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Japanese animation 'Lu Over the Wall' gives mermaid tale new life

Japanese animation 'Lu Over the Wall' gives mermaid tale new life
A scene from the movie "Lu Over the Wall." (GKIDS)

Masaaki Yuasa's "Lu Over the Wall" blends elements of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo" and alienated teen stories into a quirky, highly personal film unlike conventional Japanese or American animated features.

After his parents divorce, sulky junior high student Kai (voiced by Michael Sinterniklaas, who manages to keep his moody character likable in the English-language version) moves to his grandfather's home in Hinashi Town, a flyspeck coastal village where the only possible careers are fishing and making umbrellas. Although Kai is a talented musician, he has to be dragooned into joining the band formed by two of his classmates: spoiled, pretty Yuho (Stephanie Sheh), the daughter of a wealthy developer; and exuberant Kunio (Brandon Engman), whose family maintains the local Shinto shrine.

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The trio practices in a ruined amusement park on nearby Merfolk Island, where Kai's melodies attract Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos), an excitable young mermaid. Whenever she hears music, Lu's tail splits into legs and feet, enabling her to dance. When Lu dances, everyone within earshot joins in — whether they want to or not. Her uninhibited good cheer delights Kai, who emerges from his shell and begins paying attention to the people around him. Lu proves more powerful than her childish appearance suggests: She manipulates huge blocks of seawater to capsize the thuggish abalone poachers who menace the teenagers, and helps Kai — who can't swim — win a long-distance race.

But the citizens of Hinashi Town hate the merpeople, whom they believe raid their nets and devour luckless fishermen who fall overboard. Centuries ago, the townspeople cruelly murdered a captured merman by exposing him to sunlight that burned him to cinders. The merpeople flooded the town in revenge, and the inhabitants live in fear of another flood. No human wants anything to do with the sea-spirits — except Yuho's blowhard of a grandfather (Michael Sorich), who built the failed amusement park. He sees a chance to create a major tourist attraction and rebuild his fortune.

Numerous complications, misunderstandings and threats arise, climaxing with the arrival of Lu's father (Michael Alston Baley), who looks like a gigantic shark dressed for a stroll through Belle Époque Paris. After trying to win over the townspeople through kindness, he unleashes his terrible wrath when they imprison Lu. Kai and his friends defuse the situation and forge a new bond of friendship between humans and merfolk.

As the film uses Flash animation, the character designs are stripped down and minimal. When the humans join Lu's joyful dance, their feet and bodies flail about cartoonishly, with no sense of weight or believable motion. And Yuasa is still finding his footing as a storyteller: "Lu" has a few too many subplots and secondary characters.

However, Yuasa is a leading figure in Japan's alternative anime scene. His brightly colored, eclectic style references not only Japanese animation but "Yellow Submarine" and the films of Tex Avery, Ladislas Starevich and Nick Park. "Lu Over the Wall" won the Cristal Award for animated feature at the 2017 Annecy International Animation Festival — the first Japanese film to win since Isao Takahata's "Pom Poko" in 1995.

Yuasa's bold imagery and sometimes convoluted storytelling defy the conventions of traditional animated filmmaking, but he is clearly an artist with an individual vision whose work offers something genuinely new and eye-catching.

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‘Lu Over the Wall’

In both Japanese with English subtitles, and English-lanuage versions

Rating: PG, for some peril and thematic elements

Running time: 1 hours, 52 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood

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