Lu Over the Wall focuses on a curious little corner of a Japan both familiar yet different. Virtually everything is identical to present history, save for one alteration – merfolk are very much real, residing in shaded regions beneath the waves away from the searing light of the sun. Proficient yet introverted musician Kai is roped into assisting his school friends Yuho and Kunio in their musical endeavors, and in the process he lays his eyes on the titular mermaid unique for her twin tails – and for her irresistible attraction to the music Kai and his friends create. Thus, so is sparked off a rather standard tale of emotional maturity and blossoming acceptance.
Animation is a field of infinite possibility, a canvas upon which the creator is free to paint their limitless vision of a world, be it our own or another realm entirely. This vision can manifest in a variety of ways – and for director Masaki Yuasa, it seems to have come to life in the form of seeing how diverse he can be with his art, for both good and ill.
To say that the film is brimming with style is an understatement. Yuasa appears to have decided to make the movie into his personal dartboard, hurling as many styles of animation at the screen – sometimes many individual styles crammed into a single extended sequence – as he possibly can and seeing what sticks, and the end result is evocative of such creations as the golden age of Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera’s line of work. The screen itself seems to come to life in certain moments, whether seeing people engage in energetic dancing or seeing Lu’s home beneath the waters, amidst the ruins of abandoned and broken ships. If one thing can be said about this, it displays the inherently creative nature of animation at its finest.
However, all the panache and pizzazz cannot disguise the underlying hollowness of the finished product. The story is twee and inoffensive, but lacking in substance and almost cripplingly bland. The characters are serviceable, but none truly stand out, each falling into standard roles and staying put. The voice acting is fine, the scene composition is fine, the score is fine but it never really rises above its state of fineness into anything special – though some select pieces of the soundtrack are admittedly catchy. It’s decent fun and certainly mesmerising on a visual level, but in the wake of such releases as Your Name, A Silent Voice and In This Corner of the World, creations which place such a strong emphasis on character interaction and development, the rather bland, predictable and plain nature of the narrative and those involved in it becomes more apparent by comparison.
To that end, too, the film already finds itself lingering beneath the shadow of a distant predecessor, namely Studio Ghibli's 2008 hit Ponyo, and at times it seems like a lesser imitation of a master's work. In addition, the film attempts to drive an odd kind of strangely romantic subplot between our protagonist and Lu – who looks no older than single digits. What is meant to be viewed as sweet and wholesome subsequently comes across as more than a tad disturbing and unsettling when viewed through a certain lens, especially in the aftermath of a particular scene involving underwater breathing. It may well colour one’s experience of the feature, and not in a positive way.
Lu Over the Wall is decent viewing despite all this, a digestible cocktail of upbeat fun, fluid visuals, and general competency, but ultimately – even sadly – it is nothing terribly special. Though a visual joy, it indulges too much in style over substance, and that’s without going into the odd undertones it has here and there. For the anime aficionado, it’s worth a watch; but you may well not head over the wall more than once.