A kaleidoscopic anime with a great coming-of-age story at its heart
A sparkling and delightful anime with a big appetite for tenderness and laughter, director Ayumu Watanabemother-daughter saga »Fortune favors Lady Nikukoadores his titular character to no end even when he dwells a little too long on his carefree naivety or his great love of food.
We are introduced to Nikuko (Shinobu Ôtake), a charming thirtysomething living with her young daughter, Kikuko (Cocomi), as she happily works at a local grill in a small port town in northern Japan. Tough, carefree, and irrepressibly cheerful in a way that both intrigues and disarms everyone around her, she is known to the townspeople as “the plump, jolly lady who ended up living here.” There’s a lot of truth to that, as summed up in the film’s stunning opening cut, guided largely by Kikuko’s voiceover, like the rest of the film.
Being a punch-drunk romantic a bit overconfident of scheming men who take advantage of her mercilessly, Nikuko often falls for the wrong guy and moves to a new village whenever an unfortunate affair goes sour. We learn that it was on the heels of such a heartbreaking romance that she and Kikuko ended up in their current accommodation, after the latest loser abruptly abandoned her without explanation. So what is the ever-hopeful woman to do but pick herself up as she had from every momentary slump and settle in for the next chapter of her life that she yearns to make as ordinary as possible?
It sometimes proves difficult to go with Nikuko’s proud “ordinary life” mantra, and not just because everything about this delicate character – from her idiosyncratic clothes to her enchanting, padded boat house – screams of unconventional way. After all, she resides in a world brought to life in stunning detail by Studio 4°C, the inventive and reliable Japanese animation company behind “Children of the Sea.” In a similar vein, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” vividly evokes a kaleidoscopic tapestry of shimmering waters, gloomy rains (with at least a visual nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s classic “My Neighbor Totoro”) and nostalgic pastoral elements, all touched by the innovative baton of Japanese comedian Sanma Akashiya (featured as the creative producer here). Add to that the heaps of truly appetizing dishes – French toast, fried noodles, juicy meats and other delicacies shaped in more appetizing ways than any food stylist could have achieved – and you have a hot pot that tastes anything but ordinary. .
This food — or rather Nikuko’s frequent consumption, often shown in rude close-ups — is worth considering, since “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” repeatedly points it out. One could read into this recurring impulse to accentuate Nikuko’s weight (as well as her clumsy flaws elsewhere) and deem her evil. But working from a novel by Kanako Nishi, screenwriter Satomi Ohshima and director Watanabe are thankfully careful to avoid cheap laughs at the expense of their big-hearted character. Their film doesn’t poke fun at Nikuko, but instead sees her through the eyes of her skeptical daughter Kikuko. After all, she’s at a confusing age of colliding hormones and complicated emotions, a time when children tend to harshly criticize their parents and see only what they perceive to be their mistakes.
In that regard, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” joins Pixar’s recent “Turning Red” as a coming-of-age tale where fiercely unlike mothers and daughters must entertain each other. And the storyline is refreshingly open to allow audiences, young and mature, to sample many perspectives from both perspectives and find traces of their own truth in the duo’s evolving story. On one side is young Kikuko, a tomboyish, introverted bookworm who deals with her share of wicked school dramas (which she might be the author of) and growing romantic feelings for an adorable weirdo. On the other is Nikuko, eager to keep their boat afloat the best way she knows how.
What packs a punch in their richly constructed journey, in which Kikuko has a lot to do despite looking like a mature member of the family, is a piercing last-act reveal beautifully told in flashback. Without saying too much, rest assured, it’s as surprising and lavish in spirit as Nikuko, reveling in the notion of acceptance and generosity as key ingredients in any loving family relationship.
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