Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall employs a wide array of animation styles as it spins a fantastical yarn about a potentially vicious group of mermaids and the small fishing village that lives in constant fear of them. Fluctuating between the pastel-like strokes of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, the more warped, surreal visual flourishes of Bob Clampett’s Looney Tunes shorts, and a strikingly minimalist, blocky, and abstract form of animation, Yuasa’s film is invigorating even when its aesthetic feels less than seamless.
Lu Over the Wall’s madcap story initially focuses on Kai (Shôta Shimoda), a lonely teenager who begrudgingly joins his classmates’ band, the aptly named Sirens, after Yuho (Minako Kotobuki) and Kunio (Sôma Saitô) discover his hidden musical talent. The trio’s practice sessions on the nearby Mermaid Isle draw the attention of Lu, a young mermaid who begins to forge a strange and forbidden bond with Kai, whose music allows her to temporarily grow legs, thus allowing her to feverishly dance along to the Sirens’s jamming.
There’s a playful and touching sense of wonderment to Kai and Lu’s friendship, particularly in the way that they bond through music. Lu Over the Wall’s increasingly bizarre, humorous musical numbers, expressions of the boy and young mermaid’s burgeoning relationship, capture the elation of two social outsiders connecting with one another. Yuasa’s style of animation stretches and contorts in rhythmic lockstep with the characters’ movement to music, conveying a sense of bliss via pure sound and inflection. This is a film that’s content to simply bask in its impressive surface pleasures.
But once Lu Over the Wall shifts its focus to the prejudiced and tradition-bound denizens of the fishing village, the film becomes disorienting in its constant expansion of its own mythology. The roots of these people’s fears are explored through flashbacks, such as those of Kai’s grandfather, who believes he saw his own mother killed by a mermaid. And lengthy stretches where the town’s leaders and elders fight over whether to aid, exploit, or destroy the mermaids only work to disrupt the enchanted and kinetic energy of a film that’s otherwise unconcerned with telling a cogent story.
Lu Over the Wall is a majestic fable that’s overstuffed with characters and incident. Fortunately, amid the onslaught of backstories and side plots are brilliantly frenetic and often absurdly funny flights of fancy. At one moment, Lu turns a pound of dogs into “woofmaids”; at another, she magically forces a group of unsuspecting spectators to engage in synchronized dancing. And by the time that the mermaid’s father, a giant pipe-smoking shark reminiscent of Totoro, races across town to save her as the sun sets him on fire, Yuasa’s imagination is running so wild that it becomes impossible to resist.