Not a lot happens in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko.” And that’s OK.
If “Nikuko,” the latest anime feature from director Ayumu Watanabe (“Children of the Sea”) slots into any genre, it’s probably “slice of life,” in which stories of everyday existence rule the day. It’s refreshing, really. Not everything has to be about saving the world.
Based on a 2011 novel of the same name by Kanako Nishi, the film centers on Nikuko (Shinobu Otake) and Kikuko (Kimura Kokomi, aka Cocomi), a chalk-and-cheese mother and daughter who live in a houseboat in a small fishing town. They’re new to the place: Nikuko tends to fall for dodgy men, and this is the latest stop on a long trail of heartbreak that stretches across half of Japan.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||97 mins.|
Nikuko works as a waitress at a local watering hole, while Kikuko attends elementary school, dealing with the joys and dramas of daily life. One of the film’s central conflicts arises when Kikuko is forced to choose which of two rival cliques to spend lunchtime with. No superhero-sized issues here — but when you’re on the brink of adolescence, problems like that can feel like the end of the world. The film takes Kikuko’s problems as seriously as she does, reminding us how tough navigating school life can be.
The film may be named after Nikuko, but Kikuko is the more compelling character. School-aged anime protagonists tend to be either painfully shy or megalomaniacs, but Kikuko feels real: capable and happy but with moments of self-doubt. A lover of novels, she has a vivid imagination, and as she walks through her small seaside town, she “hears” animals calling out in human voices. Thanks to her creative mind and some impressively detailed background art, the town comes to life, functioning as one of the film’s characters. You can almost smell the saltwater spray in your nostrils.
So far, so good. But amid this subtle, quiet storytelling is the larger-than-life Nikuko, who’s patterned on many of the stereotypes of her native Osaka: brash, cheerful, loud and voracious. She’s also, well, fat (Nikuko literally means “meat child”), and the film gets a few cheap laughs (or tries to, anyway) by poking fun at her weight. The contrast between Nikuko and Kikuko — large vs. small, loud vs. quiet — makes sense from a storytelling perspective. But in a film where even minor characters show unexpected depth, it’s a shame the titular Nikuko seems to be formed largely from cliches. I think anime should feature people of all body types — but not for the purpose of landing jokes at their expense.
Cliches aside, the relationship between this polar-opposite mother-daughter pair form the backbone of the film. The reliable and thoughtful Kikuko ends up taking on a lot of the motherly duties, but Nikuko contributes in her own way, providing emotional support. It’s a relationship built on empathy and tolerance between two entirely different people, and both characters apply those same skills to the people they meet around town. What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?
Because there’s not a whole lot of conflict — and perhaps because it’s based on a novel — “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” almost feels more like a series of sketches than a fully fleshed-out film. A few months from now, I’m not sure I’ll remember the plot. What’ll stick with me is the feeling of everyday life in a charming coastal town — punctuated by some timeworn tropes in an Osaka drawl.
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