Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (Cert TBC)

Limited Theatrical Release (Distributor: Anime Ltd.) Running time: 97 minutes approx.

Release Date: August 10th   

They say you can’t choose your family but we know this is palpably untrue and often this has led to many an enriched life, largely through family being a nebulous concept that transcends DNA. Most of us though, tend to stick with what we have.

11-year old Kikuko lives on a houseboat with her mother Nikuko, although you’d never suspect they were related – Kikuko is skinny, quiet, but sensible and headstrong, whilst Nikuko is a larger lady with a huge personality but not the sharpest tool in the shed. They currently reside in a small harbour town in rural Japan after spending many years moving about due to Nikuko’s misfortunes with exploitative men, and is where Kikuko finally feels settled.

But as she begins to navigate the world around her, from the dramas and tribulations of making friends at school to the constant reminder that she and Nikuko look nothing alike, Kikuko is always afraid that her mother will one day need to pack up and move on, the one thing she doesn’t want. When she notices Nikuko taking mysterious phone calls at night, Kikuko fears the worst. Can she persuade her other to be responsible for once and stay settled in this town?

Forgive the choice of words here but there is an elephant in the room about Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko which is thrust in our faces from the offset, in the form of Nikuko’s body shape. That the story, as such it is, revolves more around Kikuko than it does her XL sized parent is a minor blessing yet there is no escaping the fact the audience should be prepared for this to be exploited in a way that may not be received as intended.

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe, who gave us Children Of the Sea, this coming-of-age tale is based on the novel by Kanako Nishi, and simply put, Nikuko being fat is a prompt for many verbal and visual gags, right down to her insatiable appetite, or gluttony if you prefer. Oddly though, it isn’t mean spirited in any way and Nikuko seems happy in herself, glad to be known as the “Happy Plump Lady”, but I suspect there will be viewers on this side of the globe who may feel otherwise.

Similarly, the idea that being fat can be offset by a friendly personality to avoid being demonised is a bit of a cliché, for us whereas larger people (outside of Sumo) in Japan are a rarity. One might also take the opening montage – punctuated by a side of beef being cut – detailing Nikuko’s history up until this point in which she would regularly find love but the men would only use her for her money then leave her in debt, and in one case, a daughter too.

Nikuko is indeed a cheerful, helpful, and easy going person who doesn’t give a hoot what people think of her which is to be taken as a positive; visually she is the only character in this film to look like a western cartoon caricature, loosely drawn, garishly coloured, and incongruent against the other “proper” anime aesthetic of everything else. Which brings us back to the central theme of Kikuko trying to establish her own path in life with puberty on the horizon.

One thing that hampers this film is the lack of an overarching plot or definitive crisis to overcome. Not to say there isn’t any drama – that is saved for the touching final act centred on a deus ex machina plot twist – rather this is laid out as a series of vignettes in Kikuko’s life. First, she and her best friend Maria fall out over a rebellion against a game of basketball, and then Kikuko befriends Ninomiya, a shy boy whose eyes are hidden under a floppy fringe, prone to pulling funny faces, like a nervous tic.

All wonderful distractions for Kikuko but neither really lead anywhere, only to widen her own perception of the foibles that make us all individuals. In the case of Ninomiya, who is making a model of “the thing he loves he most”, we not only don’t get to see what this fabulous creation is but the lad himself disappears for the final act; I suppose it is fair we are spared a forced romance between them, which would have been a cliché too far.

In lieu of a proper threat to the central mother-daughter relationship, Kikuko is later hospitalised with appendicitis, prompting a long held secret of Nikuko’s to be revealed via flashback, changing the very fabric of the story. It comes almost from nowhere, with a few clues dropped through Nikuko’s odd behaviour, made palatable by being presented in a tender and emotive fashion, even if it leaves questions unanswered.

Without wishing to sound disingenuous, this is a film which coasts along on its charm which it has in abundance. The rural setting affords a whimsy akin to lesser-known Ghibli films like Whisper Of The Heart, whilst a blatant My Neighbour Totoro visual reference won’t go unnoticed. The production from Studio 4°C goes a long way to making this a pleasant experience, the warmth and texture in the background vistas creating an easy going, rustic atmosphere.

Lacking a central plot and opting for the episodic approach might leave some viewers feel nothing really happens, which is fair comment but not entirely true – many things do happen, just not towards any real converged conclusion, despite the parts are there to make it so. What it does do is reaffirm the simple philosophy that it takes all sorts of people to make the world go round so let’s just go with it.

Unashamedly laid back and charming, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is a visual treat with believable characters – even Nikuko – crying out for a focused storyline to give it the emotional heft required to make it the exceptional film it has the potential to be.

Rating – *** ½   

Man In Black

Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko will be at selected cinemas in Japanese with English subtitles from Wednesday 10th August 2022.

For more information and to book tickets, please visit https://nikukofilm.co.uk/

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