For Japanese animation aficionados whose primary point of reference is the output of Studio Ghibli, Masaaki Yuasa’s vibrant, toe-tapping fable Lu Over the Wall will come as a modest surprise. This isn’t to say that the sprightly Lu isn’t influenced to an extent by Ghibli’s iconic works. Heck, it’s unthinkable that any kid-friendly Japanese animated feature post-1990 or so wouldn’t evince at least a drop or two of Ghibli’s stylistic DNA in its genome. In the case of Yuasa’s feature, its clearest antecedent from Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s legendary studio is Ponyo (2008), in that the films share some plot and tonal similarities.
However, this facile comparison does a disservice to the vitality and range of Yuasa’s artistry – and that of his new studio, Science Saru, which claims Lu as its second feature film (following The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl). With anime series such as The Tatami Galaxy (2010), Ping Pong (2014), and Space Dandy (2014), Yuasa has evinced a willingness to flit jubilantly and hyperactively between myriad styles of animation. In Lu Over the Wall, this tendency is, if somewhat reigned in, still on energetic display.
At any given moment, the film might suddenly swerve from its hand-painted backgrounds and “orthodox” anime character designs into impressionistic scribbles, whimsical Flash-style shapes, or even LCD pixel animation. Its characters sometimes abruptly take on the squishiness of the anthropomorphic animals in a Tex Avery short, or mutate into grotesque parodies that seem to be intruding from a Ralph Baskhi or Sylvain Chomet feature. In short, Lu is a gratifying and delightful sensory experience, even if its fairy-tale sensibility is thoroughly familiar and its story never quite justifies its long-ish running time.
Set in a contemporary Japan from some fantasy-flavored alternate reality, the film concerns one Kai Ahimoto (Shōta Shimoda in the original Japanese/Michael Sinterniklaas in the English dub), a sullen young teen in the rural fishing village of Hinashi. Kai lives with his earnest, admonishing father and his taciturn grandfather, who own a small fishing charter company and a parasol-making business, respectively. Fishing is about all sleepy Hinashi has going for it, making it a fatally dull place to fritter away one’s adolescence. (Kai, especially, feels the pinch of discontent, as he’s a transplant from Tokyo, where his mother still lives, post-divorce.)
Kai’s outgoing classmates Yūho (Minako Kotobuki/Stephanie Sheh) and Kunio (Sōma Saitō/Brandon Engman) alleviate the boredom by practicing in secret for their rock band, Siren. They’re thrilled when they discover – through some social-media sleuthing – that Kai is an electronic musician, and immediately strong-arm him into joining their group. The brooding Kai is reluctant to contribute, but he’s eventually lured by the band’s secret rehearsal space: an abandoned theme park on nearby Mermaid Island.
Hinashi, it turns out, has an ancient connection to the ningyo, the musical merfolk who are said to dwell in the shipwreck-strewn waters offshore. Long ago, the townsfolk walled off the natural passages in the sea cliffs that shelter their cove, so that the allegedly vicious, human-devouring merfolk would no longer be able to approach the village. Kai’s long-term fascination with these purportedly mythological beasts is stoked by repeated glimpses of a strange creature swimming playfully in the inlet just outside his house. Kai’s music seems to attract this diminutive mer-girl, who one day pays him an alarming visit by forcing a magical, watery pseudopod through his bedroom window. Later, after his bandmates add Kai’s electronic percussion and keyboards to their music and turn the volume up to 11, the mermaid finally reveals herself to the whole trio, in all her doe-eyed, turquoise-haired, squeaky-voiced glory.
Identifying herself as Lu (Kanon Tani/Christine Marie Cabanos), the mermaid is enamored with Siren’s J-pop-tinged rock music, and under its influence her fish’s tail transforms into a pair of humanoid legs, whereupon she proceeds to sing and dance frenetically. Apart from improving the band’s sound, her vocals have a beguiling effect on humans, who find themselves compelled to join in with manic, choreographed dance routines. Like all mermaids, the gregarious, fun-loving Lu also exhibits a sorcerous mastery of water, allowing her to summon and shape the element into enormous, gelatinous blocks, towers, and walls. What’s more, a merfolk’s bite can transform living beings into hybrid fish creatures, an ability Lu demonstrates to adorable effect on a shelter full of stray dogs, liberating the resulting mer-puppies into the sea. (Further amplifying the pseudo-vampiric aspects of the otherwise charming Lu, mermaids are apparently burned by the touch of the sun.)
Kai and his friends eventually end up incorporating Lu – hidden, amusingly enough, inside a plastic cooler – into a public performance in front of the whole town. Predictably, the charade quickly crumbles, and people of Hinashi abruptly discover that merfolk are quite real. YouTube videos of Lu’s dancing go viral, reporters start clamoring for interviews, and Yūho’s grandfather, a local tycoon in a Stetson, gets it in his head to capitalize on the mermaid craze by re-opening the theme park. All these sudden changes don’t sit well with Kai, who is concerned that this newfound attention isn’t exactly in Lu’s best interest. (Truth be told, he’s also a bit jealous that his secret, singular bond with the mermaid suddenly feels not-so-special.)
There’s quite a bit more to the plot, but Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida do a commendable job of weaving it all together in a way that is authentically interconnected and yet snug, establishing a wonderfully self-contained little world in the village of Hinashi. Which isn’t to say that the setting feels unduly stifling or hermetic its small-town quaintness. Yuasa incorporates modern social media into the plot in a manner that is thoroughly unobtrusive, and there’s a consistent sense in Lu Over the Wall of a larger (although perhaps less magical) Japan beyond the town’s humble confines.
As the story rolls on, the film’s fantasy elements become increasingly surreal and outlandish. Lu’s gargantuan father – a mute, anthropomorphic shark in a business suit covered with wriggling remoras – eventually appears in town, to offer his services at the chamber of commerce as a “consultant” for the local fishing industry. In one of the film’s gleefully absurdist touches, the villagers seem to take this development entirely in stride, and in short order this 20-foot-tall shark-man is regarded as an upstanding member of the community. That all changes, of course, when the mood of the town shifts – as it inevitably does in fairy tales about magical outsiders – and Lu is threatened by a fearful mob.
Although striking, the film’s more bizarre elements are just the delightfully oddball trimmings on a standard “two worlds” folk tale about the relationship between land and sea. (Viewers who are familiar with Celtic stories will recognize some loose parallels with the selkie myth.) Yuasa’s film doesn’t cover any new thematic ground, but it doesn’t need to, functioning well enough as a mild, affirmative tale of friendship, acceptance, and mutualism. The closest thing to a villain in this story is Yūho’s father, who goes a bit berserk in the third act when he comes to believe – erroneously – that the merfolk have kidnapped his daughter. Otherwise, the only malevolent forces to be found in Lu are ordinary human failings like fear and greed.
The film starts to sputter somewhat in its final stretch. The climactic sequence – in which an ancient curse deluges the village with luminous green floodwaters – grows a bit aimless and repetitive, notwithstanding all the catastrophic action. Yuasa seems to lose his otherwise firm grasp on the story as the film spends an excessive amount of time gawking at mermaid magic and following the protracted back-and-forth of rescue efforts. It certainly doesn’t help that the aforementioned curse is never satisfactorily explained, nor that the geography of the region – which is crucial to the unfolding drama – remains frustratingly hazy to the end.
As a work of animation, however, it’s hard to find fault with Lu Over the Wall, which is consistently endearing in its visuals. The characters – who shade into a “kiddie TV” style a bit more than late-model Ghibli fare – are thoroughly appealing, and the backgrounds are properly lush and detailed. Taking a page from the high-school dramedy genre of Japanese animation, Yuasa isn’t afraid to liberally adorn his twee fantasy story with laptop and smartphone screens. The film's dabbling in a plethora of animation styles – from a goofy Max Fleischer-indebted dance number to Sesame Street-style Crayola explainers – keeps viewers on their toes in a satisfying way. Ralph Bakshi’s multi-generational fantasia American Pop (1981) is a subdued yet vital point of reference for Yuasa's film, in terms of both its musical spirit and flamboyant style. Ultimately, it’s Lu’s sense of dizzy visual pluck that elevates the film above its sweet but straightforward fairy-tale foundation.