Lu Over the Wall is the first production by veteran director/producer team Masaaki Yuasa and Eunyoung Choi’s new studio Science Saru. Fans of Yuasa will find this film a stark contrast with his other recent work (Ping Pong, The Tatami Galaxy, Kick-Heart). This is an original film so there’s a lot here for newcomers too and not just the director’s existing fans.
The art style is the first obvious departure from what’s gone before. Gone is the sketchy, free-form flow of Ping Pong; as is the maelstrom of saturated colour from Kick-Heart and the exaggerated expressive characters of Galaxy. During the opening 10 minutes as you’re introduced to the town at the centre of the plot, you’re shown a conservative Japanese fishing town. It’s a little run down and permanently, literally, in the shadow of an enormous wall of rock that rises out of the bay. The colours are muted here and the style is realistic.
The protagonist - Kai - is a gloomy teenager who lives with his father (a middle-manager) and whose mother is absent, having split from the pair in favour of a more exciting life in the city. Kai makes music in his spare time and shares it online under a pseudonym. Two of his classmates discover this and pester him into joining their band. The introduction of these two (Yuho and Kuniko) shows off the hyper-smooth character animation. Combined with the conservative character design and the deliberately dull town, you’d be forgiven for thinking this isn’t a Yuasa film at all...
It is a Yuasa film though and as if to remind you, it pivots sharply just before the titles to tease the appearance of the titular vampire mermaid Lu and her supernatural ability to cause outbreaks of dancing. The film goes wild with this later on, with Science Saru’s investment in Flash as an animation tool paying off in a Tex Avery style hoedown-turned-riot halfway through. The film plays these explosions of activity against quieter, subtler scenes with Lu and Kai hanging out after the sun sets. That deserves special mention for lots of little touches that show the city from Lu’s charming perspective.
The merfolk burn up in the sun, so must stay in the shadow of the wall or only come up to the surface after dark. They exist only as a legend in the town, with no credible merfolk sightings in living memory and those that do believe in them dismissed as cranks and weirdos. Drownings and disappearances are commonly blamed on mermaids, who are said to eat people, so Kai and his friends keep Lu’s identity a secret.
Both this and the recent adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi’s The Night is Short, Walk on Girl emphasise music, singing and dance as parts of their story, as Yuasa explains in his interview for UK-Anime. In Lu it’s a core part of the plot, more so than in ‘Walk on Girl’, in that it brings Kai together with Lu, his band mates and brings him closer to his father. Whether these two forays into the musical represent a new direction for Yuasa or a passing interest remains to be seen but he takes care to integrate it well into the film and make it fit. It doesn’t feel laid over the top like, for example, the two music video interludes in ‘Your Name’. The background music complements this and adds to the charm of the film.
Music and dancing are a theme of the entire film and stand out but they sit in what is otherwise a pretty typical, if dazzling, coming of age story. There aren’t many surprises to be found in the other major plot beats either; with how the townsfolk deal with the merfolk, how cynicism, mistrust and misunderstanding nearly cause a disaster.
It’s also impossible not to be struck by how much this film has in common with Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, an earlier ‘boy with absent parent meets mermaid and has a magical adventure’ theatrical film. While both are family films, Lu is aimed at a slightly older audience and treats its questions with more gravity, but the sulky protagonist is harder to like. There are a lot of threads in this film and some are left dangling unresolved while others are laboured over too much. It also feels somewhat too long.
The film really shines in its world building and how it flips between the drab shadowy reality of the town behind the wall and the fantastical world Lu inhabits. The contrast between the dark side of the wall and the other is already marked in the first few minutes of the film. Later on we see both the underwater world and various flashbacks pop with blocky bold colours and sketchy, dreamy animation. It’s almost a shame that we don’t get to see more of Lu’s life under the sea.
Yuasa has a gift for characterisation even when he works in a more realistic art style. Human characters in the film are introduced and established briskly; bit-part characters are fleshed out sympathetically and given lives of their own. Even the films antagonists, such as they are (and there are never any panto villains), have their own reasons for behaving as they do which are brought to light with a deft touch. Conversely, the merfolk you see the most of are Lu and her father who both remain stubbornly alien. Lu wanders around the town at night with Kai, expressing childlike wonder at every mundane thing one minute and talks about her mother being caught and eaten by humans the next. Her father is an enormous, gregarious shark man who doesn’t speak but communicates with gestures and a huge grin. He spends a large portion of the film in the town hall, discussing something with someone, somehow and yet this doesn’t seem strange at all...
As the film approaches its climax it shows some teeth - the charge across town in broad daylight of the burning, bellowing merman to rescue his daughter is fraught and menacing. this may be a family movie, but it’s not messing around.
Except when it is messing around, of course. There are running jokes throughout the film, touched by the director’s fondness for absurdity but that don’t outstay their welcome.
Lu Over the Wall is well worth seeing. It’s funny, heartwarming and has an overwhelming charm. The art and animation combine to build a wonderful, intriguing world. It’s a little constrained by being a family movie, so doesn’t hit all of the director’s usual highs. I’d especially recommend it to audiences familiar with Studio Ghibli movies looking to try something a bit different.
You can watch Lu Over the Wall in select cinemas on Wed 6th Dec, see http://luoverthewallmovie.co.uk/ for details.