(2018—Director: Masaaki Yuasa)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“To the new and improved Seirèn! Rock on! Rock on!” — Band members Kunio (Sôma Saitô, dubbed by Brandon Engman), Yūho (Minako Kotobuki, dubbed by Stephanie Sheh), and Kai Ashimoto (Shōta Shimoda, dubbed by Michael Sinterniklaas)
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Potential spoilers below
I mentioned in last week’s review for Tully how mermaid imagery pops up throughout the runtime. It did not occur to me that I would return a week later to discuss mermaids again. Whereas Tully is a grounded dramedy about motherhood, Lu Over the Wall* is an anime fantasy in which a cheerful mermaid enlivens the life of a moody and soft-spoken middle schooler with an ear for music.
Co-written with Reiko Yoshida and first released in Japan last May, Lu Over the Wall half-marks writer-director Masaaki Yuasa’s return to the big screen since his 2004 cult feature directorial debut Mind Game. (“Half-marks” because Yuasa’s other 2017 feature The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl came out in Japan one month before Lu.) If Yuasa wishes to follow his past decade-and-a-half of small screen projects with more features henceforth, then this colorful family film is a fantastic template for the future.
The isolated coastal village of Hinashi Town holds little future for anyone not involved in commercial fishing, and timid middle schooler Kai Ashimoto (Shōta Shimoda, dubbed by Michael Sinterniklaas) knows it. A former Tokyo native who now lives with his divorced fisherman father and umbrella-making grandfather, Kai finds solace in uploading self-composed songs onto the internet. This runs against Hinashi Town’s notorious paranoia towards the music-sensitive ningyo, or merfolk, who may or may not inhabit the adjacent cove.
Kai’s uploads draw the attention of two classmates, bassist Yūho (Minako Kotobuki, dubbed by Stephanie Sheh) and guitarist Kunio (Sôma Saitô, dubbed by Brandon Engman). The two invite the reluctant Kai to join their band “Seirèn” and to practice with them on the nearby Merfolk Island. Right away, Kai’s bright new arrangements attracts Lu (Kanon Tani, dubbed by Christine Marie Cabanos), a ningyo girl with a merry singing voice and infectious dance moves. Lu and the band encourage Kai to open himself up to life’s many possibilities.
For Kai, that is as easy as keeping Lu’s existence a secret.
One of Lu Over the Wall’s sneakiest strengths lies in its three pre-teen central characters. In a medium often catering to teen audiences, Lu Over the Wall’s story showcases heroes stuck between childhood’s naïve lust for life and adolescent self-doubt. The precocious child of young divorced parents, Kai carries wisdom and wounds beyond his years. These play into his isolation, lack of self-honesty, and general unhappiness. Yūho expresses sensitivity to criticism and jealousy, then brushes them off as though nothing happened. That leaves Kunio, who plays it cool with a walk and talk that reminds me of my brazen behavior amongst my peers in elementary school. To all three characters, the world beyond their small hometown beckons.
Director Yuasa’s signature animation style takes over through Lu and the musical exuberance she brings to the main trio and to the people of Hinashi Town. The exaggerated fluidity reminds one of 1920s-era Walt Disney and especially Tex Avery, whom Yuasa considers his spiritual teacher in exaggerating character motion to support a gag. The sketchy and semi-improvised designs and motions reflect the wackiness of Bill Plympton. Combine those influences with the music of Takatsugu Muramatsu and Lu Over the Wall’s joyous dancing scenes (among other moments) take on a manic and surreal quality. They leave viewers either tapping their feet, shimmying in their seats, or gaping at the screen in amazement.
Yet zany musical sequences cannot sustain the anime fantasy in its entirety, however. Many compare Lu Over the Wall with Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (henceforth shortened to Ponyo). Both have a boy and a mermaid meeting at a seaside village, culminating in a rising flood that the heroes must overcome and reverse in some way. Ponyo and its much-younger protagonists carry a simpler storyline that, while stretched, capture the soothing and sublime beauty expected of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
Lu Over the Wall settles for its initial setup’s expected outcome, accompanied by a few underdeveloped subplots whose hasty resolutions threaten to overstuff the movie’s last act. Two involve Kai’s grandfather and Hinashi Town’s “Granny Octopus”. Both allegedly lost loved ones to merfolk in the distant past, but their regrets and unending disdain for the fabled creatures feel too intermittent to produce much of an emotional impact. The most amusing subplot follows Lu’s father, a humongous shark in a three-piece suit. Audiences will liken him to Totoro from Miyazaki’s 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro. By having Lu’s shark father enter the movie sooner, Yuasa and Ms. Yoshida could have scripted a concrete reason for having him infiltrate Hinashi Town’s fish processing trade. His inclusion, while funny, ends up becoming no more convenient than having him come out of nowhere in time to rescue Lu.
Those expecting a kid’s version of Prince’s Purple Rain from 1984 or 2017’s Baby Driver will leave the theater disappointed. Lu Over the Wall is very much a coming-of-age tale about pre-teens, for pre-teens. Writer-director Masaaki Yuasa and his animation team at Science Saru bring abundant energy to the memorable dancing scenes. Yet perhaps the anime fantasy’s most heartfelt sequence is Kai and Lu’s overnight hangout—two kids from two different worlds, comforted by their newfound friendship, with the red and white lights of passing traffic and the neighboring skylines in the background.
Between Lu Over the Wall; The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl; and the intensely, intensely mature Netflix series Devilman Crybaby, Masaaki Yuasa has had a banner 2017-2018. (With Lu and Devilman’s close release dates, Yuasa has provided anime’s answer to Martin Scorsese directing 2011’s Hugo, followed by 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street.) Distributor GKIDS would do best to also release The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl in North American theaters before 2018’s end. Time will tell if Masaaki Yuasa, Sunao Katabuchi, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai, and a few others can lead the post-Miyazaki era of standalone anime features for years to come.
*The informal Hepburn romanization of the film’s original Japanese title is “Yoake Tsugeru Rû no Una”, which literally translates to “The Song of Lu, the Dawn Announcer” (other international title renderings here).
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.