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Lu Over The Wall (2017)

Lu Over The Wall is, remarkably enough,  the second feature film directed by Masaaki Yuasa to be released in 2017 (following The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl). This is an impressive feat for any filmmaker- but in the labour-intensive world of animation, it's nothing short of incredible.

Lu marks Yuasa's first foray into family films, and is perhaps his most mainstream release so far as a result. Does his move into aiming at a wider audience mean that an artist known for a very distinctive style has had to make compromises? Based on the finished result, I'm going to have to assume the answer to that is a very firm "no".

The story is a modern fairytale that shares an obvious lineage with The Little Mermaid (the original story rather than the Disney film specifically) and Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo. It takes place in a seaside town which relies chiefly on fishing, but where folktales persist of mischievous merfolk. Middleschooler Kai, who has recently moved to town with his father, isn't a fan of the town or it's people, but his life takes a turn when he encounters a curious young mermaid named Lu.

The comparison with Ponyo is perhaps inevitable, and the design of Lu herself doesn't really do it any favors in this regard. It's a debt that the film seems to wink to itself, with a brief appearance of a character who bears an uncanny likeness to that film's male lead. However, despite any superficial similarities, this is another kettle of fish entirely.

While still a family film, this skews older than Ponyo and feels different as a result. A key plot element of the film is the band Kai joins with a pair of friends. Music plays a major part through the film and it's the music played by the kids' band SIEREN that attracts Lu to meet Kai in the first place, and later his friends too. The apparent age difference between Kai and Lu ensures this is a platonic relationship or even more of a big brother/ little sister bond. There is one brief scene that muddies the water a little, but it never strays too far into the questionable territory.

In terms of plot, the film is relatively conventional. The characters too are not far from those you have likely seen many times before. Kai himself is not far from the traditional audience-insert male lead. Lu fits the standard type of the curious and naive alien/outsider- literally a fish out of water- and his friends are the classic spunky girl and chatter-box guy. The rest of the town is populated mainly by archetypes.

None of this matters though, as the experience of watching the film is unique. In any Yuasa film or series, the chief talking point is rarely the plot, but the execution.

If you're not au fait with past Yuasa works it's very hard to convey just what makes his work so distinctive. It has a visual style all of its own. There's a kind of simplicity and flatness to the art, which means it doesn't always translate well to the still image. Yet in motion, it comes to life with a vibrancy and energy that is unmatched. It's a world away from the slick look of the high-end output of a Studio Ghibli film or a Makoto Shinkai production. It's less interested in spit and polish and square ideas like staying on model, and more about creating a feeling through motion. This feeds naturally into the film's musical nature, creating something that feels almost like a unique cover version of a familiar tune.

Yuasa's unique style shows influences far beyond anime and is often reminiscent of early US animation, such as the works of Max Fleischer or Tex Avery, and it often appeals more outside traditional anime fan circles. The style will draw as many detractors as fans, and it definitely doesn't work for everyone.

Any complaints here are minor. Kai is something of a blank slate with not much personality- although I suppose it's novel to see a male character who is largely defined by his relationship with the female lead and not the other way around. It's also possibly a touch too long, and at just short of two hours could probably stand to lose a few minutes to make for a tighter film.

Ultimately though, this is a film that is unlike anything else you will see this year- not even the director's last film! Next time somebody complains that all anime looks the same... give them a look at this. It's positively overflowing with creativity and off-kilter charm and is a film that anyone who truly loves animation should be sure not to miss.

FORMATSTheatrical [UK and Ireland], 6th December 2017
Find A Screening
FROM Anime Limited
1hr 52m 

IN A NUTSHELL: A fabulously funky fishy fairytale that breathes new life into the family animated feature.

*Screener provided by Anime Limited*