My program of learning Japanese very slowly by picking up one or two words from every anime I watch continues with the second Masaaki Yuasa toon to show up this year, following The Night is Short, Walk On Girl. The words you’re most likely to glean from Lu Over the Wall are ningyo, which is a distinctive species of Japanese mermaid, and kawaii, which is a cute word for cute – and Lu, the film’s heroine, is both ningyo and kawaii, while presenting a slightly disturbing image of (we hope) pre-sexual love between an inhuman creature dressed only in seaweed who reads as between six to eight years old and a sulky high school boy who might be sixteen or so.
It’s the sort of relationship common in fantasy cinema, most notably in E.T., but the fact that the principles are a girl creature and a human boy tends to edge this out of the beautiful cross-species friendship genre into fringe-paedophile romance …even if it is Lu who makes all the running, and her crush Kai has to be more or less forced to own up to having any feelings at all let alone for her. Nevertheless, much of the plot hinges on Lu making leggy teen Yuko, a human friend/rival who would be more age-appropriate for Kai, jealous, with Yuho’s devoted best friend/would-be boyfriend Kunio adding to the soap tangle of it all. As in The Night is Short, Yuasa goes for mood swings and overlapping styles, which makes for a packed film but also means the attention sometimes skitters away as if the filmmakers suddenly got interested in something new and abandoned elements that had been carefully crafted and built up.
After his parents divorce, Kai has been brought from Tokyo to Hinashi, the coast town where his father grew up – which is suffering economically from reversals in the fishing industry and the failure of a ningyo-themed island theme park built by Yuko’s grandfather. Yuko and Kunio discover that the shy Kai is a budding musician, if only in his bedroom with a laptop, and nag him into joining their (credibly average) high school group, which practices out on the abandoned island – where their sounds attract music-loving Lu, who first saves them from some bullying clam-poachers then joins them as singer, edging Yuko out of the spotlight. When she hears music, Lu’s tail divides into the semblance of legs, and she has superheroine-like control over water, which she can raise into wobbly columns or tubes and transport around with her (she has a permanent aqua-helmet, complete with fish) … but other folkloric aspects make her slightly akin to a vampire or a werewolf. Her bite can transform others into mer-hybrids, and she turns all the abandoned dogs in the local pound into water puppies, and she’s vulnerable to direct sunshine or artificial bright light.
There are a lot of characters, with three or four generations of Hinashi residents pitching in with their own subplots – including a couple of merfolk-haters, local businesses keen on exploiting Lu’s internet fame, indulgent or disapproving parents, a whalelike ningyo in a business suit with flapping fish attached who turns out to be Lu’s father, local layabouts and all levels of the fishing and fish-preparation industry. The town is a realistic setting, detailed enough for a multi-generation soap opera about economic reversals by the sea, but Yuasa’s style is elastic … and Lu brings in a colourful, malleable, enchanting sea-change that evokes classic anime (especially Ponyo) but also Fleischer cartoons and more impressionist European animation.
The home stretch involves a big concert, the inevitable capture and escape stuff (as seen in Splash!), sort-of resolutions for everyone’s arcs and emotions (including a heartfelt payoff for the main seadog), a flood triggered by a curse and a massive rescue operation and quite a bit of cheery J-pop … but it’s so busy that Lu herself tends to get lost in the spectacle. Nevertheless, this is an almost irresistible picture – and I get the impression kids will understand elements that might be baffling to grown-ups.
Here’s my Screen Daily review of Yuasa’s The Night is Short, Walk On Girl.