My first foray into writing about movies was under a pseudonym. I’m not even sure anymore the reasoning behind that decision. Perhaps there was something alluring, and maybe even a little glamorous, about it. I also, in theory, was able to protect my “real life” from my real self, or vice versa perhaps. I could speak freely, absolving the louder, more wild parts of myself from the centered, easily digestible middle that I presented daily. In a lot of ways, it probably had more to do with me figuring out who I was than it did with anything else.
In Lu Over the Wall, Kai is a teenage boy attempting to do something similar to my young self. He makes beats anonymously online, trying to carve an identity without the prying, critical eyes of his father and grandfather, a fisherman and a parasol maker, respectively. Both would rather Kai enter one of these trades, as they’re among the few profitable jobs in their small, struggling fishing village. Kai is surrounded by peers who similarly have dreams of success and of Tokyo, a utopia to these small-town children. The adults who surround them are rigorously practical—“How much of a mortgage are dreams going to pay?”
Kai, though, just as he does in his creative life, lives anonymously in real life, a silent “zombie” who chooses privacy even when in public, doing anything he can to not make waves and redirecting his frustration with his father and his loneliness inward. Choosing not to be himself, instead hiding it away. But, when his music is discovered by fellow classmates Yuho and Kunio, they enlist him into their band “SEIRÈN,” named after the village’s rumored merfolk. Their music inspires a young mermaid named Lu to reveal herself, stirring up old legends and fears and causing strange events to happen throughout the village.
Lu Over the Wall is a fun movie in the vein of Footloose or Dirty Dancing, about youth who struggle to find their place and their identity in a world that wants them to be anything but themselves. Director Masaaki Yuasa makes this cliche plot his own, though, bringing his distinct surrealist style to a place of sturdy realism, cleverly vacillating between abstraction and realism where necessary. It especially shifts tone and look when the story drifts into memory or fantasy. For instance, Lu’s powerful force over water is unnatural, cubelike and structural, granting it a distinct magical quality. Similarly, Granny Octopus’s and Kai’s grandfather’s memories—both of people being taken by the merfolk—have a fluid, brightly colored look that comes across as memory and mood.
Yet, Kai’s town itself, in its buildings and landscape, is realistically detailed, looking remarkably like a Japanese fishing village. At the times when it does change and resemble the fantasy of the story, like when Lu’s father arrives at the village or when Lu causes an impromptu dance party, it does so in order to serve the story. Yuasa makes these functional decisions of changing the shape and color of these characters and their world in order to more accurately convey the emotion of a scene, the cinematic experience of it. In this way, the town can be a wild, colorful party in which bodies move in ways disorienting and bombastic, or it can be a bleak, darkly lit, oppressive place so steeped in grown-up realism.
Throughout the movie, Yuasa seems to experiment with shape and movement, yet always with a practiced eye towards function. Through his skill, the movie dances elegantly between real and unreal, as if one bounds the other and vice versa, just as much as I was unsure whether I wanted to protect my real life or my hidden, secret identity.
Our characters are likewise bound, attempting to straddle the line between practicality and dreaminess. Whether they are bound by their memories, their families, their teachers, or their village, these characters end up internalizing these feelings in order to restrain themselves. Kai, of course, hides his music from his family, but so too does Kunio, training to be the village’s next priest. Yuho, well known because her father owns the town’s biggest company, is bound more because her life is so very public, whether because of her familial name or her father’s overbearing presence. All of these worries about failure, worries about money, or worries of the unknown, watery world just beyond the cursed rock that closes off the village end up coalescing at the movie’s climax. Because like most things pushed down or hidden, their revelation is only every dramatic.
Lu is sort of the cause of and solution to the chaos that can come from transparency. She appears so suddenly with a burst of music, breaking SEIRÈN out of their normal rut simply by being herself. She is driven by love for everyone and by a want for that love to be shared between everyone, to be shared even as a love for themselves.
It’s a movie less about little moments and more about going big, about growing into oneself in one sharp burst. It focuses on grand gestures and bold statements and on loud and messy spontaneous movement, because going over “the wall,” whether it be a true barricade or something we’ve mentally created, is never accomplished by noncommittally moving through life. It’s grabbing onto something and earnestly believing in yourself and in others, all with an energetic love that makes you tap your toes and clap your hands.
The movie is so full of this kind of energy that you can’t help but feel that it’s rooting for you personally, telling you that it believes in you– but, of course, only so much as you believe in yourself. For, as Lu teaches Kai in a swimming lesson, whether we sink or swim depends greatly on what we believe will happen.
Lu Over the Wall
dir. Masaaki Yuasa
Premieres May 11 at Kendall Square Cinema