Otaku USA Magazine
The Vault of Error: Dead Leaves

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The Vault of Error is both a physical space and a state of being. On one hand, it refers to my collection of anime home video media, a horde of DVDs and Blu-ray discs that still threatens to overflow my living space. This Vault of Error is only kept in check by the advent of online streaming services like those provided by Crunchyroll, Netflix, and FUNimation.

On the other hand, the Vault of Error is also the attitude that comes from spending decades collecting, until you’ve got more anime than you could ever possibly watch, and yet the collection continues to expand, bit by bit, uncontrollably. It’s the sort of otaku mental state that’s impossible to describe to the layperson. The best I can do is compare it to that scene at the end of Akira where Tetsuo accidentally turns into a giant amoeba and engulfs his girlfriend, except I don’t have a girlfriend, and there’s no tiny psychic child here to impede my metamorphosis.

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Periodically, I purge the collection, getting rid of anything that I don’t think is worth keeping or that I’ve replaced with a newer, shinier version. Sometimes this leads to seller’s remorse. Years later I’ll change my mind about a given piece of animation, only to discover that the DVDs that I now desperately desire are long since out-of-print. But even more rarely, I decide to give something a second chance, then I reacquire it … and ultimately I feel doubly-foolish, because I still don’t like it, and now I own it again, so back in the Vault it goes.

I say all of this to preface my experience with Dead Leaves, a 50-minute OVA from 2004, directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi. Recently, Imaishi published a short animated film for Animator Expo entitled SEX and VIOLENCE with MACHSPEED, which reminded me strongly of Dead Leaves. While I pondered my feelings about this, I realized that I hadn’t seen Dead Leaves in well over a decade, although I remembered that it left a sour impression on me. But my opinions on anime have been known to change over time, so I decided to give Dead Leaves another shot. I wanted to see if viewing it with more adult eyes would make a difference, so I checked the Vault, only to realize I had jettisoned my DVD copy ages ago.

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I placed an order with RightStuf and coughed up 13 bucks. In short order I was experiencing Dead Leaves all over again, gawping at Pandy and Retro as they awaken naked and amnesiac in a field. The duo proceed to run amok, creating so much havoc that when captured they’re shipped off to the “Dead Leaves” penal colony in the ruins of Earth’s moon, populated by all manner of mutants, clones, and freaks. Soon Pandy and Retro are staging a prison break, and there’s robots and cyborgs and a showdown with the evil warden. Lots of stuff explodes. Something about under-cover agents and illegal experiments tampering in God’s domain. It’s all kind of a blur, honestly.

Here’s what Dead Leaves is: Highly stylized. Visually imaginative. Exquisitely animated. Jagged. Chaotic. Wild. Brimming with crude humor. Hyper-violent. Cartoonish. Juvenile. It possesses a killer soundtrack and amazing color design. It’s kinetic and volatile and it never settles down, not for a second of its 50-minute run. Something insane is always happening, be it a prison inmate with a giant drill for a penis or a mutant baby emerging from his mother’s womb wielding two pistols and a pacifier. In short, it’s a concentrated, high pressure injection of Hiroyuki Imaishi’s id, jammed directly into your eyeballs at 1000 miles per hour.

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Here’s what Dead Leaves is not: Narratively deep. Buried somewhere in here are characters and the semblance of a plot. There is even a quite beautiful metaphor involving the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies prefaced by wanton consumption, hence the title: Dead Leaves. But the story is so smothered by flashing lights and scenes of explosive violence that I entirely missed it the first time I watched the OVA back in 2004. I almost missed it this time around, because the animation is such an assault on the senses and the jokes are so crude and crass. It takes real effort to watch Dead Leaves, such that by the end of the OVA—it’s not really fair to call it a conclusion—I felt like I’d been running the Red Queen’s race, struggling as hard as I could just to end up where I began.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on Imaishi back in 2004. Since Dead Leaves he’s directed numerous works that are near and dear to my heart, such as Kill la Kill and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. He’s also directed works like Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, which have just as much scatological and sexual humor as Dead Leaves (if not more so), and yet they also have a narrative heft that marks them as more than just idiosyncratic works of animation. And he’s directed stuff like SEX and VIOLENCE with MACHSPEED, which shows that the spirit of Dead Leaves is still alive and kicking within him, like a mutant baby with a pair of Berettas aimed squarely at his audience’s brain.

I’d prefer to experience more works like the former, but if the latter is all we get from now until Doomsday, I can’t really complain, because Imaishi directs with dynamite, and no vault or box or mutant penal colony can contain the raw power of his imagination.

Distributor: Manga Entertainment
Originally released: 2004
Running time: 50 minutes