Ever watched The Little Mermaid on dope?
After reluctantly joining a teen band, quiet musician, Kai, uncovers the greatest secret of his resident fishing village – the existence of mermaids – when a sing-song child of the sea emerges, dubbing herself Lu.
So I was pretty disappointed a few weeks ago when I learnt Masaaki Yuasa’s Night Is Short, Walk On Girl had been pushed back a month in Australian theatres, from January to February. I was really looking forward to my yearly January anime… but then, freakishly enough, I found that another Yuasa film had taken the place of Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. Lu Over the Wall, technically a 2017 anime which had only just received an Australian release, was a film I had not been anticipating whatsoever, purely because I had no idea it existed. This aquatic, suitably titled, mind f*** of a musically tuned fairytale had come as quite the welcomed surprise. Touching on themes concerning the environment and economic struggles, Lu Over the Wall was an animated marvel with an overly weird kaleidoscope-like perspective on the world, bending and warping through story and visuals.
Probably best known for his mind-bending revolutionary 2004 anime, Mind Game, Yuasa is quite the distinctive filmmaker. His anime’s never seem to obey the laws of realistic, relatable animation. Sometimes you may believe you’re watching a certain art style in one frame and then suddenly in the exact same frame the artform will change within a heartbeat; Yuasa is not what you would call your typical filmmaker with a typical vision. There’s no proper way to describe Yuasa and his vision in terms of logical, descriptive language but instead to just refer to the guy as heavily-stylised and unlike literally anyone working in film today. So when I heard Yuasa had made a film about mermaids, I was rather fascinated to see what could have possibly unravelled from his mind this time around…
It’s almost unfair to have seen Lu Over the Wall a month after Aquaman as the latter film (as hard as it tried) not only had nothing on the visuals of the former but only helped exemplify the genius of animation as an overlooked artform. Both Lu Over the Wall and Aquaman were ocean based films with substantial moments of either’s time taking place under the surface. Lu Over the Wall, with the help of the boundless realms of animation, was able to make its creation pop unlike anything else seen onscreen whereas Aquaman attempted the same large-scaled fantasy, only to falter under the restrictions of its live-action setting. The thing is, as hard as you try in live-action to make things look mystical and fantastical, animation will always have the upper hand, because in animation… well… anything is possible. I’m not dissing live-action or Aquaman for that matter, as that field of cinema is able to achieve great, unbelievable feats of their own accords, but what I am trying to say is that, when it all comes down to it, animation has a way of visually telling a story in such extravagant ways that no live-action film can. Animation is an overlooked area that can tell a story completely underwater and can create characters, colours and worlds that only the imagination could procure. Lu Over the Wall stands as an example of the lengths animation is able to take to achieve grand scaled storytelling as, with someone like Yuasa at the helm, the impossible soon becomes possible.
Speaking of the animation in this film, Lu Over the Wall was one of the most striking anime I had ever. Yuasa really outdid himself with this one; the vibrant, fiery colours of expression and atmosphere clashing with the well-defined, uniquely drawn character designs made for a visual feast. The best moments would have easily come from the sequences set under the ocean; a certain scene where the protagonist, Kai, was dragged under the waves by Lu granted the most insane, transformative explosion of visual beauty committed to modern animation. The way the film even translated the smallest of human feelings like the inability to breath underwater, shown through the constant ripples of the current bending the frames and the viewer’s mind in unison, really made for an unhinged but loveable experience. Also, on the topic of specific character designs, the mermaid, Lu, really deflated any previous perception of what mermaids should appear like in cinema – Lu’s features were so distinctive, not only against other characters in the film, but other mermaids in movies in general. Lu Over the Wall really went out of its way to make every aspect distinctive and original with my favourite design having to be that of Lu’s gigantic sea monster father who’s appearance was equally hilarious, terrifying and just pure genius.
A certain element of Lu Over the Wall that must be discussed would have to be its uncanny resemblance to Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 mermaid film, Ponyo. Both films followed the relationship between a boy and a youthful female mermaid whilst translating themes of environmental issues through gorgeous visuals. And although I unapologetically love Miyazaki, I would have to say that I honestly liked Ponyo less than Lu Over the Wall. In my opinion, Lu Over the Wall was more ballsy and insane, dealing with real substance that could be consumed by the viewer, much unlike Ponyo. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Miyazaki’s Little Mermaid retelling, but Lu Over the Wall almost made up for it, giving me the film I wanted with Ponyo but never got. Lu Over the Wall dealt with more relatable characters in more relatable scenarios – sure the films almost resembled one other entirely, right down to a T, but Lu Over the Wall felt more adult and gradually more universal in its storytelling as opposed to the more childish, carefree antics of Ponyo.
Lu Over the Wall appeared to honestly have something substantial to say about humanity and mankind’s interaction with nature – our inability to tame what is wild and free. Unlike Ponyo which never felt entirely committed to its themes as it possibly could have, Lu Over the Wall relaxed into its deeper meanings with such ease. Ideas on consumerism leading to the corruption of purity – like a mermaid or the clear oceans it swims in – really allowed the film to set sail on the idea that humans are quite an infection on nature. Our inability to work with the flow of the water rather than against it, leads to our greater downfalls and equally the destruction of natural beauty. In hindsight, both Ponyo and Lu Over the Wall attempted to communicate the same thing… just Lu Over the Wall did it better, largely due to its characters.
The writing behind the characters for Lu Over the Wall was incredible. Other than the ingenious character designs, the characters in Lu Over the Wall in general felt detailed and layered to an even finer extent than their well-drawn appearances. The way that no character felt overly heroic or overly villainous allowed everyone onscreen to give off a rather human persona with a moral greyness that made them appear evidently real. The problem would then have to come with how most of these characters were developed through and through. For example, Kai’s father in the film was written in the first half with literally no development or any real impact to the narrative, despite the ending relying so heavily on an emotional moment between Kai and his father that never felt earned, because there was not enough evolution given to that character or his central relationship with his son. Another character in the form of Kai’s elderly female neighbour was built up as such an interesting soul at the beginning of the film but then was immediately shoved to the side of the narrative for its entirety. It was only until the very end when she was given a moment to shine, but yet even that moment came off underwhelming, because there was no real set-up to reach that point. Lu Over the Wall encased plenty of these character hiccups that just did not work to reach an entirely satisfying conclusion.
Although that’s not to say all of the characters didn’t work. As I said, what Lu Over the Wall had against Ponyo was its great characters and from the likes of Kai to his school friends, certain relationships and hero arcs were felt with a remarkable heft because the characters invited such intrigue and joy to their evolution from beginning to end. My favourite would have to have been Kai’s grandfather who ultimately had the most impactful character arc of the entire film, leading to a rather gut punching ending that, for me, anchored the entire film. Lu Over the Wall was full of surprises but I definitely did not see the film getting so rather emotional towards its conclusion.
All in all, against Aquaman and Ponyo, I’d say Lu Over the Wall better serviced The Little Mermaid unlike any other loose retelling of the classic tale committed to cinema. Visually endearing and poetically told, Lu Over the Wall was an absurd watch that honestly worked in a plethora of ways. Although not perfect, Yuasa managed to craft a humorous and spell-bounding tale of ocean antics that has only made me anticipate Night is Short, Walk On Girl even more.
Wanna taste of anime? Well reel this one in from the depths of an illusionary ocean realm…
Lu Over the Wall is a bloody… CRUSADE!!
- Schindel, D 2018, Lu Over the Wall Sundance 2018 Review, The Film Stage, viewed 7 February 2018, <https://thefilmstage.com/reviews/sundance-review-lu-over-the-wall-is-a-riveting-ride-from-one-of-the-best-contemporary-anime-directors/>