Kai lives a sullen life in the coastal Hinashi Town with his umbrella-making grandfather and recently divorced father. Kai plays in a teen band with his friends Kunio and Yuho, though he is thinking of quitting. When a trip to an abandoned theme park brings Kai into contact with a real-life ‘ningyo’ – a mythological mermaid-like creature – it throws him, his life, and town into total disarray.
Lu Over the Wall is a 2017 Japanese anime feature directed by Masaaki Yuasa (Kaiba, The Tatami Galaxy). It is an absolute delight of a thing: inventive, funny, emotive, and animated with a superb sense of original design and energy. It inspires a wonderful joyfulness, and makes a striking impact against the regular onslaught of Japanese animated productions. Fans of both anime specifically and animated film in general would do well to track it down.
Yuasa has a distinctive aesthetic that draws inspiration from well beyond Japan to American sources including Tex Avery and Ralph Bakshi. There is a sketchy, distorted edge to his designs that give characters a more fluid and energetic style that anime typically embraces. It delivers on a diversity of presentation, allowing the film to embrace a very wide range in tone: at its strangest Lu Over the Wall is downright surreal, but at its most authentic it is powerfully effective. Yuasa’s use of colour is particularly effective, as is its richly presented and rather delightful musical score. Music plays a major role in the film, so its high quality was something of a requirement for the film to play out as wonderfully as it does.
The design work is a delight, from Lu’s water-like hair (infested with small fish like parasites) to her father’s unexpected appearance, to a range of exaggerated townfolk of all ages. When the film hits its occasional musical numbers, the animation goes into high gear in the most entertaining of fashions. The animation feels perpetually infused with a sense of enjoyment; one imagines the production team enjoyed themselves as much as their audience do.
The inventiveness of the presentation does work heavily in the film’s favour, given that its storyline feels rather familiar. To a large extent it echoes Hayao Miyazaki’s popular family film Ponyo (2008) via the similarities between Lu and Ponyo, and also has more than a mild resemblance to Kenji Nakamura’s 2012 television series Tsuritama. It also feels just a little bit too stretched out, running almost two hours; 15-20 minute carved off the film’s second half would likely have done it a world of good.
Anime seems, more than many other film mediums, to be driven by commercial motivations: where the merchandising and spin-offery is as critical as the film itself, and where the core text exists not to tell a story but to market a product. Such productions have their place, but when a purely non-commercial work comes along it feels good to embrace and enjoy it for the remarkably artful and inventive experience that it is.