Ayumu Watanabe has been working in the anime-industry for a long time, directing many animation series (Ace Attorney (2016)) and some Doraemon films. In recent years, he has put more emphasis on directing animation films. In 2019, he directed Children Of The Sea, a film produced by Eiko Tanaka and animated by Studio 4°C. And now, two years later, Watanabe teams up again with Studio 4°C to deliver Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (2021).
Nikuko (Shinobu Otake) – height: 151 cm; weight: 67,8 kg – has had a rough romantic history. When she worked at a snack bar in Osaka, she met a casino dealer, who left her with a huge debt. After paying his debt back, Nikuko moved to Nagoya, where she started dating a barman. Yet, he was only interested in using her money and playing around. In Yokohama, she met a married salaryman. He kept asking her for money for his ‘divorce settlement’. Yet, once again, she ended up being deceived. In Tokyo, she starts working at a deli to avoid deceitful men. But soon, she meets an aspiring novelist. One day, he suddenly disappears. She travels to his hometown to find him, but, alas, there is no sign of him. All worn out, she decides to live there with her daughter, Kikurin (Cocomi).
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is, as strange as it may be, essentially a slice of life narrative. Watanabe explores Nikuko and Kikurin daily life, their interactions, their struggles, and their moments of happiness. This is not a film full of extraordinary drama or heroism, but of the mundane dramas of the daily life.
In its intro-sequence though, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko touches upon something more profound: the deceiving role the imaginary plays within the game of love and romance. Watanabe’s narrative does not only evoke how easy men, by entrapping the love of a kind-hearted women, can swindle a woman-in-love, but also how a subject – be it a man or a woman – easily falls into the dazzling trap of the crazy little thing called love.
It is, as a matter of fact, because Nikuko is driven by a desire to be loved that she becomes so vulnerable and can easily be duped. She simply misreads the true meaning of the demands the male Other makes – his demand is, in truth, not a demand for her love. But, as Nikuko wants to be loved, she is compelled to fulfill these demands to ensure herself of the love of the male Other. Yet, the male Other, sensing this pressing need for love, finds a way to dupe and exploit the other-in-love for his own benefit. The playful intro-sequence introduces the following question: Will Nikuko fall again for the charms of a love-swindler, or will she be able to engage in a romantic relationship that goes beyond the deceitful nature of the imaginary?
Besides touching upon the difficulties that marks the field of romance, Watanabe’s narrative also explores the rather mundane struggles of a young girl – i.e. the difficulty of balancing friendships, the difficulty to express one’s own opinion, dealing with one’s own violence towards others, existential fears, etc. Nevertheless, the struggle that stands out is the one with the embarrassment she feels in her always cheerful and extravert mother – she does not want to be seen with her mother by her classmates. This embarrassment signals not only that she is very conscious of how uncommon her mother’s comportment is, but also that she fears that her ‘totoro’ mother, by always being 200 percent herself, might influence the way her classmates interact with her.
What makes Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko such pleasing narrative is not only the heartwarming bond between daughter and mother, which forms the main dynamic of the narrative, but also the infecting cheerfulness of Nikuko and the charming youthfulness of Kikurin, who is on the verge of entering her adolescence (Narra-note 1). The main reason why these characters and their interactions are so enjoyable is due to Shinobu Otake and Cocomi pitch-perfect voice-acting.
But the pleasing nature of this film is not only function of the voice acting. Studio 4℃ ensures that this film is a pleasure to watch by crafting vibrant and colourful visuals, fluid animation, and moments where the art of animation is creatively utilized to craft moments that are, besides being fluid, also rich in visually lighthearted and evocative elements – many of these moments are function of the fact that people call her Nikuko, ‘meat’-child. The long intro-sequence that introduces meaty Nikuko and her ‘unfortunate’ backstory, for instance, becomes playful and sets the lighthearted tone of the narrative precisely because it is rich in such playful evocative elements. And the equivocal nature of the Japanese signifier is also creatively exploited by Ayumu Watanabe to create visually pleasing and fluid scene-transitions or sudden visual interjections.
Another element that plays an instrumental role in making this animation film so visually pleasing is the filmic lighting-design – the subtle glistering of sun- or moonlight on the water, the sunbeams, … etc. This lightning-design does not only give the imagery a pleasant feel but heighten the visual beauty of many shots.
Watanabe’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is a amazing animation film. Its greatness does not only lie in its pleasing visuals and fluid animation, but also in the ode to beef-eating it offers and the emotional and moving celebration of the strength of the bond between a daughter and a mother, a strength unable to be broken by a hidden family-secret, it delivers.
Narra-note 1: Another element that plays a role in making this film so enjoyable to watch is playful and, at first, non-sensical ‘fantastical’ elements that are littered throughout the narrative.