Lu Over The Wall (Yoake tsugeru Rû no uta)
Japan (2017) Dir. Masaaki Yuasa
I suppose if you’re going to riff on someone else’s work you may as well copy the best, which Masaaki Yuasa has done in aping Miyazaki’s Ponyo for Lu Over The Wall but has put his unique spin on it that we don’t really notice. However, given Yuasa’s propensity for the abstract and surreal, there is little chance anyone could confuse Lu with Ponyo.
Kai Ashimoto lives in the sleepy fishing village of Hinashi Town, moving from Tokyo with his father following his parents’ divorce. Kai’s secret hobby of making music earns the interest of two classmates, Yuho and Kunio, to join their band, Seiren. Kai reluctantly attends a practice session on the secluded Merfolk Island but when they start playing, Kai hears someone singing along from beyond the island wall.
He discovers a young mermaid whose tail morphed into legs to allow her to dance to the music. Later that night Kai learns the mermaid is named Lu and he delights her with his own music but the town is very superstitious about Merfolk, so when Seiren play a gig at the village festival, Lu’s appearance causes delight amongst the youngsters but the elders say Lu will bring disaster to the town, and just might be proven right.
One of two films from Yuasa in 2017 – the other being The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl – Lu is the more accessible of his easily recognisable psychedelic stylings, suitable for the whole family, even if younger ones won’t fully understand the story. At least the cutesy character designs, vibrant prime colours and silly comedy will engage them over the drama which very loosely echoes Finding Nemo in Lu being separated from her friends.
For the adults, Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida deliver a cautionary parable on being too quick to judge the unknown and assuming the worst of them. It’s a classic tale of humans being the real monsters with a subtle whiff of commentary about ocean fishing, ironic given Japan’s notoriety regarding whale hunting. But this is only lightly inferred by this writer; instead, fishing is portrayed as a respectable if dull profession for the young.
The other purpose this industry serves is to give the story an antagonist in the form of Yuho’s grandfather and owner of the largest fishing factory in Hinashi, responsible for keeping most of the town employed as well as its prosperity. He has an idea for Merfolk Town, a theme park based around the very creatures that have begat the superstitions and legends of the curse they bring to the town by eating the villagers.
Other residents are less cynical about Merfolk, enjoying the mystique and fantasy about them so the new town will have a readymade audience and when Lu is inadvertently introduced to them at Seiren’s expense, she becomes a sensation. Some are unsure as to whether Lu was a real mermaid or CGI but she becomes the focal marketing point for Merfolk Land.
And we have our money vs. morality issue to pit the youngsters against the adults, all the while slowly introducing a love story between boy and mermaid. It’s more innocent than it sounds since Lu just wants to make friends with people and be liked in return. She’s harmless – except she bites people and animals turning them into mermaids too (ever seen a merdog before?) – and likes dancing to music, causing no trouble at all.
Merfolk can’t stand bright lights so Lu’s appearance at Merfolk World opening is marred by the spotlights aimed at her, causing a King Kong moment as she struggles to find cover in the water but all hell breaks loose instead. Throw in the implosion of Seiren due to Yuho’s jealousy of Lu getting all the attention and Kai trapped in a funk because of his father’s hypocrisy and the fallout of this incident has a wild domino effect on the town.
Yuasa can spin a mean yarn but tends to obfuscate the beauty of the stories beneath his wonderfully inventive and esoteric visuals and extraneous passages of existential and pseudo psychological delirium. In Lu it is mostly the former, in keeping with its appeal for younger viewers, but that doesn’t mean Yuasa’s surreal leanings have been abandoned either – if anything the Merfolk concept seems tailor made for them.
Not limited to the way Lu can manipulate and control water, forming individual blocks to encase herself in to stay wet or manoeuvre boats or objects safely, there is the small matter of her father being a giant, suit-wearing shark able to grow legs to walk on dry land. His interactions with two fisherman mistaking him for a local official is great fun but also shows the folly of not making such rash assumptions.
The toe-tapping musical soundtrack is more than incidental; beyond being integral in the bond between Lu and the humans, it also allows Yuasa to create the spectacular dance sequences. It’s hard not relish in seeing the townsfolk performing synchronised routines while compelled by Lu’s magic, extended to the Fantasia informed psychedelic imagery for the water-based moves with Lu at the forefront.
While the 112-minute run time could have been a little shorter, the only real gripe is how many of the support cast are brought to the fore during the third act without sufficient building of their roles. The climactic big disaster also brings about a mad rush to resolve outstanding issues, like the rift between Kai and his father, with scant acknowledgement because the focus is on the action as the catalyst for any personal bridge building.
But this is a minor quibble. By staying to to his adventurous visual art style whilst telling a universally appealing fantasy story Lu Over The Wall is Yuasa’s greatest work yet, and should see his name ranked alongside Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai as a modern anime director to watch and as a possible – if unconventional – successor to Miyazaki.