Distributor GKIDS has established itself as the leader in sophisticated, independent, international (mainly Japanese) animation that doesn’t appeal to children. At Ayumu Watanabe’s Fortune favors Lady Nikuko is a valuable addition to the company’s catalog. Beneath a few anime staples — goofy visual puns, over-the-top mannerisms, and exaggerated facial features — lies an incisive study of growing up as a single parent that touches on a plethora of mature themes.
Compared to a “giant matryoshka”, Nikuko (Shinobu Ôtake) certainly stands out in the crowd. She lives on a boat, is shamelessly loud, and snores like a mythical beast. Nikuko doesn’t care what people think of her towering presence. “I’m Lady Nikuko and I love it,” she proclaims. However, her puberty daughter, Kikuko (Cocomi), cares. She is well aware that Nikuko has had a difficult past, with men treating her like crap and using her for money. “She wanted to stay away from sleazy men,” Kikuko says. Still, moms are moms, and they can be damn embarrassing.
The duo lives in a quiet village, on the edge of utopia. Nikuko runs a local restaurant known as “The Meaty Lady” (a clever pun here, as “Niku” means “meat”). The quiet plot of Fortune favors Lady Nikuko follows Kikuko’s tribulations at school. Among the burning resentments, she falls for an emo stud, Ninomiya (Natsuki Hanae), whose hair obscures her facial features and whose voice barely rises above a whisper. In the meantime, Nikuko makes the girl’s existence even more difficult with her eccentric antics. Then truths about Kikuko’s birth surface, putting everything into perspective.
“…follows The tribulations of Kikuko at school.”
In contrast to the relative restraint with which all the other characters are portrayed, Nikuko is seen through her daughter’s eyes: a constant source of overweight and obnoxious humiliation who swallows pancakes whole. At this age, most children view their parents as exaggerated versions of themselves, and Watanabe portrays this brilliantly, describing Nikuko as a walking cataclysm. But then he subtly adds a soft warmth to his character until a final shot that poignantly goes beyond caricature.
For the most part, the narrative is as tranquil as its setting, immersing the viewer in the daily lives of its protagonists. There are no staggering shocks or huge set pieces. That being said, like the main character, Watanabe’s film has an unhinged side, slipping off the rails intermittently. Kikuko imagines or hears about the animals around her. They often express their opinions about the events that are unfolding. One of these sequences involves Nikuko’s favorite penguin, which looks like it’s making big profits, but ends abruptly. Some scenes depicting Nikuko’s eccentricity are almost entertaining, so trippy they’re shocking.
But when was the last time you saw a children’s movie that dealt with issues like parental abandonment or the fears and tribulations of adolescence? “I hope my chest never gets bigger and my period never starts,” Kikuko says. It’s not a sentiment often expressed in Disney fare. Fortune favors Lady Nikuko explores what it’s like to be in the shadow of your parents, the lessons passed down from our elders, the value of a support system between women, the power of literature, the appreciation of food (often called “delicious”) and the importance of staying true to yourself. Eat this, Pixar.