Somewhere in the psychoactive realm between “The Little Mermaid,” “Ponyo,” that mermaid subplot from “Beach Blanket Bingo” and the time you accidentally ate a moldy tangerine and saw never-before-seen colors for hours on end, lies a movie called “Lu Over the Wall.” It’s gorgeous, it’s distinctive, it’s quirky, it’s definitely about mermaids, and it might just make you question your sanity.
“Lu Over the Wall” is a new anime feature from Masaaki Yuasa, who is perhaps best known in America as the director of the ultraviolent, ultra-harrowing television series “Devilman: Crybaby.” Although the two projects are vastly different in tone, they share an extemporaneous quality that is both intoxicating and overwhelming. It would appear that Yuasa’s worlds are full of danger and beauty, squished together into unlikely patterns.
On the surface, “Lu Over the Wall” looks like just another retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” Kai (voiced by Michael Sinterniklaas in the American dub) is a middle schooler and aspiring musician, a pessimistic loner who has no desire to communicate with his classmates. To his chagrin, two of his classmates — the effervescent Yūho (Stephanie Sheh) and the enthusiastic but embarrassed Kunio (Brandon Engman) — find out about Kai’s musical talent and invite him to join their band, Siren, which rehearses in secret at the nearby Merfolk Island.
It’s not just a name: Kai and his bandmates soon discover that Merfolk are real, and that a mermaid girl named Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos) is totally in love with their music. She’s a great singer to boot. It’s an enormous revelation made all the more dangerous by the town’s troubling history with Merfolk, so when Siren recruits Lu into their musical act and accidentally reveal her to the whole town, and to the whole world, it leads to catastrophic misunderstandings, kidnappings, flooding and attempted fish murder.
“Lu Over the Wall” is many films, all of them vying for the same screen time. It’s as chaotic as it sounds. On one hand, it’s a film about an underdog teen pop band, and that’s probably the most endearing incarnation of this story. Kai is a believably morose adolescent who comes out of his shell when he makes a new friend, and watching Siren deal with petty jealousies and secrets gives each character moments of joy and misery. It’s a bright, sensational storyline with delightful music to amplify it.
“Lu Over the Wall” is also a film about mermaids, but not just any mermaids: We’re talking some seriously weird mermaids here. It’s a vampiric breed of creature which bursts into flames upon contact with direct sunlight, and which can transform anything else into a mermaid just by biting it. When Lu’s father arrives (a giant leviathan wearing a business suit and mustache for some reason), he proceeds to bite every dead fish in this seaside community. Before long they start getting up and walking away, even after they’ve been eaten, and the movie treats this like a relatively minor plot point even though it’s so strange it makes you want to pull out your hair and beg someone, anyone, to make a big deal out of it.
It’s also a film about lingering generational animosity, xenophobia and racism. It turns out this town was cursed many years ago, when the locals sacrificed one of the Merfolk in the sun. The few Merfolk sightings since are shrouded in mystery and suspicion, so that even Kai’s grandfather thinks they’re responsible for the horrific death of his own mother. History repeats itself and lessons are learned, but if you thought this was a cutesy animated fairy tale about beach bands and happy water sprites, the third act of “Lu Over the Wall” might turn out to be pretty upsetting.
It’s hard to fault Yuasa’s film for its ingenuity; it’s a vividly realized and incredibly distinctive animated fantasy, which touches upon familiar myths, only to suddenly shove them in new and unexpected directions. It’s vivid and colorful, with exuberant music and (at the very least) a respectable American dub. The animation style veers from sweet and traditional to wild and elastic. You never know what’s going to happen next.
But you also never quite know if you’re going to like it. Just when you’ve got your bearings, and have come to accept “Lu Over the Wall” for whatever the heck it seems to be at the moment, it transforms into something different. Whether these mood swings are welcome or frustrating will vary from audience member to audience member, and possibly from moment to moment.
Either way, there’s no other mermaid movie quite like “Lu Over the Wall,” for better or worse. Let’s go with “better.”