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Monday
May282018

Lu Over the Wall (2017)

Water You Afraid Of?

You can read politics into most anything these days, and doing so has become America's second national pastime. It's a fun, infuriating, and potentially dangerous hobby, the full effects of which we likely won't know for forty years. But in the meantime, why not burn the midnight oil wondering about what a sitcom does or doesn't mean; whether a musician's outrageous behavior can be pinned on mere theatricality, bona fide insanity, or (heaven forbid) deep-seated yet potentially unpalatable beliefs; or whether or not an animated Japanese film was really meant as a critique of a world increasingly divided by myths and misconceptions?

Masaaki Yuasa's Lu Over the Wall is a charming, family-friendly animated feature that jumps off the screen with upbeat music, hyper-alive colors, and a title character whose endearing sweetness may give you cavities. Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida create a near-tangible reality within the Japanese island village of Hinoshi. The small population seems evenly split between technology-obsessed teenagers; too-busy-to-do-anything-but-work adults; and a winnowing population of elders who guard against an ancient superstition involving Merfolk.

The waters surrounding Hinoshi are dangerous, you see, inhabited by vicious creatures who devour and/or abduct anyone foolish enough to venture outside the city after dark. This narrative has prevailed through generations, inspiring a tradition of hanging white-painted sea urchin husks outside homes and business (it represents the sun), and spawning the legend of nearby Merfolk Island, where no one dare tread.

Enter Kai (Shôta Shimoda), a sullen teen transplant from Tokyo who finds himself drafted into a burgeoning rock band by peppy local aspirants Kunio (Sôma Saitô) and Yûho (Minako Kotobuki). When Kai joins his new friends at their practice space in the ruins of Merfolk Island, he meets Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos), a sprightly child mermaid who is attracted to the group's songs. In this world, music is not only figuratively transformative, it changes Lu's floppy fish tale into a manic set of dancing legs.

Lu Over the Wall follows in the tradition of E.T., with a small team of sassy kids protecting their lovable alien discovery from the suspicious adults all around them. Lu uses her abilities to help Kai in a swimming contest, thwart bullies, and even open up to his dad, still reeling from a recent divorce. Of course, trouble comes calling when Lu is discovered by the townsfolk during an impromptu flash mob at the beach (it's actually weirder than it sounds), and the movie unfolds as a cautionary tale about the dangers of holding on to outdated beliefs and prejudices in the face of new evidence (and, going a step further, the dangers of not allowing that evidence to be presented).

All hell breaks loose on Hinoshi as Lu's father, a cunning and very protective antrhopomorphized shark, comes looking for his daughter. The ensuing carnage creates an atmosphere in which action replaces communication, and it's only through dumb luck that both humankind and Merfolk don't wipe each other out. It's like a grim version of The Lego Batman Movie's climax, in which unlikely alliances band together to save the day--minus the shiny, irony-coated plastic of that film's overall mood. It's not really a spoiler to reveal that everything works out in the end, since the climactic flooding of Hinoshi leads to some genuine disaster-movie scenarios for which parents will definitely want to be in the room.

I don't know if the writers and artists who created Lu Over the Wall set out to comment specifically on American politics, or if their film is simply a recurring tragedy that pops up across nations and generations. Whichever the case, both children and adults can learn a lot from Lu, Kai, and the various factions that come into conflict as a result of their "forbidden" friendship. We really do need to learn to talk to each other; to listen to each other; and to recognize the dignity of the self, even amidst typhoons of accusation, rumor, and presuppositon. If people who hold opposing political, religious, or social beliefs can't find commonality beneath our myriad divisive labels, we'll be forced to accept the harsh judgment of cosmic commonality, which will drown us all, indiscriminately.

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