Monday, July 31, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Lu Over the Wall

When it comes to mer-people, the Celts have their selkie, the Slavs have the rusalka, and Japan tells tales of the ningyo. Those ningyo legends have a darker tone than our Disney and Ron Howard mermaid movies, so it is not so surprising many residents of a coastal Japanese fishing village hold misconceptions regarding ningyos. One compulsively cheerful ningyo will do her best to change their prejudices, starting with a moody Tokyo transplant in Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Yuasa has been busy, having already released Lu and Night is Short, Walk on Girl in Japan this year. While both feature his “flat” style of character rendering, Lu is clearly intended for a much younger audience. After his parents’ divorce, Kai moves to the harbor town of Hinashi with his father. The moody aspiring electronica DJ reluctantly joins the band led by town princess Yuho and her torch-carrier Kunio, mostly because he is curious to see Mermaid Island, where they practice.

The island was once the site of an ill-fated ningyo/mermaid-themed amusement park, but deserted jutting rock formation always shielded nearby “Mermaid Harbor” from the sun they dread. This is one of the few ningyo legends that is apparently true. They also really enjoy music, especially Lu, who can’t help singing along with the band. As luck would have it, she has a better voice than Yuho, so Lu replaces her as lead vocalist. Of course, this makes things awkward when they actually get live gigs, especially considering the anti-ningyo sentiments of old-timers, like the old granny who blames the ningyo for her husband’s disappearance.

It is indeed true ningyo can turn the land-bound into ningyo with a vampire bite to the neck. However, they only use their powers for good, as when Lu liberates all the puppies in the pound, turning them into merdoggies. She pretty much has everyone in the audience won over at that point. Still, she is a bit young-looking to be hanging with Kai and Kuho. Supposedly, they are in middle school, but their animated figures look more like high school teens, whereas Lu resembles a nine or ten-year-old. Technically, Yuasa keeps things squeaky clean, but when Kai finally admits he has feelings for Lu, it should make everyone feel a little uncomfortable.

Still, Yuasa has an affinity youthful alienation and the rhythms of small town life. It is also nice to see so many presumably minor characters take on greater significance later in the film. The major plot points are all pretty predictable and the environmental messaging gets a bit tiresome, but Yuasa keeps us hooked with all his clever bits of business. Plus, there are merpuppies. Miguel Ortega & Tran Ma’s Ningyo is still more our kind of mer-creature film, but Lu should charm fans of similar films, like Ponyo and Mia and the Migoo. Recommended for young viewers, Lu Over the Wall screens tonight (7/31) and tomorrow (8/1), as part of this year’s Fantasia.