Released in Japan almost a year ago to the day, American audiences finally get to see the award-winning Lu Over the Wall, the second film released (though first produced) by Science Saru Studios, directed by Masaaki Yuasa. It tells a relatively simple story of friendship and affection between a boy and an aquatic creature. And thankfully, since the film is intended for kids, we don’t have to watch someone fuck a fish.
In a small fishing village, legends of merfolk have been told for generations. They are dangerous creatures that eat people who come too near to their cove on the other side of a seaside bluff. They are weak against sunlight, to the point that they can burst into flames if exposed, but they are drawn to music. As such, the town is almost Coco-esque in its discouragement of music, and everyone simply goes about the business of catching and processing fish. Even those who leave the village hoping for a better life in a more metropolitan setting like Tokyo eventually give up on their dreams and return home.
Such is the presumed fate of Kai Ashimoto, a teenage boy about to finish middle school. He’s aloof and depressed most of the time, resigned to a life of boredom. He lived in Tokyo when he was young, but after his parents divorced, his father brought him home to Hinashi to live with his grandfather. His dad now works for the town’s seafood concern, and his grandfather, who claims to have lost his mother to a mermaid attack, makes parasols.
Kai’s one joy in life is creating “music,” which for the time being will be used with air quotes, as all he does is record samples and upload them onto YouTube. He’s torn between his ambitions (his father used to be in a band and his mother is a professional dancer), and the sad likelihood that he’ll be stuck in Hinashi forever. He doesn’t even want to take entrance exams for high school, so sure he is that he’ll never amount to anything.
However, his friends Yuho (daughter of his dad’s boss and head of the seafood concern, whose grandfather used to run an amusement park and is head of the chamber of commerce) and Kunio (son of a local monk who’s an expert on the merfolk) recognize him in the videos and invite him to join their band, SEIRÈN – an anglicized misspelling of “siren,” another name for a mermaid – thinking his beats can supplement their guitar, bass, and vocals. Kai is very reluctant, and at the band’s first rehearsal, is overly critical. With his head hung low, he encourages them to break up the band and face reality, especially every time they hear the town’s morning announcements, delivered by their older friend, Isaki, who went to Tokyo to be a model, only to return a year later.
The band rehearses at Merfolk Island, an outcropping that can only be reached by boat, long thought to have been erected as a result of a curse, to keep humans and merfolk separate. At rehearsal, Kai begins hearing strange singing, and sees a figure leaping out of the water. That night, he comes face to face with Lu, a young mermaid who wants to be friends with everyone, and loves music more than anything. She loves it so much that any beat can make her tail fin magically morph into legs so that she can dance. Her mere presence awakens creativity in Kai, as well as a bit of joy and laughter.
Lu, tiny though she is, can accomplish amazing magical feats. She can manipulate water (which glows a much brighter green shade than the surface water) into blocks and spires, allowing her to travel in any direction and send others wherever she wants. This technique is used for both safety, adventure, and occasionally attack (like when the band is threatened by poachers). Her other big skill – one that all merfolk possess – is to convert other living things into merfolk simply by biting them. They don’t eat people, they just change them.
Lu serves a selfish purpose for all three members of the band. Kai wants to get closer to her, protect her, and as such he becomes a much happier person, learning about his parents’ relationship and even deciding to make real music by learning how to play his grandfather’s ukulele. By the end he even gets some Eddie Van Halen-esque riffs out of the thing. Kunio wants to keep Lu around for Kai’s sake, and also for his own. He likes that his friend is happier with Lu nearby, but it also means he’s free to pursue Yuho, whom he’s crushed on since time immemorial. Yuho, of course, having dreams of stardom (and two doting parental figures that would put Veruca Salt’s dad to shame), wants Lu to be the band’s mascot, giving them – and Yuho specifically – some viral attention and press exposure.
But Lu doesn’t think that big. She may not even be capable of it. She simply wants to share her world, and be friends with everybody. Hell, her first demonstration of her conversion power is to free all the stray dogs cooped up in a shelter, then bite them all so they can live under the sea with her. Her father (a massive converted great white shark) even emerges from the water to facilitate personal and financial relations in the town so that she can happily coexist. In a hilarious running gag, he teaches a fish processing class which just consists of him biting every fish, so that they’re super fresh when filleted for sushi, but then the skeletons of the fish are still alive and wandering the town.
The central conflict, of course, lies in the fear of the unknown. Kai’s grandfather hates merfolk for “eating” his mother. Same goes for Grandma Octopus, a tiny woman who patrols the town with a spear after the loss of her husband. Finally, Yuho’s father has hated merfolk all his life, and would sooner see them wiped out for profit than peaceful cohabitation. He’s the film’s main villain, and even then he’s not that sinister, just ignorant and overprotective of Yuho.
The story is simple enough, and a great lesson for children about diversity. (side note: sadly, the one child in the audience had to be taken out after the first minute of the film, because her dad didn’t realize he’d bought tickets for the subtitled version, rather than the dubbed; poor little girl sat through 30 minutes of commercials for nothing). Where the film really shines is in the actual animation and the music.
This is not a traditional anime as far as design is concerned. The human characters are a little exaggerated, with soft outlines and somewhat stretched physiques. The merfolk, particularly Lu, are almost amorphous blobs, taking the water play to a very high level. Lu specifically has eyes that look like they’re constantly on the brink of tears, but only because her eyes are essentially moving droplets. Her hair is literally a fishbowl without glass. If you’re looking for a basis for comparison, try Ponyo as a movie, or Shin Chan and Kill la Kill for a TV anime.
The oddball design of the characters contrasts brilliantly with the background effects, particularly the water, and the splitting/burning effect whenever sunlight is present. It’s amazing to see a ray of light peak through a hole in the Merfolk Island bluff and literally sever a block stream that Lu or someone else has conjured. Also, in the most fun moment of the movie, a festival performance goes haywire when Lu gets excited and sings a fast-paced tune, her joy so contagious that everyone starts dancing like the Bosko and Honey cartoons of the 1930s. There was clearly a Looney Tunes and classic Merry Melodies influence on Mr. Yuasa, and the homage works to tremendous effect.
And then of course, there’s the music. It starts out as cheap sampling and EDM, which made me roll my eyes, because even though I’m watching a cartoon about a mermaid, I can’t suspend disbelief enough to think that a magical being is drawn by the shittiest non-music imaginable. I mean, for God’s sake it starts out as a looped clapping effect over a fake base line on a sound board. But it sets the stage nicely for the overall thematic arc of the film. Because as the individual members of the band grow and learn from Lu’s example, so too do their musical abilities mature, to the point where all of them – especially Kai – can perform truly beautiful instrumental and vocal music by the end.
The pervading theme song of the film is something called “Ballad of the Singer,” which gets played throughout the film more than “Remember Me” was in Coco. But with each time playing, whoever’s playing it gets better as a musician, and the song improves as well. By the end of the film, the song feels like a lost Oasis track, with a vocal melody that recalls “Champagne Supernova” and a lead guitar riff reminiscent of George Harrison or Mott the Hoople.
This is a very sweet film, filled with a positive story, great animation, good music, and some hilarious gags. The messaging gets a little mixed, as some characters seem to mature into giving up their dreams AND being happy about it, and I wish more of the merfolk characters had been fleshed out, but you can’t help but smile at the whole thing. Definitely see it if you can, or be on the lookout for a Blu-ray release soon, as we finally have an English dubbed version.
And again, between this and Big Fish and Begonia, just be happy that we have two animated films already this year that explore love between a person and a fish, and the two don’t have sex.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite anime? Am I being too hard on Guillermo del Toro/The Academy for giving Best Picture to a movie about banging a fish? Let me know!