Lu Over the Wall (夜明け告げるルーのうた/Yoake Tsugeru Lu no Uta in Japanese) is a Japanese animated film directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Lu tells the story of middle schooler Kai who moves to an old-timey fishing village with his father to live with his grandfather after his parents' divorce. The background of the village involves legends of mermaids (which many don't believe) and the giant wall built to keep the village safe.
The story opens when schoolmates of Kai uncover his identity as a talented musician who uploads his work to a streaming site. Kai does not want to to be outed as the musician and is generally a sullen and unsociable boy, and is disagreeable when those schoolmates, Yuuho and Kunio, ask him to join their band. Eventually though, Kai agrees to attend a practice and the music draws out a secret friend Kai recently made, Lu the mermaid. Lu is a force of energy and can manipulate water and dance like no one has ever seen, and when she sings, everyone's feet starts moving.
Though Lu makes friends with all three of the kids, she has a special affinity for Kai, and the two learn a lot about each others' worlds together. Still, Lu is an innocent, and when she appears with the makeshift band at a town ceremony, becomes a hit… and also becomes caught between those who want to use her celebrity and those who think mermaids are curse. When the town faces a disaster is it caused by the mermaids' curse, and can Kai overcome his weaknesses to be a hero?
If you're an anime fan and hear the name Masaaki Yuasa, you expect a visual trip. The man behind the anime Ping Pong, and episodes of Adventure Time and Space Dandy often brings a fluid manic quality to his work. While Lu does exhibit that quality, it is only sometimes. The film exhibits a number of different styles, that might rub some viewers the wrong way as they can be jarring put next to one another. The general style is of very simple characters against more detailed backgrounds, the characters (especially Kai) are sometimes so simply depicted, their faces are only made up of a few lines. When Lu sings, then it is Yuasa at his best having the style switch to a Tex Avery/Steamboat Willie look, with elaborate, imaginative, and magical dance numbers. There is also some scenes where the animation turns into a blur of watercolor-like abstractions, mostly used when telling an old tale. If you are a fan of varied styles, this will be your jam, but if you are looking for lush and fully animated work (eg. Ghibli's A game), then you may be disappointed.
Like the animation, the story is somewhat of a mixed bag as well. Though presented as an all-ages film, the story can meander, having various subplots for the different characters. This can be confusing for a younger audience and also bogs down the film a bit. One longs to see more of the dance numbers just to get past some of the slower parts. There are also some scenes that might disturb some of the younger or more sensitive audiences, as mermaids in this film do have a weakness that will get exploited.
I saw the film as part of the Hawai‘i International Film Festival (HIFF) where it was presented with Japanese audio with English subtitles. The subtitles were serviceable for teh most part, though sometimes were placed onscreen where you don't expect them (eg. the top of the screen) so you might miss them. Also there was a sequence or two that the dialog went somewhat quickly so those subtitles were a bit hard to catch as well. Though not a problem, I did wonder if the subtitles were not made for US audiences, as they they used the word "mum" instead of mom or mother. As a added bonus during the showing I attended (it was the films second showing at the festival), director Yuasa attended, and even fielded a few questions after the show.
Masaaki Yuasa at HIFF 11/12/17
While I thought Lu Over the Wall was a good time, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it. For those who love animation or Yuasa's work, I feel it's something that should be seen, with expectations in check. For general audiences, it's less of a sure-fire recommendation. If you like the genre or the trailer appeals to you, by all means go and see it. If not, then if it eventually comes to the US on home video (Yuasa said that is still being negotiated), then that may be a better route (though I loathe to recommend animated films be experienced on home screens).
Here's the trailer for the film (in Japanese):