Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Fortune Favours Lady Nkuko
"Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko has a unique charm." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Lady Nikuko (voiced by Shinobu Ôtake) has had a hard life , and all because of how open she is to love. She loves food, and has grown larger and larger over the years – her name can be interpreted as ‘the meaty lady’. She loves men, but the wrong ones, unfortunately, so that despite working hard all her life she has no money left to show for it. But Lady Nikuko has also done a heroic thing, and perhaps, if fate smiles on her, she will eventually be rewarded for it.

Most of this we learn in a meandering prologue. The story begins in earnest when she and young Kikumi (voiced by Cocomi) decide to settle down and make yet another fresh start, this time in a small fishing town which has seen better days. They make their home on a boat (a sign of reduced circumstances, but nonetheless, young viewers will be awed by the fact that Kikiumi can see fish swimming around though a glass floor panel beside her bed), and Nikuko gets a job in the restaurant beside it. Kikumi tries, once again, to adjust to a new school, make new friends and establish herself. But something is different now. Kikumi is entering her teens and the bond between the two is starting to change.

Copy picture

Kikumi makes an unusual heroine for animé in that she’s tall, skinny and boyish and very comfortable that way, though she gets a shock when she realises that the boy she likes is attracted to a brand of femininity which she thinks of as frivolous and deserving of ridicule. Is her attitude, in part, a reaction against her mother’s flirtatious behaviour? She is constantly anxious about the possibility of Nikuko getting into another messy relationship, resulting in them having to move again. Nevertheless, she bonds with the boy, who has a behavioural tic which she is drawn to imitate. There’s a suggestion that the two of them might be neurodivergent, and a strong message that whatever inspires them to act as they do, the important thing is to be oneself.

That does not, however, extend to being a bully. Kikumi has always seen herself as the outsider, the vulnerable one, so it takes her a while to realise that some of her behaviour might be anti-social or downright mean. Whilst she figures this out first in relation to classmates, the story’s central concerns is with how she perceives and treats her mother. The acute embarrassment which she often feels in her presence is something which many young people will relate to, exaggerated here both for comic effect and to make it easier to understand where Kikumi is going wrong.

“The two of you look nothing alike,” people say to her, and it’s true – in that Nikuko is presented using an entirely differeent style of animation. Where Kikumi, and all the other people in the film, could wander through almost any other modern animé and not look amiss, Nikuko is styled after the jolly, fat characters who traditionally appear on Japanese snack products. With a round, plump-cheeked face and narrow eyes, she bulges in all directions, and in surreal sequences we see her dancing in silhouette with spheroid shapes budding off from her. There’s a suggestion of fertility and abundance here. Nikuko is always laughing, finding a bright side even to the bleakest situations, and people are drawn to her. Acutely conscious of this, Kikumi interprets it as ridicule, but it’s not clear that that’s really going on. She resents her mother’s bad decisions, which is understandable, but also objects to her being childlike in her enthusiasm for certain activities and games. Her mother’s employers will eventually have a gentle word about this, explaining that there’s really nothing shameful in finding joy in life, and that perhaps Kikumi could try that herself.

Balancing out the story’s more serious themes is a surfeit of language and number based puns which, sadly, are very difficult to translate into other languages – the subtitlers only intermittently succeed. International viewers may also find themselves distracted by the score, which draws on cheesy bits of US folk music which have an established meaning in Western film and have been repurposed here. A more ubiquitously accessible motif is the characterisation of the animals which skitter through the film. From a solitary aquarium penguin who is viewed as cute but whose vocalisations are translated as death threats to the various lizards who offer advice and cynical commentary, these creatures liven up the film and keep it from getting overly sentimental.

Though it’s not a top tier example of what animé can deliver, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko has a unique charm. Director Ayumu Watanabe previously made the indescribably beautiful but narratively bizarre Children Of The Sea, and it’s good to see him continuing to experiment. With its insightful approach to growing up and sensitively developed central relationship, this film has a lot to offer to young audiences.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2022
Share this with others on...
The most ordinary people and places can be quite extraordinary.

Director: Ayumu Watanabe

Writer: Kanako Nishi

Year: 2021

Country: Japan

Festivals:

Fantasia 2021

Search database: