Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
Lu over the wall
Fourteen year-old Kai moves with his father from Tokyo to the declining fishing town of Hinashi to live with his grandfather following his parents' divorce. Kai is unable to give words to his complex feelings about his parents, so he passes his middle school life gloomily. His one joy is uploading his musical compositions to the internet. One day, his classmates Kunio and Yūho invite him to join their band, and when he reluctantly accompanies them to practice on Mermaid Island, the three of them meet a mermaid named Lu. Through her cheerful singing and dancing, Kai is slowly able to open up about his feelings. However, when calamity strikes, Kai must shout from the bottom of his heart to save the town.
When Masaaki Yuasa, the auteur behind Ping Pong the Animation and The Tatami Galaxy, announced that he would be making not one but two anime feature films, there were a fair number of question marks. With his superflat drawings and freeform animation style, Yuasa was already a divisive figure in the TV anime world; would his idiosyncrasies translate to a broader audience on the silver screen?
The answer, at least so far, appears to be “yes and no.” Lu over the wall, the second of Yuasa's films to be released this spring, contains the hallmarks of Yuasa's distinctive visual style but only rarely musters the manic energy of his most iconic works. The story, meanwhile, is a pleasant though ultimately forgettable affair that falls into the same trap that so many other anime feature films have been guilty of throughout the years—aping Studio Ghibli. The story this time bears more than a passing resemblance to Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo. Our hero Kai encounters a mermaid named Lu, who becomes more human-like the more she listens to human music. (The reasoning behind this is never explained, so it's best not to worry about it.) When the humans exploit Lu and misunderstand her, her father's rage inadvertently causes a natural disaster that only Kai, with his understanding of the merfolk, can avert. Lu over the wall may not be a retelling of The Little Mermaid in Ponyo's vein, but the environmental message is as overt as any Ghibli film, and the plot never strays from the familiar template.
The biggest problem with Lu over the wall is that it's overly bloated. There are too many subplots in the film, and not all of them get resolved satisfactorily by the end. The initial conflict around Kai being forbidden from pursuing music is dropped altogether in the latter half, for instance, while other major subplots are introduced halfway through the movie. With a runtime of just under two hours, the story also has a tendency to drag its feet, which is never a good sign for a children's film.
To its credit, Lu over the wall never tries to copy the Ghibli house animation style. In fact, it takes a diametrically opposite approach from the traditional animation used in Ghibli films. Lu over the wall was produced entirely with Flash animation, and never once does it try to hide that fact. The characters are drawn with simple lines and minimal shading, standing out like cardboard cutouts against the more textured backgrounds. Overall, the film looks rather kitsch, but this approach does have distinct strengths too. The sequences involving water in particular have a simple yet smooth flow to them, giving the characters freedom to move around in abstract and cartoony ways that would look out of place in a Ghibli production. Lu over the wall may not be a “pretty” film in the conventional sense, but it's a great example of how squash and stretch principles can convey character and emotions just as well as detailed drawings can.
The best parts of the film are the little character-establishing moments that don't necessarily push the plot along. The first appearance of Lu's father lasts for at least five minutes, but it's an absolute joy to watch because it's devoid of the tedious dialogue that plagues the rest of the film. Lu's father never utters a single word, but a lot of the story's fun comes from the animation itself, which is full of quirky movements and bright colors. The dancing scenes especially deserve a mention for just how fun they are to watch—there's some definite influence from 1920s Disney animation with the giant shoes, exaggerated motions, and full rooms of dancing crowds.
The film doesn't always look as distinctive as the above description makes it sound, however. Yuasa's works may be known for their striking and unusual angles and perspective, but most of Lu over the wall is composed with orthodox techniques. The split screens that permeated Ping Pong the Animation only appear once or twice here briefly. The most interesting aspect of the film's early stages is a lateral tracking shot showing the main character moving across the town where he lives; this shot recurs throughout the story to emphasize how Kai's attitude toward the town changes over time. Until the narrative takes a turn for the fantastical, however, the visual direction looks surprisingly conventional for a Yuasa anime, with most of the story being set in a backwater fishing town under drab and subdued colors.
Fans of Yuasa may be somewhat disappointed by how vanilla this film looks by the auteur's standards. The watered-down visuals go hand in hand with the conventional plot. The extravagant dancing and swimming scenes are the highlights of the film, but the narrative always seems to cut them short just when they're getting into full swing. Lu over the wall is supposed to be Yuasa's most accessible work, but it still retains the potentially off-putting visual elements while sacrificing some of their energy.
If there's one thing about this film that I can recommend without reservations, it's the music. From groovy electronic music to catchy pop songs, Lu over the wall showcases a range of different styles and eras of Japanese popular music, which perfectly fits the narrative's themes of continuity and change. The main theme of the film is "Utautai no Ballad,” a charming rock ballad first sung by Kazuyoshi Saitō in 1997. The soundtrack also fits the tone of the story well, worth listening to in its own right.
Overall, Lu over the wall isn't Yuasa's best work, but it's proof that Flash animation can work surprisingly well even on the big screen. The weak plot ensures that the film doesn't always attain the heights it could be capable of, but it's still entertaining to watch regardless, filled with lively dance sequences and charming moments. Yuasa has called it the film he's always wanted to make, and that alone makes it worth checking out for fans of the director. For everyone else, Lu over the wall is a pleasant though ultimately forgettable children's film. It's worth a watch when the international release comes out, but it's not a must-see.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Brilliant use of Flash animation, great dancing highlights and music
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