In the last 50 years of film, there have been eleven silver-screen adaptations of The Little Mermaid — with one more, the Blake Harris-directed feature, due to bow this summer. And those dozen pics barely break the surface of the pantheon of sea creature-centric bits of cinema released in recent decades. (Aquamarine, anyone?) Though we haven’t yet drowned under a wave of mermaid movies, we may have reached a point where a ubiquitous question must be begged: Are any more really necessary?
Standing from the shoreline, Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall appears as the lucky (or unlucky) 13th retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, a film that would make us go all DJ Khaled and doubt the validity of “anotha’ one.” After dipping a few toes into the water to realize it’s surprisingly refreshing, it becomes apparent that Lu Over the Wall is something else entirely.
From the same mind that delivered the world the shocking smash-mouth series Devilman: Crybaby, Lu Over the Wall is multiple films all at once: A sensational coming-of-age tale about a scrappy teen hoping to strum his strings at sold-out shows, an animated adventure beautiful-bizarre enough to prompt your body to leak brain juice through your nose, and yes, a movie about mermaids — weird, wonderful ones that don’t so much glisten in the sunlight as they do spontaneously combust (a la Twilight Saga vampires) and can turn all other living things into mermaids with a prick of their teeth (a la Nosferatu, or that one guy in college who frequently shouted in the campus quad that he “was the real Lestat de Lioncourt.”)
The film follows Kai Ashimoto (voiced by Michael Sinterniklaas in the dubbed version) an aspiring musician, loner whose self-esteem and communication skills run on low, and middle-school student just hoping to make it through the day and back to his parasol-crafting grandfather at home without making much of a fuss. Kai’s dreams of small-town stardom cusp on becoming reality, and his downtrodden feelings about his parents splitting up begin to slip away, when the bubbly Yūho (Stephanie Sheh) and the spry-yet-shy Kunio (Brandon Engman) discover his penchant for songwriting and passion for music and ask him to join their band, SEIRÈN. He’s reluctant at first, but partners with the pair and heads to their magical practice spot at Merfolk Island.
What greets them is unlike anything Kai has seen before, at least not up close and in the flesh: a ningyo named Lu, who flips around in the water, singing sweetly and dancing dreamily as SEIRÈN jams on.
SEIRÈN may have lured Lu in, but it’s she who captures Kai long after the band members pack up their instruments and retire for the evening. See, Lu is one of the very Merfolk the people of Kai’s tiny fishing village of Hinashi Town have long feared; she’s a creature the residents forced into hiding, a monster whose powers strike terror into humans’ hearts, an embodiment of the curse that has hung for years over the village like a dark rain cloud, and an enigma Kai is desperate to comprehend.
The longer the two spend together, the more Kai emerges from his dark bedroom and from his proverbial shell, and the more Lu reveals the full scope of her incredible abilities. As the sheltered tween opens up about the damage his parents’ divorce has done to his heart, the mystical mer-girl’s skills in water-bending and music-making grant Kai a fresh perspective on the world around him. Sadly, not everyone in Hinashi Town is as accepting of Lu as Kai is, and once his friendship with the quirky ningyo is found out, the village tumbles into panic-pocked chaos.
Lu Over the Wall ebbs and flows, swelling up to a wave’s multi-feet-high crest in one moment before crashing down to the shore in the next, but director Yuasa maintains a steady vision throughout, delivering the narrative in a package splattered with whimsical, frequently surreal, and referential animation sequences. But despite its dreamy exterior — sketchily drawn characters spinning and singing across hand-painted landscapes — the film carries with it weighty themes of self-discovery and living up to expectations prescribed to you by others. It also subverts the expectation that animated films, especially ones that are outwardly whacky and deal with the mythological, are for exclusively children, or that they somehow can’t tell their stories through relatable protagonists. Simply, Lu Over the Wall is as ravishing from the outside looking in as it is real and relatable from the inverse. A film ostensibly about a mermaid and a young boy belting out tunes together is also one about inherited prejudice and xenophobia — and the consequences of that legacy.
Lu Over the Wall does, however, feel a bit thin at turns, shimmying away semblances of a soul in certain moments and flattening itself out in its third act. Those hoping for a completely cutesy film filled with adorable water-spitting mermaids without any deeper meaning or secret darkness might be disappointed, since Lu doesn’t deliver cozy fuzzies without some crushing truths.
As different as Yuasa’s Devilman: Crybaby and Lu Over the Wall are — one hyper-violent and harrowing, the other hyper-psychedelic and heartwarming — the two projects share a distinct similarity: They’re both aesthetically gorgeous, dangerous in their own rights, carry strong stories, and are wholly intoxicating — leaving behind the same residual wonderment one too many glasses of wine does: Did all that really happen, or was it just a dream? For my part, I’m too swept away to find out.