It's rare to come across a movie so very difficult to prepare for as Dead Leaves, a 2004 animated film directed and designed by Imaishi Hiroyuki and made by the studio Production I.G. The film's style isn't completely sui generis, and there are films that have come out since its premiere that openly borrow from it, but at best those get us close to the sheer volume of creative madness on display here. There's nothing that can remotely ready one for the sheer amount of Dead Leaves. Which is itself a pretty neat trick, given that there isn't actually all that much of the film: just 52 minutes all told, a nebulous length that's too long for a short and too short for a feature, and ends up adding to the film's overall feeling of being something that shouldn't exist. And possibly, something that doesn't exist; one feels that one hallucinates the film rather than watching it.

I can hardly think of a film for which a plot synopsis is more thoroughly besides the point, but it has the merit of giving us something concrete to grapple with. In a barren, rocky, dark plain, two figures wake up, naked, and without any shred of memory. One is a woman with a grey ponytail, and mismatched eyes; the right one is bright red, in a large discolored magenta circle of skin that, as her fellow amnesiac notes, makes her look like a panda; for this reason, she'll spend the movie nicknamed Pandy (Honda Takako). The other fella is a man whose head is an old cathode-ray tube television - a retro TV, says Pandy, and so he'll be known as Retro (Yamaguchi Kappei). Finding that they're both possessed of exceptional paramilitary skills, they go on a short-lived crime spree, which swiftly ends with their capture by the highly effective authoritarian regime of this dystopian future. They're sent to Dead Leaves, a brutal prison on the remains of the exploded Moon, where there unique skills and anarchic attitudes make them the natural leaders of a massive prison break.

If there's one word you snatched out of all that, I would like for it to be "anarchic", because that's probably the most useful way to think about the movie: anarchic style and content to go along with anarchic protagonists. Dead Leaves is a lot of things, but if all of those things are connected, it's by a fundamental hostility to norms and propriety. It is an astonishingly crass film, sexually and scatologically; an entire comic setpiece is built around the dehumanising way that the Dead Leaves prisoners are forced to defecate on schedule. One major character, Chinko (Tobita Nobuo), has a personality that functionally begins and ends with him having a enormous industrial drill for a penis, almost as large as the rest of body (the rest of his personality is his dogged hope that some point he'll be allowed to anally penetrate Retro). And I could certainly go on. The point being, Dead Leaves is vulgar in a particularly show, high-effort way; not, I think, for the sheer joy of vulgarity, or because anime has a good history of hyper-sexualised characters (at any rate, I think it would be an uphill battle to argue that any of this is erotic on purpose). It seems instead that it's trying to be gross, shocking, and excessive as part of a much bigger strategy of going all-in all the time in attacking polite, nice ways of doing things. Épater le bourgeois, and all that.

And I'm pretty sure it works - I don't entirely know what the film's target is, other than "everything", but it hits that target as hard as hell, over and over, for an unrelenting blast of time. 52 minutes is extremely short, but I don't know how Dead Leaves could possibly be much longer; it's exhausting as it is, and I will frankly admit that I was exhausted a long way before it ended (specifically, at the 14-minute mark, I find myself agog that there could possibly have been so much movie already and still not even a third of the way through). The film doesn't slow down: scenes are short, and they are jam-packed with incident, and while the film as a whole follows Japanese animation tradition in keeping the frame rate down (this was by no means an expensive film, which is another reason for a lower frame rate), it's often the case that different elements in the crowded image are offset from each other, so something is always moving, even if it's just effects animation. Haha, I say "just" effects animation, as though something with this sprawling and messy of a sci-fi world isn't in some ways defined by its effects animation.

The point being, the film is literally constantly refreshing itself, narratively and visually, and that constant shifting fits in with Pandy and Retro's violent renegade attitudes. Dead Leaves is an extremely unstable movie that demands a tremendous amount of commitment and attention from its viewer, as it keeps throwing a constant barrage of stimulation at us for a breathtaking hour. And I think I've gone as far as I can without talking about how Dead Leaves looks - something I've put off not because I think it's unimportant (it is, on the contrary, the most important part of the movie), but because I really don't have the slightest idea how to start. As I said at the start, there's no comparing Dead Leaves to anything else. It's full of eye-searing bright digital colors, painted on character designs and backgrounds that are made up of violent, angular lines and strong geometric shapes. Everything is dominated by heavy black lines that make characters look more like individual fields of color held into a roughly human form. Much of the film is sharply squared-off - there are hardly any curving lines in the whole thing, and spaces in particular feel like collages of polynomial shapes stitched together into an approximation of an enviroment. It is defiantly flat; even when characters are walking towards the camera, the background and the foreground seem like two disconnected flat planes stacked on top of each other.

Put this aesthetic into motion, and you have one of the most dazzling, daunting animated movies I can name. The film is unstable, I said, and nowhere is that truer than its animation. Hell, it's not even stable at the level of the frame: the sides of the screen compress in from all sides, creating different rectangular compositions, and the film launches into split-screens so often that it almost stops registering as a bold choice, and just becomes another part of its overall regime of squares.

But setting that aside, the way the characters move is no less aggressively stylised. The same geometric modularity that makes them look so striking as colored also means that they can flex and bend without much effort - those patches of color just have to change shape. So we end up at something that's surprisingly squashy and stretchy, given how rigid and straight all of the lines are. A huge number of the movements, meanwhile, are accomplished in the form of fast snaps into exaggerated poses. This isn't especially unusual in Japanese animation, but given everything else going on, it feels like one more bit of extreme, aggressive stylisation, particularly as the fast animation and the strong shapes of the backgrounds battle with each other. In one striking moment out of literally hundreds, Retro bounces around a bright white cell at a rate of several bounces per second, while Pandy sits unmoving, watching him, and the sheer amount of contrast - color versus white, movement versus stillness, straight lines versus diagonals - gives it a thoroughly jarring energy, even though in some ways, it's one of the simplest shots in the whole movie.

And that tells us something, yes? That a film could be in so much motion that even one of its "sedate" scenes is a lot to take in - that is a film with a whole hell of a lot going on. I won't say "too much", since too-muchness is the whole point. It's a thrilling and exhausting movie that wants us to feel completely spent at the end of its tiny running time, and I did. Dead Leaves is daunting, overwhelming, and essential, and I was excited by every minute, just as much as I am now certain that it will be a very long time before I dare return to it, for fear of my own sanity.