Veteran movie and TV anime series director Ayumu Watanabe returns with his latest work under Studio 4°C, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko. Based on the novel by Kanako Nishi, the story follows Kikuko, the daughter of Nikuko, in a fictional, rural Japanese seaport town. Despite the title, Nikuko is a secondary character to Kikuko in the movie. The mother-daughter duo play off each other like a boke (funny man) and tsukkomi (straight man) routine, which is par for the course given their Kansai roots.
In a roundtable conversation with APA, Director Watanabe mentioned the movie’s development wasn’t hindered much by the pandemic. His last movie, Children of the Sea, took nearly six years from start to finish. Because Studio 4°C is relatively small, they did not have as many restrictions for their employees. However, they did have a “tight schedule” since Nikuko needed to be finished in “two and a half years.”
Rather than a plot-driven narrative, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is a character-driven tale that dives into a girl’s coming of age journey alongside realistic life challenges. Kikuko’s day-to-day is anything but average, explained by her narration of Nikuko’s unfortunate luck with men. Through Kikuko’s perspective, her mother is an incredibly persistent, strong-willed woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. But, as a result, she is constantly taken advantage of financially by the men she pours her soul into. Yet, despite Kikuko’s comparatively mature personality, it’s clear she only has a limited view of her mother’s problems—which is metaphorically paralleled to her pre-adolescent stage in life.
Kikuko bears no ill will towards her mother’s choices; she goes with the flow alongside Nikuko and cheers her up when she’s down on her luck. Nikuko, in turn, never shows anything but a bright cheery smile around her daughter and the customers at her waitress job. As part of her peppy personality, there are two things Nikuko loves to do: make pun jokes and eat. Her constant love for puns is so pervasive, the entire town knows of it, to Kikuko’s chagrin. They’re so abundant that they can be found in the ending song title, “Taketen.” This refers to the kanji for smile (笑), which combines two other words that has similar characters: take which means bamboo (竹) and ten which means heaven (天).
Director Watanabe’s take on comedian Sanma Akashiya’s screenplay of Nikuko is a testament to his strengths in visualizing character development. Whether through the eyes of the townspeople or Kikuko, Nikuko is undoubtedly the embodiment of human positivity. Although the film can be tiring for its overuse of negative fat tropes, there’s a layer deeper in regards to Nikuko’s relationship with food and family that is all too familiar for parents. “It’s really easy for humans to form a relationship when they’re eating. Nikuko is the happiest when she is eating…[and] when we first came up with the idea of doing this film, the making and eating of food was a big part of it,” said Watanabe.
Even though Kikuko initially cringes at her mother’s eating habits, she can’t help but also engage in similar behavior. For breakfast, Kikuko and Nikuko make French toast together. While Kikuko daintily cuts her toast, Nikuko rolls it up and eats it in one bite. Understandably, she’s at the age where children find their parent’s habits embarrassing. But later on when Kikuko makes meat spaghetti for dinner, she hungrily eats it alongside her mom, and hastily licks the sauce off around her mouth.
“You can tell that Nikuko took great care in bringing up Kikuko through how closely she follows Nikuko’s recipe for French toast,” Watanabe explained. “It ties her back to her roots, which connects Kikuko to her real mother.” Regarding a question around food and human relationships, Watanabe responded, “There’s a connection between food and how a recipe is passed along a generation, which I thought was really important to depict in this film.” Indeed, these parallels are what make the visual medium of animation unique in contrast to the novel.
During a moment when Kikuko’s anxiously waiting at the bus stop with her mother—who dons a bright, cartoonish raincoat—Kikuko passes time by imagining a talking lizard. Sharp eyed viewers will instantly see the likeness between this bus stop scene to the one in Studio Ghibli’s Totoro. However, much like the highlighter yellow of Nikuko’s raincoat, reality stands in stark contrast to this pop culture reference; Kikuko is self-conscious of being seen with her mother. When they eventually get on the bus, Kikuko runs into one of her schoolmates and awkwardly pretends she doesn’t see him in hopes that he won’t see her. They later strike up a conversation in school based on this shared experience and it becomes the starting point of a friendship between Kikuko and her male classmate as they laugh at the memory of it all.
As an experienced creative who has worked on several movies for children and adults, such as Doraemon, Watanabe can move the hearts of viewers. He smoothly strikes a balance between scenes that require a serious tone, even during ones of falling action: “I wanted to create a film that everyone could enjoy in the same space.” The movie narrative takes into consideration life’s problems for a developing teenager through the eyes of a child, but with a voice that is both sensitive and heartwarming.
Watanabe credits his time working on the Doraemon movies as the foundation of his work: “It’s important to make sure that the story is easy to understand for anyone and everyone, and I learned that from Doraemon.” He balances scenes of reality and fantasy, taking key moments from the novel and adding his own flair.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is an excellent addition to Director Watanabe’s growing list of successful work. The animated tale of Nikuko tells a story of personal growth, the challenges of growing up, and the importance of leaning on others for support. Watanabe’s visual storytelling of the love between chosen family and friends reinforces the message of how individual differences can bring out the best in one other.