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Review: ‘Lu Over the Wall’

Masaaki Yuasa’s beautifully animated Japanese tale of how a once-thought dangerous mermaid helps both a young man and an entire town discover new paths in life through honest communication. 

Half human and half fish: mermaids. Since we’re talking about a film here, you might immediately think of Miyazaki’s Ponyo, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, or perhaps even the tale of Hans Christian Andersen. But mermaids have been a part of human storytelling for centuries. And they’re always dangerous, as the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey illustrate. In ancient Japan they are called Ningyo, and they are indeed omens of bad things to come.

In Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall mermaids and even mermen are back to tell another tale of human-nature interaction. In doing so, Yuasa taps into an old vein to tell a very human story. This time, the omen isn’t too bad at all.

In the small fishing village of Hinashi, Kai Ashimoto leads a quiet and somewhat reclusive life with his father and grandfather. He doesn’t communicate well, and in a small town, that’s definitely a problem. Hinashi is the kind of place people try to escape – often to Tokyo – but end returning to after their dreams don’t materialize. Everyone knows everyone.

To pass the time in this slow and idyllic coastal landscape, Kai writes songs by himself. After an attempt to anonymously upload his work online goes wrong, he finds himself, albeit reluctantly, in a band with his classmates Kunio and Yuho. The band is called SEIRÈN, of course. As Homer’s Sirens lured men with their songs, so Kai’s music calls to the mythic creatures under the sea. Enter Lu: a mermaid with a talent for song and dance who will change their lives forever.  

Lu Over the Wall reminds me why I love feature length Anime films not dependent on an existing series or manga. Freedom. Freedom to create and tell a story. Although the mermaid tale is old and has been reused for centuries, Lu doesn’t feel like a template or a fan driven piece, the problem with a lot of Anime series, let alone Hollywood films. Sure, Lu is the other, the source for current and past problems within the community of Hinashi. Since ancient times, the townspeople have viewed them as dangerous. Even some of its elderly residents have stories of loosing loved ones to the bite of Merfolk.  So we definitely get our expected town uproar over the reappearance of a mermaid. The pitchforks, or in this case, spears, definitely come out. But the looming conflict between town and Merfolk isn’t what Lu Over the Wall is about. It’s about communicating, especially in the context of our dreams and aspirations.

Lu’s function is to help Kai grow as a young adult, to help him ultimately communicate his feelings to his family and friends. Merfolk can be dangerous, but that doesn’t mean they actually are. That is the principle story arc. And as a message, it’s a good one. Talk! Tell people how you feel! But there is another theme interwoven into this story, which is perhaps even more important: “be honest with yourself,” Consistently throughout this film we are introduced to characters that went to Tokyo to live their dreams but ended up back in their small town. Nevertheless, in a town where you either fish, work in the fish industry, or make umbrellas, these characters are never depicted as failures. In being honest with themselves, they discover new and unexpected paths. Kai’s position on life must change, and his world is actually filled with individuals who were capable of altering their perspective.  

In telling the story of Kai and Lu, Yuasa and his Science SARU studio create an impressive work of art. Psychedelic, in a press release, has even been used to describe the film due to the multiple vivid colors in certain scenes. I would also add the often fluid or liquid feel to the animation, especially the underwater landscapes. As for Lu, her father, and the other Merfolk, their depiction is a delicate balance between the familiar human and the supernatural beast to be feared – the spirit of ancient mermaid folklore is alive and well. More importantly, the overall aesthetic of the animation looks back to Yuasa’s work on The Tatami Galaxy and that desire to shift from the Anime norm. Lu Over the Wall may be a film, but it’s also very much a painting in its visual and musical world. 

Winner of the Grand Prize at the Annecy Animation Festival, GKIDS is releasing Lu Over the Wall in select theaters throughout the US on May 11th. As a family-friendly film, this is another example of GKIDS bringing exceptional animation to the big screen.