately to be used as an improvised battering ram, it's  pretty sedate however in comparison to other work. Imaishi even in a more conventional story like his earnest, chest pumping giant robot show Gurren Lagann is liable to have entire galaxies used as projectile weapons in a final boss battle, so he's capable of anything in his stories, to which compared to his later work Dead Leaves is pretty standard and normal. Panty & Stockings may actually be weirder in fact inherently as much for its more digestible style, like Western cartoons where there are two mini-episodes which are usually set around sketches, and how it manages to be the kind of show Cartoon Network would once show on Saturday mornings perverted for adults. Dead Leaves is strange but more for its jackhammer tone as a group of strange miscreants - most designed with over personified body parts or coughing up any form of body fluid - as the only individuals you can attach to. It's certainly not in the annuals of more experimental anime like the already mentioned Cat Soup or Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg (1985), but the result does leave you exhausted in a way after all the colourful carnage is depicted that does qualify it for the Abstract List.

Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Psychotronic
Abstract Traits: Quick pacing; Deliberate Obscuring of Plot; Mutation and Body Horror; Emphasis on Bodily Fluids and Sexuality; Transformation into Monsters; Cartoonish Violence

Personal Opinion:
Wisely, it'll be better to view Dead Leaves only after you've watched other Imaishi work. This does feel like a bull charging through a china shop in animated form for most of its length, reckless and messy as it crashes along through its short running time. Not surprisingly Dead Leaves was a blank squib originally, only with Gurren Lagann immediately afterwards cementing Imaishi's trip to today with a string of hits and cult favourites. The work itself in lieu of his career however is incredibly watchable and inspired in terms of being such a stylish, bold looking action story. While the plot is incredibly simple, the anime is intelligent enough to not feel overstretched because of its short length, and what it does depict while incredibly silly is more than likely more artistically inspired than some anime twice or further longer than its length. It'll be interesting for me, with Kill la Kill (2013) still to see and Imaishi helping new talent in Studio Trigger on work like Inferno Cop (2012) and Ninja Slayer (2015), how his style has evolved over the decade. His last directorial work was a short part of a series of exhibition net animation pieces called Japan Animator Expo;  his entry Sex & Violence with Machspeed (2015) felt like a hybrid of Dead Leaves and Panty & Stocking which was fun but did show a concern that, far from the danger of his work being it becoming too crass or ridiculous in his work, the real danger would be for him to become predictable, precariously falling into a groove of his own clichés.

Interestingly his latest is a sci-fi comedy series which has very short episodes, Space Patrol Luluco (2016), which means we'll have to wait for him to do another full series for a while, (maybe a film one day depending if his style could transition to the theatrical structure), so this question is up in the air, but at least it means that he is able to at least juggle different lengths and tones of his work,  confidence still there that he will remain inventive and entertaining in his work. Particularly with how successful Kill la Kill is beyond anime fans, he's far from hitting a creative slump in many a person's eyes, which is great because it would be depressing if the maniac nature of Hiroyuki Imaishi's work would suddenly become absent from the anime industry.

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