Author Kanako Nishi has written 22 novels, as well as assorted illustrated and nonfiction works. Five of her novels have been adapted for theaters with her 2011 novel, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko, being the fifth. This adaption, a collaboration between director Ayumu Watanabe (Children of the Sea) and animation house STUDIO 4°C (Children of the Sea, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Poupelle of Chimney Town), brings to life a sweet coming-of-age tale in which perception is the driving factor, not manufactured external sources. More than anything, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is a joyous celebration of acceptance, an acknowledgment that what we think of ourselves matters more than the hardships which come from poor choices or simple bad luck. After a June 2021 release in Japanese theaters, Watanabe’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko comes to North American shores in select venues thanks to GKids Films.
After living in a variety of places through her life, 11-year-old Kikuko (Cocomi) currently resides in a small sea-side town, enjoying a simple existence with her mother Nikuko (Shinobu Ôtake). Though the two look and behave nothing alike, there’s a great love that runs between the two of them as they support one another through their various trials. This comes more easily to Nikuko as she’s just built with an awareness of self which empowers her to bounce back from any pitfall; whereas Kikuko struggles with the attention her mother brings on herself everywhere she goes as such attempts at the spotlight don’t come as easily. But when an expected event occurs, everything the two hold dear is threatened to fall apart.
This reviewer cannot speak to the 1:1 accuracy of the adaptation and much of my research to find what it looks like has come up dry. The most I could find is a wiki on Nishi and the film itself, neither of which are proper primary sources to confirm how true to form Watanabe and screenwriter Satomi Ohshima’s (Our 30 Minute Sessions) take on the novel is. Speaking to what Fortune Favors is, it’s a beautiful and often emotionally moving tale utilizing magical realism so as to sprinkle bits of fantasy into an otherwise grounded story. The seaside town and its inhabitants, Kikuko included, are drawn with a sort of strict, more traditional, animated style so that everything and everyone is more like an artist’s rendering captured with pen and paper in a modern setting. Nikuko and other elements, however, are drawn with a more emotional, sillier style, so as to evoke an otherworldliness. The difference in animation also conveys the gap between the two characters: physically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s not just that Nikuko is a heavy-set woman, it’s that she’s gregarious, out-going, and unashamed by word or deed. She joyously embraces the moment, even if it comes with hardship brought on by her personal foible: she’s easily tricked and not particularly bright. In contrast, Kikuko is rail thin, just wants to fit in, and desires knowledge, along with staying in one place. Where the two share similarity is that they’re both very assured in their bodies, a comfort as many coming-of-age tales would’ve made their respective figures a central component. Instead, though Nikuko is larger and Kikuko is slight, these aspects don’t define them. The shift in animation helps to enhance the differences in the connected pair lovingly, making them unique to each other, even if at times it feels like Nikuko is in a different story all together (though that could very well be the point).
The magical realism doesn’t just relate to Nikuko, as there are elements of talking animals, the way information is presented to the audience, and other moments throughout the film that display elements of wonder. These can be the birds which seem to shout “Go Beyond!” as they fly by, a shrine with a voice all its own, or the way light seems to billow out from a container being opened. Magic is all around us and these moments imply that we need only be receptive to such things in order to experience them ourselves. Granted, much of these moments occur either as a result of Nikuko’s exuberance or Kikuko’s awe either engage in something that delights them. It’s because of this that Fortune Favors often feels wondrous to the audience even as very little happens, narratively speaking.
In fact, the bulk of the film is executed via narration from Kikuko, making the moments where she engages with others carry more weight. The heavy narration does imply a certain intimacy between the audience and Kikuko, as though we’re her secret confidant, going unseen by her friends or her mother. The issue, however, being that the film relies so much on the narration that we are being spoken to the entire time, rather than experiencing things along with Kikuko. When she does engage with others, the story becomes richer and more engaging. And the turmoil mentioned in the summary, it comes up almost at the end of the film, feeling hastily added and resolved. Though it’s bread-crumbed throughout the film, what’s learned is not a shock and only deepens the bond between the two. Don’t mistake that for a personal desire to see the mother-daughter pair torn asunder by what is learned, far from it. It’s that it’s the kind of conflict which, were it to truly be detrimental to them, it would come up far sooner and take up more of the final act in its resolution. Instead, it’s addressed about as easily as the other conflicts in the film: with love.
At the beginning of the film, Kikuko offers a narration of how she and her mother ended up where they are. It starts with a cook cutting into a large slab of something labeled “yummy meat” and, with each cut, the red tissue and sinew move to form Nikuko and present one part of her backstory. As each story ends, the cook cuts another portion and the tissue and sinew reform into another part. It’s a silly and engaging way to set the tone of the picture as a whole while we learn of one misfortune that Nikuko endures after another. Yet, despite all that’s she’s experienced, no matter how often Kikuko describes her as “worn out,” Nikuko never appears deprived of any exhilaration. She is delighted in the moment and, upon the end, finds something within the next moment to be joyous about. There is little about Nikuko’s life story that fortune seems to favor in the slightest, yet, she is happy with a roof over her head, food in her belly, and a daughter to watch grow. If there is a lesson, a conflict to resolve, within Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko, it’s that Kikuko must discover for herself that kind of joy as she blossoms into womanhood and the next stage of her life. Though Fortune Favors often relies too much on narration and the issue which arises is clunky in explanation and is hastily concluded, there remains much joy in the experience.
Exclusive premiere screening on June 2nd, 2022.
In select theaters June 3rd, 2022.
For more information, head to GKids Films’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.