Lu Over the Wall
2018, PG, 107 min. Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Voices by Christine Marie Cabanos, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh, Brandon Engman, Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 11, 2018
Whether it's Texas or Japan, the story of being stuck in a small town with nothing to do except wait for a magical friend is universal. Here, Kai (voiceover all-star Sinterniklaas) is the depressed Tokyo kid stuck in a tiny fishing village, who gets convinced and cajoled by his over enthusiastic classmates Yūho (Sheh) and Kunio (Engman) to join their terrible middle school band. They're as bad as you’d expect until the addition of an unlikely vocalist: Lu, a young mermaid (Cabanos). She’s technically a slightly amorphous ningyo rather than the traditional flaxen-haired siren, and the fisherfolk of the land have a historically bad relationship with the fish folk of the sea, mostly based on misconceptions and miscommunication. At the same time, there’s a failed Mermaid Park, built to cash in on the island’s lore, that really needs a main attraction.
Don’t expect the current wave of super smooth CG animation: Director Masaaki Yuasa (riding high in anime circles for his ongoing adaptation of classic manga Devilman) brings back classic hand-drawn motion with an Adobe assist, and the end result has a giddy, color-drenched fluidity to it, reminiscent of his beloved Yellow Submarine. Even the moments of high danger have a bubbling joy to them: Aquatic slapstick and abandoned dogs turned into merpups set the giggly tone, while Lu flows and flops, all big grins and jellyfishlike dance moves. Relishing her role as Kai’s new little sister, she’s there to bring out the happiness in everyone, even the town’s old guard who grew up believing mermaids eat human young. If the beaches and coves are cursed, then it’s not the fault of anyone with a tail.
This is no Disney mermaid, not least because the conventions of creepy in Japanese culture are very different to what would pass standards and practices in the U.S. (There’s a sequence involving reanimated, dancing herring heads that might make smaller kids wince: For the otaku out there, think a cutesier version of Gyo Ugomeku Bukimi aka Fish: Ghastly Squirming.) But the worst offenses are those committed by humans, with their silly bigotry and bias, and even then they are the sins of idiocy, not malice. Interwoven in all of this is a song about preconceptions, of overcoming the fear of something new, whether it’s mermaids, or letting your kids join a band. It's a simple story of acceptance, with a plainly and charmingly told message that a community isn't about traditions or rules, but understanding. Remember, just because someone looks like a flaming killer whale, doesn’t mean you can't be friends.