We’re used to animated movie musicals over here, but what about Japan? It’s puzzling that we haven’t had more anime musicals, considering Japan’s insanely rich tradition of animation and their audiences’ appreciation for Disney’s works, which might outstrip even ours. Many anime films have songs attached to them, but they’re not part of the plot and don’t reveal character. (Usually, they simply play over the closing credits.) This week, AMC Grapevine Mills opens Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall –– about a singing and dancing mermaid – in both Japanese- and English-language versions. You may remember Disney did its own mermaid musical some years ago, but if you’re thinking that this will be similar, you’re very much mistaken.
The main character is Kai Ashimoto (voiced by Shôta Shimoda in Japanese and Michael Sinterniklaas in English), a middle-school student who has moved from Tokyo to the fishing village of Hinashi, where all the adults tell the children to give up their dreams and join the fishing industry. When his classmates Kunio (voiced by Sôma Saitô and Brandon Engman) and Yûho (voiced by Minako Kotabuki and Stephanie Sheh) discover that Kai likes to write songs, they immediately dragoon him into their J-pop band, which is called Siren. They practice in secret on Merfolk Island, located off the coast and surrounded by wrecked ships. There, their music attracts Lu (voiced by Kanon Tani and Christine Marie Cabanos), a mermaid who sprouts legs whenever she hears music. She can barely talk, but she can sing along with their band in an unearthly voice, dance around, and make other people join her against their will. She’s made Siren’s newest member, but when the band becomes locally famous, everyone finds out why merfolk hid themselves from humans in the first place.
This is the first of Yuasa’s films to get theatrical play over here, though his TV series Devilman Crybaby is currently available via streaming. This is atypical of his work in that it’s for kids and therefore much less violent, but his weirdness is still in effect. Lu can lift giant cubes of water out of the ocean and use them to fly through the air. Like a vampire, Lu will burst into flames if she’s exposed to direct sunlight, and she can also turn other things into mermaids by biting them. (That last is what she does when she’s taken to a dog pound, where she creates a pack of merdogs to keep as pets. Kai is just relieved that she doesn’t eat the dogs.) When Lu’s nature comes to light, she and the band get caught in a tug of war between Shinto priests who consider the merfolk holy, a cadre of old people who want to exterminate them, and the city government, which wants to make Siren into the main attraction at a mermaid-themed amusement park. With all this going on, the presence of a Japanese mayor with a cartoonish Texas accent (in the English dub) barely registers as strange.
The character design doesn’t have the visual sophistication or otherworldly beauty that you’ll find in other anime films, but I can live with that. The bigger issues are the way Yuasa loses control of all the different plot threads — seriously, a whole welter of plot developments happen while Kai is up in his room studying — and the J-pop songs by numerous sources (including Yuasa himself) are pretty undistinguished. Then again, I only saw the English dub, so maybe they’re better in the original Japanese?
As far as mermaid musicals go, this isn’t as bonkers as last year’s Polish live-action entry The Lure, which I highly recommend. Still, Lu Over the Wall compels you with its strangeness, and it’s refreshing to have an anime film where the fate of the human race does not hang in the balance. Rather, this light and occasionally silly confection is of an order wholly apart from the movies that Hollywood makes for kids. Anime lovers looking for something suitable to introduce children to this genre need look no further.
Lu Over the Wall
Voices by Shôta Shimoda and Michael Sinterniklaas. Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Written by Reiko Yoshida and Masaaki Yuasa. Rated PG.