Saturday, July 6, 2019

The little mermaid


"Oh, boy, it's one of these animes, huh?" is exactly what I said, but as it happens, it is, and it's pretty great anyway.

2017 Japan/2018 USA
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa
Written by Reiko Yoshida and Masaaki Yuasa

Spoiler alert: moderate

Not that its director would deny doing it, even if I suspect he'd deny the achievement of it, but Lu Over the Wall is indeed what you've heard.  That is, it's every inch Masaaki Yuasa "doing a Miyazaki" and, at the very least, proving himself equal to the task.  As a popular mode of Japanese animation that it seems a number of rising anime auteurs of the 21st century have stumbled their way ass-backwards into, it was probably inevitable that Yuasa would join them as he made his way back to feature animation at the head of his production company, Science Saru.  It's possible to speculate that when he formed the company in 2014 alongside Eunyoung Choi, and they decided (naturally enough) that their filmmaking venture should make a film, they calculated that their first ought to be one expected to be popular and financially successful, and so "doing a Miyazaki" was the order of the day, to the extent that Yuasa has bashfully pled out on the charge that it's an homage-unto-crypto-remake of Ponyo.  Ultimately, it wasn't their first film after all: it wound up taking more time than their second effort, the somewhat more personally-driven The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, in large part because the industrial efficiencies that Yuasa and Choi had built into their Flash-based process with animation chiefs Abel Gongora and Juan Manuel Laguna bogged down a little nevertheless, once Yuasa's desire for unprecedented fluidity turned out to still take a whole lot of time.

Fluidity, of course, is very much Lu's game, since besides any possible commercial concerns, it was born out of Yuasa's nostalgia (and, charmingly, this too echoes Miyazaki on Ponyo) for animating water, which Yuasa never felt he'd gotten enough of.  (This is perhaps why Mindgame is also something like 80% water-based and his most recent film, less than a month old now, Ride Your Wave—well, you can guess.)  And given his predilections for fluidity in character design and narrative alike, structuring his films visually around water obviously suits his temperament.

So it's on the water, or at least near the water, where we find young Kai (Shota Shimoda), a recent transplant from Tokyo to the remote, picturesque, and seemingly very-boring fishing town of Hinashi, where his father's relocated in the aftermath of a break-up with his mother, moving back in with his father, who gave up fishing decades ago in favor of making umbrellas.  There's a story behind that—there's a story behind everything in Lu, which is both one of its great appeals and perhaps its fundamental problem—but the shortest possible version is that, while generally boring, Hinashi has been touched by magic before, and will be again.  Kai's taken his new life out in the sticks poorly and can barely be roused to care about anything, and he's been processing his feelings through his musical hobby, the creation of pleasant little electronic melodies that he's posted on the Internet.  But despite doing so anonymously, his classmates Yuho (Minako Kotobuki) and Kunio (Soma Saito) have identified him anyway, and we meet Kai in the midst of their aggressive, insistent invitation for him to join their semi-crappy garage band, SEIREN.  The name is, presumably, a coincidence, but when they go out past the imposing vertical pile of rocks in the bay called a "shadowstone" in order to have their first practice together on an abandoned island, their music attracts something they didn't expect: Lu (Kanon Tani), a mermaid.

Well, fish-person, or ningyo; the Japanese concept doesn't totally map onto Western merfolk.  But then, as far as I can tell, Lu doesn't really map onto either—if what's established in the film accords with anything at all, the closest is vampires, except maritime-themed.  Yeah, Lu is a rather strange film.  Anyway, I'm gonna go with "mermaid."

Lu joins forces with the band—for whenever music plays, Lu's tail splits into a pair of tireless dancing legs—and that brings us up to the point where we can recognize, "this is a solid riff on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, in addition to Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro."  (It also recalls Song of the Sea, I guess, except it's not ungodly boring; and The Little Mermaid, Andersen and Disney alike, but only in the vaguest possible terms.)  Yet since that's only twenty minutes into this 112 mintue movie, there is so much more plot to go, from the part where Lu bites a bunch of puppies at the pound and turns 'em into merdogs, because why the hell not, to SEIREN's brush with Internet fame, to the dramatic moment where Kai balks at allowing the town council to draft Lu into their service as an adorable prancing mascot, and subsequently abandons his bandmates, to the even more dramatic moment where they put Lu and SEIREN onstage and she freaks out beneath the withering glare of the crowd's flash photography in a not-very-subtle nod to King Kong, to the most dramatic moment, when Lu's Totoro-esque sharkly father, who has somehow successfully masqueraded as an outside expert in fish preparation for the local cannery, abandons his disguise in a desperate attempt to rescue his daughter from wrathful, irrational humanity, and for a few minutes the movie it most reminds you of now is somehow Britain's Godzilla knock-off, Gorgo, except way more exciting.

So, so much.  And even this streamlined version omits important details, like the curse the town's been under for centuries, reawakened by the mistreatment of the merfolk, and the climax that echoes The Abyss, except at the lowest possible level of urgency—so low that it's frankly difficult to suspend disbelief and accept that any human being is in any danger whatsoever, beyond having their stuff get wet—this being a deliberate if arguably disappointing move to not be too resonant with the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, i.e. the thing 2017 Best Picture winner Shin Godzilla and 2017 Best Animated Feature nominee Your Name were allegorically about.  Well, in fairness, Lu's for children.

Lu is kind of too goofy and scatterbrained to ever be dramatically urgent in any sustained way, in fact—the most intense thing in the film is when Lu's father stops pretending to be a twee Ghibliesque beast and becomes the terrifying Ghibliesque beast he always was, rampaging across Hinashi despite catching fire in the noontide sun (as, apparently, merpeople do).  Lu winds up being "about" maybe a dozen different things all at once: the collapse of smalltown Japan; ecological decline; the ability of music to bring people together; the unpleasantness of xenophobia; dealing with the futility of big youthful dreams; realizing that your parents are people too; the power of friendship, magical and otherwise; and on and on and on.  It's maybe especially about comprehending loss, as no fewer than five characters don't have a mom, and I might've forgotten some, Lu representing what I imagine must be the most egregious use of that trope of all time, despite barely stressing it whatsoever.  Sometimes Lu's extremely successful at being about any given thing; the only thing it really whiffs is "surviving a disaster," and even that has a strong emotional core to it, whether it's successfully scary or not.

Besides, "goofy and scatterbrained" is, pejorative or not, the most characteristic thing about Yuasa's third feature, which turns out to be very much of a piece with his other work despite being a touch more restrained and a lot more kid-friendly.  Which itself isn't a bad thing overall, either: the Yuasa part (working from a screenplay by Reiko Yoshida) gives it an inexhaustible energy that sees the movie continually reinvent itself over and over, driving this way and that, exploring weird corners of its small universe and sometimes surprising you with the incredibly poignant things it finds there; the kid-friendliness is, well, exactly that, and it's hard to stay mad at a movie that's this basically sweet and cute, unless you're constitutionally allergic to cuteness, in which case Lu in particular might just kill you.

Therefore what it's really about, all the time, is neither more nor less than Yuasa applying a variation of his style to a wacky world of merpeople and music, and this pretty much always works.  (The littlest cool thing, which I might not have consciously noticed except Yuasa is so proud of it that he's bragged about it, is the way that the merfolks' hydromantic powers manifest as an uncanny hybrid of solid and liquid, so that when they assert their will upon the sea it turns into big green glowing pylons with smooth, flat sides, emphasizing both the merpeople's magic and the liminal space between our world and theirs.  Plus, it looks really neat.)

As a work of animation, it's positively hyperactive, but in the best way, not above driving its comedy with the kind of extreme but earnest silliness that, even so, never seems desperate; it put a smile on this face, at least.  (Odd then, that the best single gag is so quotidian: a perfect exercise in comedy-through-composition, a far shot that allows the characters to be objectively and hilariously inept without interrupting them with a cut, letting us see precisely how easy it would be for anyone with basic life skills to have avoided their inevitable pratfall into the ocean.)  Anyway, most of it's not like that: Yuasa's fondness for the anti-realist ethos of 1930s American animation, which I often don't like at all when I actually see it in 1930s American animation, but which I like a great deal when Yuasa uses it, is even more purely derived here than in The Night Is Short.  This is especially true in a fantastically kinetic piece of choreography, where it turns out that in Yuasa's world it isn't just mermaids who are compelled to dance when the music plays.  And so the whole town is grabbed forcefully by the rhythm, their limbs swirling through the air with even less interest than Night in what the rules of optics and physics feebly suggest they should look like.

As with Night, Lu attained its remarkable fluidity and capacity for smoothly-rendered distortion by way of Flash, which can be good and can be bad, but is maybe at its best here, with the software being used to digitally inbetween the still-hand-drawn key frames—listening to Yuasa and Choi, it seems this still took an awful lot of manual supervision by the Flash animators, but that labor paid off, with elegant movement and so many opportunities to visually bolster the emotions of the characters with an utterly unrealistic, but somehow believable, expressiveness.  Its prettiest and most technically impressive moments align perfectly: the magical dance; Kai's visit to Lu's beautiful submarine home (amusingly, Kai can't even swim), this being a world of watery shadows, perpetually-unsteady lines, and splendid pastel colors; the violent flames that erupt out of an enraged shark-man in the sun; and, of course, the flashback scenes that take Yuasa's Night/Tatami Galaxy approach (minimalistic blocks of color) but add morphing transitions that bridge the abstract to the representational, in what turns out to be at least one tearworthy moment that understands that sometimes grief lasts a lifetime.  Meanwhile, just every moment Lu's on screen is something of an accomplishment too: a modest masterpiece of coordinated greens and pinks, and partly made of water herself, she's a tremendously emotive collection of squiggles with an aquarium for a head, a little fish or two constantly swimming around in her jelly-like "hair."

Okay, it's undeniably adorable as hell and anime all over, and maybe that's not for everyone.  (There have been a few accusations of selling out thrown Yuasa's way.)  Honestly, I'm still not entirely sure what I love about it so much.  But sweetness and light have their place, especially when they're this richly done, and Lu Over the Wall is such a good-natured and exquisitely-made thing that it's almost disturbingly easy to forget about its flaws, even if, frankly, they're legion.  The thing is, I don't usually like this kind of thing, at least not this much, but if it were a Miyazaki movie, it might actually be my favorite.

Score: 8/10

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