I had always assumed that Lu Over the Wall was some kind of knock-off Masaaki Yuasa Ponyo– rip off. And while the film does share a whole lot in common with Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, it does stand on its own. I really loved Ride Your Wave and was hoping for something as moving and visually interesting as that film.
Visually speaking, the movie is stunning. I loved how it constantly changed art styles and the exaggerated movement… Story-wise, the movie was pretty weak. Same with the characters. It was an interesting premise, but it never really resonated.
The film follows a middle schooler named Kai, who is living in a small fishing village where the citizens often tell tales of merfolk. Kai is a very talented musician and two of his classmates recruit him for their band SEIREN -during his first practice, he meets a young mermaid, “Lu,” who loves music. Every time they play, she grows legs, sings and dances.
Due to the townsfolk’s ideas regarding merfolk and Lu burning up in sunlight, the band tries to hide her during their show, so she can perform without anyone seeing. However, her existence is quickly revealed -and some of the panicked townspeople accidentally trigger an ancient curse that puts both groups at risk.
It’s an interesting play on mermaids -and makes them almost vampiric, which is very different from what I’ve seen and I wish it got expanded on more.
Good Ideas but Poor Execution
The idea of having mermaids follow “vampire rules” like being unable to withstand sunlight and being able to turn others into mermaids, through bites is really interesting and apparently is a vestige from the original script -which did have vampires.
You would think one of the characters would point out this coincidence. But nobody does. It feels kind of wasted within the film. It also seems like a waste that the fact that mermaids like music, doesn’t lay a larger role within the narrative and world of the story.
Shouldn’t it have been more obvious why the families don’t want them in the band? Is music allowed in the village? Do they know which kind of music is most likely to attract the mer-people? These two things are never really connected in the film, and I think it could have made a really interesting plot point or conflict.
If they’re so apprehensive about mermaids, why isn’t music banned or limited? When did the mermaids start becoming more of a myth to the citizens? Was there ever any kind of interaction?
Not to mention, Kai’s mother is a singer and this is given. I don’t know maybe a minute of significance in the film. You don’t need to give a justification for his musical abilities. Having this whole convoluted relationship with his mother, just means it feels like something got cut out of the film, that would have given us a greater understanding of some of the characters.
And that disappoints me. This could have been a really interesting film, but it doesn’t even do an excellent job with the relationship between any of the characters. They’re all so dull and one-note- I never really felt like we got to know any of them. I can’t really tell you what their relationships are like outside of the events or what will happen to them in the future or what they have in common aside from music.
Lu is pretty non-communicative. So we get know her even less. Why does she want to be friends with humans so badly? What led her to listening to the band that night?
Does she not have friends among the merfolk? What does she think of humans? What do the other mermaids think of them? Why haven’t they tried better to communicate things? Don’t the ones turned into mermaids miss their families? What’s their culture like?
We never find any of this out. There’s nothing to provide context for the characters’ ideas or actions.
The answers to these questions wouldn’t only provide a deeper understanding of the world -but of the actions taken.
Am I really supposed to believe that the people who were turned into mermaids never tried to make an attempt to contact their loved ones, to let them know they were okay.? They couldn’t write a note in a bottle or something?
There was nothing saying they had to pretend to be dead…. And that also doesn’t explain characters like Lu and her father -who aren’t bitten merfolk? How does that work? How is that different? Also, one of the most important questions: How old is Yu supposed to be?
Was…this supposed to be a romance?
Most of Yuasa’s works are romance. They don’t fall into that ambiguous space that many Miyazaki duos do -where it could be romantic, or familial, or friendship, or something kind of deeper.
But Lu feels like it was trying to set the Kai and Lu up as romantic partners.
The two couldn’t even have a proper conversation, since apparently Lu can’t speak human Japanese. She also looked and behaved like she was five years old, not 13… That is, inherently, a kind of creepy relationship.
The two don’t really spend much time together on-screen or have any good conversations. It’s obvious the two do care for each other -but throughout the film, it plays more like they’re brother and sister. Yet at the end of the movie, Kai confesses his love for her -which comes off far more romantic than familial…shouting his feelings as the two are forced into their own societies, never to meet again.
That’s a romantic trope.
It’s okay, for Lu, a five-year-old seemingly, to have a huge crush on an older guy. But it’s really weird for Kai to seemingly return those feelings. If Lu was his age, she should have been portrayed as older in some way. But she only speaks in three or four word sentences, along the lines of “Lu want friends” or “Lu love Kai” and doesn’t seem to totally understand everything going on around her.
And that’s not even mentioning that she’s drawn like a child.
It’s impossible to know how old or mature she is, because we never learn anything about the fish people and their culture. For all we know, she’s 200 years old but only 5 mentally, because that’s how mermaids work.
Or she’s about Kai’s age but since she can’t speak their language, she appears to act like a child. Which I don’t think was what the movie was going for. The mermaids are a mystery, but not an intriguing one. A needlessly boring mystery.
That’s part of what made Ponyo the better version of this story- it provided context to the conflict and plot. Well that, and many other things.
Lu vs. Ponyo
The similarities between the movies are mostly coincidental -but there are too many to ignore. While Lu Over the Wall focuses mainly on music and xenophobia while Ponyo is more focused on environmentalism and the idea of change. While Ponyo’s father was apprehensive around humans, the humans don’t really care about Ponyo being a demigod.
In Lu, music is eventually what reunites some of the villagers with their loved ones -but Kai wasn’t necessary to do this. Lu, however, due to her boundless curiosity was. But we never really get any idea of what the two groups uniting could be like or what would happen if one of them chose to stay behind.
Ponyo is forced to make a huge decision in order to remain with Sousuke -there are real legitimate consequences that have been interwoven and spoken about throughout the story.
Lu’s actions punish her people -they have to move and find a new place to live. Which may or may not be possible.
There are no consequences for Kai. He loses a girl, a child, he’s known for maybe a month and gains friends. He’s happy now. But he never really grows during this film, and when he does change it isn’t earned or expanded on.
Sousuke grows. We see him becoming braver. Taking charge and gaining a better understanding of the world. And Ponyo decides to give up her magic and become human -she also teaches her dad, that humans are not necessarily all bad.
There’s no indication that the mermaids in Lu ever felt threatened by or antagonistic towards humans. They’re just nice, misunderstood people, without a lot of screentime.
In the Ponyo movie, merfolk seem to be a combination of the Spirit of the ocean and Ponyo’s ambiguously human dad. Normal humans don’t know about the spirits, for obvious reasons, but everyone pretty quickly accepts Ponyo.
In Lu, mermaids are treated as a myth and for whatever reason, they don’t communicate with humans that there’s no danger, even though there’s supposedly some kind of conflict, the logistics and reasoning never really seemed clear to me.
The film is so awkward and unformed. Most of the time, I couldn’t follow what was going on. I don’t know if it was cultural differences, bad writing, mistranslations or what but I felt like something had been left out of the script. Like it wasn’t a final draft.
Cool to look at but not follow
Like all of Yuasa’s films, the animation is beautiful, crazy, and very vivid and unique. And it really works well when the style changes for the flashbacks especially. It’s the best thing about the movie.
I particularly liked Lu’s design -with her aquatic, water hair that seemed to be an ecosystem of its own. It’s really beautiful and I like how they decided to make all the mermaids slightly different in design. It kept things interesting and it separated Lu from the other mermaid and characters by showing how supernatural and inhumane she is.
Her giant shark dad is also fun. I wish they had done more with him.
Overall, this film is never going to be on my list of favorites, or best anime. It’s still kind of rough story-wise and it doesn’t really engage me as a viewer. If you’re looking at it from purely a visual or aesthetic point of view -there’s a lot to work with. But I’m more of a story girl myself.
Anyway, that’s the scoop.
Year of release: 2017
Length: 112 minutes
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Producer: Kōji Yamamoto
Writers: Reiko Yoshida, Masaaki Yuasa
If you liked this review check out:“Ride Your Wave” is the anime romance we need right now
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