Masaaki Yuasa is something of a wild card anime director. In an industry that can be chided for a certain uniformity of design and technique, he makes movies that look like nobody else's. To paint with a broad but not inaccurate brush, anime tends to go for contrasts of motion - energetic motion punctuated by stillness. Detailed backgrounds with simplified characters. Yuasa can do that, then wildly shift into incredible kineticism, with characters and backgrounds shifting with no concern for realism, detail, or anything other than the effect of the shot.
Lu Over the Wall was conceived, as Yuasa explains in some of the supplemental material, with an attempt to simplify his style, and to tell a simple story with it. While Lu's overall story of a disaffected kid being kickstarted into life by an encounter with the supernatural is familiar, as it progresses the visuals move from a stylized, simplified version of standard anime into the kinds of craziness that Yuasa is known for. Characters and background distort, the animation techniques move from realistic to more abstract, and multiple visual idioms clash on screen all at the same time.
The disaffected kid in this story is Kai, an angry teenager who has no aspirations other than to be completely left alone. He plays music, and is mortified after uploading a video of himself with his face out of frame that he's recognized by a pair of classmates, who want him in their band. Kai doesn't want to be in a band. He doesn't want to be living in their tiny fishing village of Hishani, separated estranged from his mother in Tokyo. He doesn't want to pick a high school. He doesn't want to do anything... until, while playing some music, he finds it attracts something from the ocean. Something that wants to get his attention.
All his life Kai's heard stories of how the town used to be plagued with vicious merfolk, who would grab sailors from the ships and drag them into the sea to eat them. Nobody believes in them, of course, but what else could have been out there, obviously listening to what Kai was doing? Finally slightly interested in something in his life, Kai goes to band rehearsal to see if more music attracts this mysterious creature. Which it does.
The mermaid is Lu, who is not a buxom sea siren, nor is she a monster who seeks to devour hapless sailors. She's about the size of a six-year-old, speaks very little English, and when she hears music her tail turns into a pair of legs, and she dances and somehow emanates her own music which creates and infectious need for others to dance, as well. All she wants is to be people's friend. After an all-night session, walking Lu through town and learning about mermaids, Kai understand that is going to be a pretty tall order.
First, Lu is terrified of bright light, and sunlight burns Mermaids. In Japanese folklore, mermaids (or the equivalent, since they're not really a Japanese concept) are sinister, sometimes vampiric in nature. True to this, Lu gets sad when she finds all the dogs in the pounds, so she floods it with water, and then proceeds to bite all the dogs, turning them into mermaids.
The story takes a number of turns from here, once Lu is discovered (along with, eventually, a whole heck of a lot of other mermaids). At first, the experience is enough to get Kai out of his shell, but when Lu becomes more and more popular, despite not being understood, he foresees disaster and withdraws again from his friends and the outside world, not wanting any part of the problems to come. And come they do, when some people begin to distrust the merfolk, and the conflict grows into a near apocalypse for the town.
Kai is an interesting protagonist in that, at least initially, there's not a whole lot to like about him. He's sullen, quiet, and unresponsive. These are not at all unusual characteristics for a certain type of anime character. What's less usual is that after Lu breathes some life into him, he becomes a much more engaging person, actually seeming to enjoy things for once. More typical in anime is for the quiet one to occasionally engage in a smile and start to whisper to friends. It's a signal of Yuasa's rejection of the easy anime stereotypes.
He also rejects the limitations on visual design that give a lot of anime a sameness. Lu Over the Wall doesn't have the constant near-schizophrenic visually explosive feel of 2004's Mind Game, which would merge several different animations styles into one scene, jump back and forth in time and between realities, and had very little tangent with conventional storytelling while telling a non-fantastical story, most of the last hour taking place in the belly of a whale notwithstanding. Lu is a fantasy story, and as the lives of the merfolk and the people of Hishani become more connected, the animation moves from fluid to outright anarchic. There are two mass dancing sequences in the film which would have looked perfectly at home in a '40s Chuck Jones cartoon. In the end, when there are dozens and dozens of merfolk, they quit looking like fish-people and take on all kinds of shapes and sizes, and the storytelling and visual style border on the abstract.
Lu Over the Wall is an odd film, and probably overstuffed with plot and things that don't always get properly explained in the story (though some aspects might be simply lost in translation). But I found it engaging, with an infectious soundtrack and an off-kilter, warm sense of humor. It doesn't wallow in any sentiment but between the frantic animation and pace there are many moments of poignancy and even some melancholy, though none of it feels forced. It's not the wildest or most ambitious movie Yuasa has made, but it might be the warmest.
Lu Over the Wall has been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Shout! Factory. This release includes the original Japanese audio, plus dubs in English and French. The bonus features on the disc are a 30 minute video interview with director Masaki Yuasa, and a full length commentary (Japanese, subtitled in English) with the director and the animation producer Eunyoung Choi.