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Interview: Michael Sinterniklaas Breaks Down the Freshness & Originality of Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall

Dubbing a voice is work, but Michael Sinterniklaas had an especially big role in Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall where he plays Kai, the musically talented but generally introverted teenager whose world changes when he develops a relationship with the mermaid Lu. From the action sequences (Kai understandably spends a lot of time being surprised and flustered), to emotionally charged conversations, and then to singing, Sinterniklaas had a lot to do to make the film as joyous and fluid as it is.

Kai is a somewhat familiar protagonist: he’s somewhat of an outsider, and not too happy. But Yuasa doesn’t pile on the angst, instead displaying a kind of mundanity and melancholy that interacts with the film’s more fantastical themes in a fresh way. Over email, Sinterniklaas explains the character background. “Kai is, I think understandably cut off emotionally… His family life is far from abusive.. but it is also equally as far from being warm or nurturing. His mom is out of the picture and his dad has a pretty crappy job in which he is clearly not happy, but he just keeps hammering Kai to lead the same kind of life! To forget his dreams, don’t look back, settle, compromise all in the name of security.”

He writes, “But Kai has so much more inside… I think that is very relatable.. I think everybody dreams but what do you do with that? And in this case, even if Kai, who wants to be a musician ends up doing something else professionally, what is the cost of not giving your true love a chance?”

Sinterniklaas explains how his interpretation of Kai shifted over productions, from an initial “sad-sack” to a more complicated boy who’s “had to turn off his feelings.” He points to an early scene with “amazing visual cues about this” where Kai is outed as the creator of a viral music video. “He’s been found…he raises his laptop out of anger like he’s going to smash it… then just gently rests it back down.”

“It’s more honest and interesting if he’s just … cold to the kids trying to get a raise out of him”, he writes, “I’m glad we had an hour at the end of the last session to go back and tweak that moment.”

The joy from the movie and relief for the characters come from music, and the bonds that we see built through music. Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh (reuniting as co-stars from Your Name) both re-recorded the film’s songs in English. “The hardest thing about music in any ADR project is having to sing AS the character, IN sync!” he says. While Sinterniklaas admits to being “pretty nervous” about signing in some crucial moments, he’s happy to report “the feedback has been super positive! PHEW!! and actually…. looking back, its one of my favorite moments and I don’t even cringe when I watch it :)”.

Unsurprisingly, Sinterniklaas is a big fan of director Yuasa’s distinct style. I’m going to leave it here, uninterrupted, so you can really get a sense of how much he adores the animator (and I find a lot of joy in seeing people geek out):

The thing that strikes me about Yuasa immediately, is that while he is an anime director, his works do not feel like anime to me. They can look like anime, but getting into one of his films immediately feels fresh.. the characters instantly feel familiar because they remind me of people I have known or met… not because they are characters I’ve seen in other anime. They are never tropes or archetypes… they’re real people!

He also has this unique pace. You see this in Lu Over the Wall. The amazing things that happen aren’t always gradually set up.. they just hit you and make you gasp. He also has this amazing eye for camera angles that goes beyond what I typically see… in anything! These extreme closeups, fisheyes, tracking shots, that sometimes punctuate these simple slice of life moments. and they really work. Most directors store those up for “BIG” moments. I think its amazing that he uses them for natural moments and they add so much.

Okay, last thing, Yuasa is able to say so much with so little.. a lot of times in Lu Over the Wall, he’ll get into an almost impressionistic art style, or go totally flat 2-D. it starts out slowly and you don’t even notice by the end when it’s happening. But it all serves to tell the story and pull you into a mood that is so special and uplifting! I think the movie wouldn’t feel as happy and joyous if he kept everything looking “literal”.

The actor attributes most of the movie’s great themes to Yuasa’s “unique perspective and specificity.” He writes about premiering the film at Sundance, where it was the first anime to be accepted to the festival, that the origin of Lu resembled a vampire film more than child-friendly creature we see now. “So even though Lu is a mermaid, there are these elements which both make it more dangerous and exciting, but I think much cuter and fresher!” he says, “To me, it’s a story about prejudice and challenging what you THINK you know. Everyone in this film is doing their very best, either to teach, protect, survive, make friends… but having different ideas of who the ‘other” is, changes everything!”

Stories about villains and bad guys and prejudice are everywhere in our pop culture, but Sinterniklaas loves that Lu is able to draw a distinction between “people who do bad things”, and people who are “bad guys”. He brings up, for instance, the same point Sheh does about Yuho being a flawed character:

“[Lu] also explores how hard it can be to change someones opinion even if it’s wrong or predicated on false information. The struggles are real! And the characters are really layered. Yuho for instance has many of the makings of a villain! She can be selfish and greedy but she’s also forgiving and super lovable, which makes for a more real character and therefore is relatable. It’s her youth, privilege, good looks even that make her do “bad” things, but she’s not a “bad guy”. There is so much to figure out when you’re just coming of age.

Ultimately, though, he hopes that the film will leave you happier. “Lu Over the Wall is not “pat” in its message. It’s true and complex”, he writes, “You’re going to have your own experience watching these characters develop and they will probably surprise you, but I think the most common experience for absolutely everyone watching this film, is that it will leave you happier than you were coming in. No matter what, it will just increase your joy!”

“I know that sounds silly, maybe even cheesy, but you can’t understand this effect until you experience it. And I am very very confident that if you go see it, you will! And who knows, maybe it will inspire some to dust off an old hobby, tune up a ukulele, learn to swim, take a dance class!”

Lu Over the Wall is out now. 

(image: GKIDS)

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