Kai is a grumpy teenager. If you’re an anime fan, you’ll recognise the character trope, a boy who doesn’t seem interested in life and can’t get enthusiastic about anything. He is virtually railroaded by a couple of friends into putting a band together. The two friends are Kunio and Yuho. You’ll recognise their character tropes too. Kunio is the funny and not very clever male friend. Yuho is the enthusiastic girl who is full of life and can’t stay angry with anyone for very long. But tropes are not necessarily bad things, and they serve their purpose in the film. The key decision that sets the chain of events in motion in this film is the location the trio choose to play their music: Merfolk Island. This is Ningyojima in Japanese, and ningyo is the Japanese version of the mermaid myth. It’s similar to legends of mermaids you will find elsewhere, but an important characteristic to ningyo is the danger they present. They were very much creatures to be feared, capable of bringing bad luck and terrible weather. This is very cleverly used in Lu Over the Wall as a way to make a story about the dangers of xenophobia and the exploitation of minorities.
The band’s music attracts the attention of a mermaid girl, Lu, and she starts singing and dancing with them. Whenever music plays her fin transforms into legs, so she can dance, and she has power over the music and can also make other people dance. This part of the film is huge fun (and the music is great – you’ll want to get up and dance too), and reminded me strongly of Ponyo, with a child of the sea becoming emotionally attached to a human boy, and wanting to form a bond that transcends the very different worlds they each inhabit. It’s lovely to watch, and there’s just enough of a hint of romance without that ever becoming heavy-handed or weird.
Things start to escalate, and people find out about Lu, mainly via social media. Humans and the merfolk have kept separate for many years, with the humans fearing and distrusting them, but it looks for a while as if they will be able to live together in harmony once again. An old, disused theme park on the theme of mermaids is reopened, and people flock to see Lu dance to the music of the band. However, Kai becomes uneasy about all this, and can’t shake the feeling that it’s all going to end in tears. That’s a feeling we share as viewers. You can’t help but think it’s all about to go wrong, with old prejudices started to well up in the town.
Complicating matters is Lu’s need to stay out of the sun. At first I thought this was a bit weird, like some kind of a confusion between mermaid and vampire myths, and if you think too much about it then it’s hard to make much sense of the idea. It’s just something you have to accept, and it is crucial to the story, because Lu is inevitably placed in danger by her participation in what can only be described as a circus show. Seeing her perform for a watching crowd is also something that makes the viewer uneasy. It’s not just the potential danger to Lu, it’s the general sense of wrongness to it all. As much as she seems to be enjoying herself, this is no way to treat a fellow sentient being, as an exhibit to gawp at.
Inevitably, it does all go wrong. Yuho goes missing and her father jumps to completely the wrong conclusion, blaming the merfolk and imprisoning Lu. As the sun nearly strikes Lu, her father has to save her, which somehow triggers a curse that floods the town. I have to admit to being unclear about how exactly that works, but that’s the thing with curses in fiction – you kind of just have to accept them and not look for the logic too much. Lu’s father is a great character, a huge shark-like creature. In probably the funniest moment of the film, before all the drama kicks off, he walks through the town, waiting patiently for the shade to move across a street before he can go any further, while people look up at him in nervous amazement. He is not just the source of the funniest humour in the film, but the most shocking moment too, when he has to go into the sunshine in order to save his daughter. It’s hard to watch.
For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend this film for the youngest children to watch, because it does have some very disturbing moments, but for older children this should proudly sit alongside the Ghibli films as a family favourite. The PG certificate seems about right to me, but I would say it’s on the upper end of PG. The majority of the film is hugely entertaining, and the music makes for a lively viewing experience. Children will love the character of Lu, and the joy for life she exhibits. There is also a very powerful message about setting aside old prejudices and working together to help each other, although it is perhaps undermined a little at the end with circumstances forcing the humans and merfolk to go their separate ways. I would have much preferred a resolution that showed them all learning to live in harmony, without an enforced separation to help along that process. This is also a film that shows that Kai’s grumpy approach to life won’t get him anything but misery. With the help of Lu, Yuho and Kunio, he learns to change his attitude, and although that’s very familiar ground for anime it’s done very well here. Like the Studio Ghibli films, I think Lu Over the Wall is one we will end up watching again and again. RP