Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Energetic Animation with a Powerful Heart
Co-writer and director of Lu Over the Wall Masaaki Yuasa (Mindgame, Genius Party) is no stranger to unique animation. He’s worked as a key animator on anime series such as Samurai Champloo, Lupin the Third: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Devilman: Crybaby, he worked as an animation director on Shin Chan and Space Dandy, and he was responsible for one of the most bonkers-in-the-best-kind-of-way Adventure Time episodes (the season six episode, “Food Chain”). Lu Over the Wall is written by Yuasa and Reiko Yoshida (Girls und Panzer, Blue Exorcist: The Movie). At its core, Lu Over the Wall is about a mermaid who comes ashore to make friends and dance to any sort of music. The “human fish” is referred to as a supernatural beast or yokai known as a ningyo.
Lu Over the Wall follows Kai Ashimoto, a middle school student who is on the verge of entering high school. Kai is depressed to an overwhelming extent. He hates his studies, is sick of the seafood worshiping demeanor of the town he lives in known as Hinashi Town, and refuses to be a part of his family’s business which specializes in fishing boat rentals and making umbrellas by hand. Kai finds little comfort in the music he plays, which is mostly done with a digital sampler.
He uploads videos to the internet and gains the attention of a local band known as Seiren, which features classmates Kunio and Yuho. Kai is hesitant to join since he views music as a stupid hobby, but his attitude changes once he realizes his music attracts a ningyo girl named Lu. Lu is eager to befriend everyone and her fish-like tail turns into human legs whenever she hears music. Hinashi Town views mermaids as a vengeful curse that thrives on eating the town’s inhabitants, but Lu gains a following because of her cute appearance and ability to sing and dance. As Hinashi Town intends to put Lu in the spotlight, Kai begins to distance himself from Seiren once again because he knows something terrible is about to happen.
The animation in this film is this hybrid of being incredibly impressive, loose and messy, and totally ugly. While Lu Over the Wall was drawn by hand, it was produced entirely in Adobe Flash meaning that the clean-up (turning rough sketches into a more polished or cleaner final product) and inbetweening processes (making a smooth transition between two frames to give them motion) were done in Flash compared to traditionally drawing everything by hand or using other digital programs to animate such as Adobe After Effects or Adobe Photoshop. Other Flash animated television series include ¡Mucha Lucha!, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Ren & Stimpy “Adult Party Cartoon,” and Archer.
Flash animation capitalizes on bringing that looseness associated with rough drawings and brings it to life. There’s a fluidity associated with it that allows key frames to have motion cleaner versions wouldn’t. The majority of the detail in the animation is in the intricate backgrounds which are loaded with cel-shading and a variety of colors and lighting. Meanwhile, nearly all of the character designs are simple with basic colors and little detail. The backgrounds pop and catch your eye while the characters are nearly lost due to their flat appearance. Characters in the film will start off with one appearance and in less than ten seconds turn into these blobby sasquatches with unnatural grimaces as their mouths spit out dialogue in anguish before eventually transitioning back into the shape of the figure you’ve become familiar with in the last two hours.
There’s rich folklore buried within Lu Over the Wall. Mermaids aren’t just jumping out of the sea, dancing to music, and going home. Townsfolk in Hinashi Town believe these monsters are biting their loved ones and/or eating them causing them to burst into flames in direct sunlight. In reality, the merfolk are helpful creatures who only want to make friends and share the sea with their human companions. Somehow Lu, her father, and her species have been lumped into the urban legend of the Curse of the Shadow Stone. Most of the townspeople believe that if provoked the mermaids can flood the town at will. While Lu is seen as a potential mascot at first for the reopening of an amusement park known as Merfolk Island, it doesn’t take long for everyone in town to turn on her. A mob mentality causes a war between land and sea and the real victims are Lu and her father.
Lu’s father has the coolest design of the entire film. He is a dapper shark in a cadet blue suit, matching hat, white shirt, and purple tie with brown shoes that have ventilation holes on the sides that gush water whenever he walks. He also carries a tiny briefcase, has live fish flopping out of his pockets, a pencil mustache, and an amazing bubble pipe. Lu’s coolest feature is her hair, which is like a hair-shaped fishbowl with live fish swimming around in it. The weirdness that occurs in the film is perhaps what will set it apart from most of the films it will remind you of. A mermaid/ningyo’s bite turns that creature into a mermaid despite its original species, but it also seems to grant immortality. Fish that are bitten by Lu’s father are eaten as their bony skeletons and still-in-tact fish heads merrily bounce away down the street. The entire merdog sequence is also one of the film’s funniest and most adorable.
On the surface, Lu Over the Wall will likely remind you of Ponyo or The Little Mermaid, but the animated film would play nicely as a double feature with the live-action musical drama Hearts Beat Loud. The music has this bouncy quality to it to match the film’s happy and lighthearted atmosphere; it’s similar to this concoction of The Pillows’ score for FLCL intertwining with Sadie Killer and the Suspects from Steven Universe. The funky animation is bizarre at first, but entirely mesmerizing once you get used to it. Lu Over the Wall is wacky in appearance and animation, but entirely wholesome and good-natured at heart and melodic euphoria for anyone who enjoys catchy, toe-tapping music.
© 2018 Chris Sawin