It’s important to know from the start that the anime movie Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is eventually going to a place of warm acceptance, but it’s a long, awkward, and often cruel journey to get there. Animated by Studio 4°C and helmed by Children of the Sea and Komi Can’t Communicate director Ayumu Watanabe, Lady Nikuko is a glowingly beautiful film that on first viewing seems to have a surprisingly ugly heart. It takes some distance and some thought to get past what initially feels like the movie’s main message: “Fat people are gross and disgusting, obviously, but they’re somehow capable of humanity, too.”
There’s more to it than that, and possibly there’s significantly more nuance in the Kanako Nishi novel that inspired the film. But in the same way American comedies about man-children growing up (Knocked Up and their ilk) spend far more time on gleeful stoner antics than on the final-act messaging about moving past that phase of life, Lady Nikuko spends much of its run time and energy on exaggerated mockery of a fat lady before eventually, grudgingly acknowledging her as a person.
The Lady Nikuko of the title is Nikuko Misuji, an energetic, brash waitress who lives on a small boat in a small coastal town along with her vague, drifty 11-year-old daughter Kikuko. Nikuko is larger than life in every way. Kikuko narrates an opening montage tracking her mother’s early history, bouncing from city to city and job to job as one opportunistic, predatory man after another dominated her life. Nikuko is childlike and simple, given to screaming “Yummy!” over food or “Yaaay!” when her reluctant daughter agrees to a trip to the local aquarium. She loves complicated kanji puns and number puns. She loves her daughter, her job, and their life together. But mostly, she loves food, which she sloppily crams into her face in vast quantities, with a gusto that horrifies rail-thin Kikuko.
Nikuko’s weight, her loudness, and her irrepressibility are a major focus for Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko, and it takes a while to make it clear that what viewers are seeing on screen reflects Kikuko’s biased tween perceptions far more than it reflects reality. Nikuko is described early in the film as weighing 67 kilograms, or a bit under 150 pounds, but she’s drawn as a flabby, almost formless sphere. In shape, she’s a dead ringer for Totoro from Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, which Watanabe pointedly references several times over, including in a scene mirroring Totoro’s famous bus-stop-in-the-rain sequence. Nikuko’s ultra-loud snoring, her giant toothy grin, and her intense zest for life all match Totoro’s as well. But Kikuko, in the way of so many teens and preteens around the world, just finds her mother hideously embarrassing.
Kikuko’s subjective view of the world, which turns 150-pound Nikuko into a sweaty, pig-eyed, shrieking monster who consumes entire sweet potatoes in two massive bites, is expressed in far more charming ways elsewhere. Kikuko perceives seagulls’ signature shrieks as the words “Go beyond!” She hears the local shrine bragging to her about its history, cicadas grumbling about the inanity of their lives and deaths, and the region’s small colorful lizards dispensing advice and dismissal. She’s clearly an an imaginative kid who largely lives in her head, and the way she periodically envisions Nikuko as “the meaty lady” — a Japanese name pun that translates to frequent images of Nikuko charging around naked, sexless, and made of glistening cooked meat — is typical of the flights of fancy that strike her unbidden.
But Kikuko’s disconnect with the world makes her a difficult protagonist, and often makes Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko feel like a random grab bag of events that don’t add up to a coherent whole. A conflict Kikuko has with her best friend over who gets chosen last at basketball highlights the trouble Kikuko has with expressing herself, or even deciding what she feels about anything — a particularly unfortunate trait for a story’s point-of-view character. Her interest in a local boy who makes weird faces at her when no one’s looking feels a bit like a slightly older version of Satsuki and Kanta’s distrustful preteen relationship in My Neighbor Totoro, but without the charm or warmth. Like so many sleepy central characters in so many summer-themed anime stories, Kikuko is drifting blank-faced through life, passively waiting for the moment that makes her life and her needs come into focus.
At least the world around her is one worth drifting through. Children of the Sea art director Shinji Kimura ensured Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is vividly illustrated, set in a sunlit village full of exquisite detail. It’s the kind of anime story where the rust on an old boat, the glimmer of sunlight on the ocean, and the marbling of fat in a thick cut of meat are all rendered in bright, sharper-than-life detail, such that every shot feels like a celebration of the world’s richness and complexity. Those settings borrowed from Totoro — the deep green woods with their shrine gate, the sunny fields kids run through on their way to and from school, the sloshing and sodden versions of those fields on a rainy day — are all gorgeously intense.
And in spite of Kikuko’s prejudices against and resentment of her loud, shrill mom — who’s often drawn with a cartoonish stylization that recalls Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbors the Yamadas more than its other movies — Nikuko’s backstory does have some strong emotional resonance. Her habit of falling for men who use her, her attempts to work herself out of debt, her close friendship with one of her strip-club co-workers — they all tell the story of a woman who’s easily taken advantage of, and insists on bouncing back.
On paper, the idea of a self-absorbed, dreamy daughter finally learning how to look past her mom’s surface and put their relationship in perspective may sound like a beautiful thing. But in execution, it frequently feels garish and insulting instead, with so much of the film laughing at Nikuko’s expense that the reversal seems like too little, too late. The whole film might feel significantly warmer on a second viewing — it takes quite a while to become clear that while Kikuko is the narrator, the focus character, and the one framing and visualizing this story, her mom is actually its hero, and the narrow-mindedness and cruelty Kikuko brings to the world isn’t a default lens, but a problem that needs to be resolved. Nikuko’s strength and sacrifices are key to understanding her, but getting to that point of the story takes some emotional labor.
Some elements of Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko just aren’t going to land for an English-speaking audience, from Nikuko’s kanji-based puns to the characteristic Osaka accent that marks her as a showy, crass rube. (The press notes point out that Kikuko speaks with that accent at home with her mother, but not around other people — a particularly fine character detail that American audiences will likely miss, at least in the subtitled version GKIDS supplied for review.) The idea of a 150-pound woman being a bloated whale-monster is also going to feel odd to a country where the reported average weight for a woman is 162.
But maybe the oddest element of the film to a general audience will be the sense of seeing what feels like a familiar anime world — one where loudness and individuality are suspect, where quiet kids with emotional burdens are the heroes, where the natural world is beautiful and inviting — and then having to learn a new symbolic language around it, to understand that we aren’t seeing a world as it is. It’s a heady concept, and an ambitious one that doesn’t fully track the first time through. It’s a movie that may look a lot better in the rearview mirror than it does in the moment.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is in limited theatrical release in America. Check the movie’s website for theaters and showtimes.