Director and animator Yuasa Masaaki has gone from being the darling of animation connoisseurs to mainstream success story thanks to the success of Devilman Crybaby. In many ways, that series embodies what Yuasa is best known for—experimental animation that moves and undulates with a dream-like quality. His 2017 film (and the subject of this review), Lu Over the Wall, tackles a different yet challenging audience in its own right: children.
Kai is a middle schooler living in Hinashi, a small fishing village known for its sheer lack of sunlight. A DJing hobbyist, his online videos are discovered by two classmates—Kunio and Yuuho—who try to get him to join their band. Uninterested at first, Kai discovers that practicing with them will give him the opportunity to explore the merfolk legends surrounding the town, which results in the three meeting a real live music-loving mermaid named Lu. What ensues is a popping, lyrical exploration of the way dreams and curiosity affect generations of families, as well as the power of discovering when to uphold traditions, and when to move on from them.
There is a very human quality to the movie, especially in the way that Kai’s mood swings are never explicitly explained. When he transitions from deadpan introspection to energetically enthusiastic, is it that the legends he’s been reading about are real? Or is it that Yuuho and Kai are providing him the peer emotional support he never realized he needed? The characters shift and evolve in subtle and realistic ways. Growth doesn’t come as one continuous wave, but in ebbs and flows that only truly stand out when stepping back to view an individual (or a community) as a whole. Perhaps it might be better to compare their development with music—at times fast, at times slow, but with a sense of rhythm that says something is going to happen, and you’d better be ready for it.
As expected, the animation quality itself is big on expressiveness. Characters move and emote constantly, their motions feeling akin to a more subdued and subtle Ping Pong: The Animation. That is, until the dancing starts or the action gets moving. At that point, it veers somewhere between Yuasa as seen in Kaiba and the classic cartoons of Tex Avery. While his non-standard aesthetic might garner worry that it would not fly with kids, this wasn’t the case at all. Laughs and voiced indicators of understanding could be heard throughout the young audience viewing the film. As impressive as the visuals were, they never eclipsed the story nor the theme of small-town dreams.
While it’s easy to assume that his form of twisted and eerie animation could only work on an audience of refined animation experts, Lu Over the Wall shows how Yuasa’s style is more versatile than first impressions give. It’s uplifting, thought-provoking, and still just plain fun.