Sometimes a movie doesn’t need to tell a grand narrative. While most mainstream cinema tends to gear towards crowd-pleasing experiences, some of the best movies tend to be about smaller scales and smaller issues. For example, Nomadland is just about a woman traveling America and living day to day. Another Round is a man’s self-destructive journey to find purpose and excitement in his life. Both of them are personal journies, but they’re very small in scope and execution. Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is cut from the same cloth.
If you were to tell me that there was a live-action version of this anime feature film, I would believe you. A lot of its plotting and storytelling feels very grounded in reality, although there are some unique flourishes to show off the animation budget. If I could describe Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko in one word, it would be quaint. There’s definitely something to appreciate about a quaint, simple little movie.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko
Director: Ayumu Watanabe
Release Date: June 2, 2022 (Limited Theatrical)
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko doesn’t really have much of a plot, instead choosing to focus on the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Kikuko (Cocomi) is an 11-year-old girl who’s living a fairly normal life, but she’s constantly embarrassed by her mom, Nikuko (Shinobu Otake). Nikuko is the polar opposite of Kikuko. While Kikuko is thin, tomboyish, and keeps to herself, Nikuko is large, a bit of a buffoon, and is always the loudest person in the room. Naturally, Kikuko is always afraid to be around her mom with kids her age, but those moments tend to set off one of the movie’s many comedic set-ups.
The film feels like a gag manga, with random scenarios popping up every now and then meant to make us laugh and are never mentioned again. Despite the frequent set-up, the humor always feels like it comes out of left field and does come across as out of place given the groundedness of the film. When Kikuko starts to take interest in a boy named Ninomiya (Natsuki Hanae), she notices that he makes the most exaggerated and unnatural silly faces. No one else notices but her and I think it’s supposed to be funny?
In truth, a lot of the humor comes from Japanese wordplay and situations that don’t really translate 100% into English. Nikuko loves Kanji wordplay and while her sayings make sense if you think about them logically, they’re meant to be jokes from how the words are structured in Kanji. Then again, me just explaining the basic premise of the jokes robs them of their effectiveness since an explained joke is an unfunny joke. There are more universal gags and comedic situations in the movie, like when Nikuko encounters a penguin who screams “death to all humans” and Nikuko gets caught running a marathon for the honor of her daughter and failing completely and utterly at it. Those jokes tend to hit because of their universal application.
But Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko isn’t all comedy all the time. There’s a quietness to the movie as Kikuko examines her relationships not just with her friends she thinks she likes, but also Nikuko. She questions who she actually wants to be friends with and constantly wonders how someone like Nikuko is her mother when they’re such polar opposites. This all serves the underlying theme of authenticity throughout the story, where people are encouraged to act however they want. There is no such thing as acting your age, there’s just acting like yourself and being true to who you are, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of how you behave, who you hang out with, what you do, or the decisions that you make.
All of this does center around Nikuko, who is both the best and worst thing about the movie. On one hand, she has the most over-the-top animation and directly contrasts with the more grounded style, allowing for some fun and fluid animation. Kikuko often describes how her mother looks, acts, and behaves, and her frequent narration does help at bringing her mother to life. You can tell from those bits of narration that this was adapted from a book, but it helps to really flesh out Nikuko as this larger-than-life woman.
Whether or not you like that is an entirely different story. There are times when you can become exacerbated with Nikuko and her theatrics. They don’t happen often, but they’re frequent enough to rip you out of scenes that are meant to be more emotionally impactful than they are. The film does know when to reign Nikuko in for the more dramatic scenes towards the end of the film, but even during an important conversation between Nikuko and her daughter, Nikuko can’t stop trying to be over-the-top, like she’s playing for a crowded audience in a theatre.
Even with those faults, there’s a certain charm to Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko. By the time the credits rolled, I had a warm smile on my face. The film is like a hug: it’s familiar and inviting, though sometimes it can definitely be a little bit awkward to experience. But hugs usually come from a close feeling of intimacy, and you get that feeling from Nikuko. She may not be for everyone, but that motherly charm helps to elevate what would otherwise be a very understated movie about accepting and understanding who you are. We’ve seen movies like that plenty of times already, but Nikuko makes it memorable.