With Lu Over the Wall, GKIDS continues to prove there is a place in the animation film world beyond Hollywood and Studio Ghibli. There are so many great films being released year after year and it's amazing to find more and more companies filling in the cracks to allow American audiences a chance to view movies they'd otherwise miss.
In the sleepy seaside town of Hinashi lives a shy young boy named Kai Ashimoto (Kanon Tani). He makes electronic music on his computer and posts them anonymously online. When local girl Yuho (Minako Kotobuki) recognizes his phone (and thus him) in one of the videos, she invites him to join her and her friend Kunio (Soma Saito) to make music in their band. At first, Kai refuses but when he learns they practice on Merfolk Island, he reluctantly agrees. The village carries with it the myth of merfolk and an ancient battle between humans and the merpeople which ended with the humans building a giant wall to keep the merpeople isolated from them. But as Kai and his newfound friends are playing their music, they find the friendliest, zaniest, little mermaid (or "ningyo" if you are familiar with Japanese folklore) wants to be their friend.
Lu (Kanon Tani), as the mermaid is called, is lured by the music which turns her fish tail into legs that never stop dancing. All of which makes her sing, which in turn causes everyone near her to start dancing as well. Lu joins the band, the band plays for the town who at first love them (and go crazy dancing Peanuts style), but once they learn Lu is a mermaid, they get more than a little upset. More merpeople show up, including a giant shark monster who turns out to be Lu’s daddy and who helps the locals load some seafood onto their trucks. It gets weird from there.
Director Masaaki Yuasa notes in the supplementals included on this Blu-ray that he wanted to simplify his storytelling (he’s known for his wild, freeform style in such films as The Night is Short, Walk On Girl) which he does, almost too much. The story of a boy meeting a strange sea creature that teaches him to really live is nothing new to cinema. Neither is a townspeople learning that the scary-sounding people on the other side of the wall are not so scary after all (well, maybe that one is a lesson we are still needing to learn). Much of the story here feels ripped directly from Ponyo (which itself pretty much ripped off The Little Mermaid) and so its message feels a little simple, its story kind of "been there, seen that." But it's the animation that makes Lu Over the Wall well worth watching.
Yasa tones that down quite a bit for the bulk of the film using a simple style, drawing his people in a very basic, classic Japanese animation method, but as the film rolls on and the story involves more and more merfolk, things get weird, wild, and really expressive. It's full of bright color and kinetic energy that feels impressionistic and psychedelic as the film moves towards its end.
Shout! Factory, woking in conjunction with GKIDS, has put out the Blu-ray transfer for this film and it looks great. It was created using Flash animation which gives it a flat look, but as things ramp up towards the end, it's as expressive and imaginative as any other type of animation you’ll find. The image is clear and sharp and I noticed no artifacts nor compression issues. Audio is presented with both Japanese and English language tracks. Extras include an audio commentary with the filmmakers, an interview with Yuasa, and the usual trailers and TV spots.
Lu Over the Wall is not your typical American animated fare. What it lacks in story it more than makes up for in visual style. It's well worth checking out for both adults and children alike.