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Lu Over the Wall
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by Jay Seaver

"A littler, more eccentric mermaid."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Masaaki Yuasa had two feature films at the festival, which is some pretty spectacular productivity for someone working in animation, and I suppose that when you're on that kind of roll, it's no surprise that both wound up pretty darn good. "Lu Over the Wall" is a different sort of delight than "Night Is Short, Walk On Girl", in some ways a more conventionally unconventional coming-of-age fantasy: It's hardly the first story with magical creatures helping a lonely kid find his place and save the town, although few are quite the same feast for the eyes and ears.

The kid is Kai (voice of Shota Shimoda); he lives in Hinashi, a fishing town denied sunlight by its massive "Shadowstone" wall, which also hides Merfolk Island, a failed amusement park built around the legends that mer-people lived nearby. He and his father just moved there from Tokyo, and Kai is trying to be invisible, but when classmates Yuuho (voice of Minako Kotobuki) and Kuniko (voice of Soma Saito) discover his DJ skills from something he posted on YouTube, they get him to join their band. They are not the only ones who hear Kai's music - Lu (voice of Kanon Tani), a young mermaid, hears it and sings along, and she gets so caught up in it that it gives her legs to dance with. Soon, she's joined the band, even though Yuuho and Kuniko don't know anything about their new singer other than her amazing voice.

That's just the basic plot, and while that's effective as heck - Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida pack all the coming-of-age themes, young romance, running around to keep a secret, and subplots which flesh out the supporting characters as complete, interesting people into a leisurely but not over-stuffed film - it's the way that this story sometimes gives Yuasa the chance to suddenly jump into something new that lets it grab a spot in a viewer's head. It's using music as a jolt from the very start, where the audience not only gets a sense of the strong feelings Kai is holding in as he composes and arranges in the opening before sudden jump to a bouncy theme song that occasionally feels like it has set too high a bar for the rest of the film because the music won't quite be so popping and married to fantastic visuals until almost the end. Teenagers in a band can often seem like shorthand, piggybacking on the viewer's own memories of a time when music was a direct line to their passion, but Yuasa and Yoshida seldom actually have their characters talk about this rather than just throw themselves into it in various ways.

As good as the music is, Lu Over the Wall is even more a movie for looking at than listening to, with Kai's story sometimes working as a framework for tremendous visual imagination. From the surprising reaction of Lu to a bunch of dogs in the pound to the seemingly random, surprising entrance of her father, the fantastic parts of the film often lead to things getting downright weird, and tremendously inventive visually. The animation will may occasionally look a bit sketchy, with somewhat simple designs, but given a chance, Yuasa will jump from a semi-conventional amine style to indie distortion akin to his Mind Game or Jazz-Age American cartoons and the later things inspired by them. The big showcase scenes can often get too big and strange for the audience to catch everything on the first time through, but Yuasa manages to keep his visual ambition right at the edge of too big - even when there's just too much on the screen for the eye to follow and there's a bit of a stretch to connect cause and effect, the sense of motion is able to get the viewer from here to there emotionally, and the feeling of being pulled along by imagery is often more powerful than having things explained.

It's an energetic movie that nevertheless always finds time to do right by its characters, especially a few that could easily be overlooked. Though Lu is a bit longer than usual for an animated film, it seldom slows down to just having people explain themselves; instead, Yuasa and Yoshida drop just enough details in to keep the film from being coy while still what the characters do and how they do it define them. They're easy enough to grasp from the start, but both the animators and an able group of voice actors do a fine job in fleshing them out further.

I'm not sure whether my nieces (and other American kids) would be more likely to respond to the great bits of music and cuteness or be thrown by how genuinely peculiar bits of it are. Yuasa and his Science Saru team prioritize artistic whimsy higher than most making animated films for a mainstream audience these days, but (at least here) it doesn't get in the way of a neat coming-of-age story.

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originally posted: 11/21/17 01:05:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Masaaki Yuasa

Written by
  Masaaki Yuasa
  Reiko Yoshida

  Kanon Tani
  Shota Shimoda
  Shin'ichi Shinohara

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