For those whose appetites for Japanese anime don’t stop at Studio Ghibli, Masaaki Yuasa’s “Lu Over the Wall” goes not just over the wall, but pinwheeling through the neighbor’s garden and practically into another dimension — but then, what else would you expect from the director of 2004’s deranged “Mind Game”? If anything, “Lu” feels tame by comparison, although by traditional cartoon standards, this far-fetched, wildly imaginative (and 100% unofficial) riff on Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” — which was itself a loose reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” — puts a zany spin on the old boy-meets-mergirl formula, where a magical sea creature is beckoned ashore by the sound of a mopey rocker’s emo music.
Whereas Miyazaki’s universally accessible “Ponyo” felt like it was targeted at toddlers, “Lu” skews older, appealing more directly to adolescent and adult viewers willing to have their minds blown by the title creature’s supernatural shenanigans. In terms of craftsmanship, the film has a scrappy, sometimes cheap look to it (characters look flat, like thin-lined Etch-a-Sketch drawings, superimposed over more colorful hand-painted backgrounds), for which it more than compensates via other strengths — namely, a trio of relatable, well-written human protagonists and Lu, who can change form and bend water at will. These qualities, and an endearing overall sense of weirdness, earned the film top prize at the 2017 Annecy animation festival.
The story takes place in Hinashi Town, a seaside village where superstitious fisherman live in fear of the malevolent merfolk said to inhabit the local waters, which are chock-a-block with sunken ships. Years earlier, as a protective measure, they blasted a massive boulder, effectively imprisoning the pesky creatures — until teenage Kai (voiced by Shôta Shimoda) and his two bandmates venture to Merfolk Island, where their rehearsal lures Lu “over the wall.”
Nearly an hour has passed by the time the movie gets around to explaining Lu’s species (technically, ningyo), though it hardly matters, since everything the humans think they know about merfolk is wrong, and her abilities go far beyond what anyone can imagine: She can manipulate water, making it glow radioactive, or mold itself into rectangular shapes (a trick she uses to punish a pair of poachers, forcing them high into the air on a pedestal of water). Most of the time, the loosely rendered Lu is an emoji-faced girl, googly-eyed and saw-toothed, with jellyfish-blue hair, a seaweed skirt, and salmon-pink tail. When music plays, however, she can’t help dancing, adapting a pair of batonette legs and rocketing about like a firework set off inside a circus tent.
At first, Lu remains a well-kept secret, but her powers are such that it’s tough for Kai to keep the townsfolk from finding out about his newfound friend — and once they do, they’re quick to exploit the situation, making Lu the centerpiece of his musical act. From there, things get surreal fast, as a giant shark-monster gets involved, stomping out of the sea to wreak havoc on the fast-evolving human-fish relations. Not much of what follows makes sense (despite a few expository interludes rendered in a more primitive style reminiscent of “Mind Game”), but it’s darn crazy to observe, and the fact that Kai and his friends are musicians ensures that there will be fun music to propel things toward their gonzo finale.