A gleaming and delightful anime with a large appetite for tenderness and laughter, director Ayumu Watanabe’s mother-daughter saga “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” boundlessly adores its titular character even when it lingers a tad too long on her happy-go-lucky naiveté or ample love of food.
We get introduced to Nikuko (Shinobu Ôtake), a charming thirtysomething living with her young daughter, Kikuko (Cocomi), as she contentedly works at a local grill house in a small port town in Northern Japan. Heavyset, carefree and irrepressibly joyful in a manner that both puzzles and disarms everyone around her, she is known as “the cheery plump lady who wound up living here” to townsfolk. There is a lot of truth to that, as the film’s stunning opening montage recaps, guided largely by Kikuko’s voiceover, like the rest of the movie.
Being a punch-drunk romantic a little too trusting of scheming men who mercilessly take advantage of her, Nikuko often falls in love with the wrong sort and moves to a new village every time an ill-fated affair predictably turns sour. We learn that it was on the heels of one such heartbreaking romance when she and Kikuko found themselves in their current living arrangement, after the latest loser deserted her abruptly with no explanation. So what is the ever-hopeful woman to do, if not rise back up on her feet like she’d done in the wake of every momentary fall and settle down for the next chapter of her life that she yearns to make as ordinary as possible?
It proves tough to go with the outspoken Nikuko’s proud “ordinary life” mantra at times, and not only because everything about this delicate character — from her idiosyncratic clothing to her enchantingly overstuffed boat house — screams unconventional. After all, she resides within a world brought to life in astonishing detail by Studio 4°C, the reliably inventive Japanese animation outfit behind “Children of the Sea.” In the same vein, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” vividly conjures up a kaleidoscopic tapestry of shimmering waters, mournful rainfalls (with at least one visual nod to the Hayao Miyazaki classic “My Neighbor Totoro”) and wistful pastoral elements, all touched by the innovative baton of Japanese comedian Sanma Akashiya (billed as the creative producer here). Add to that the heaps of genuinely mouthwatering food — French toast, fried noodles, juicy meats and other delicacies fashioned more appetizingly than any food stylist could have pulled off — and you get a hot pot that tastes anything but ordinary.
That food — or rather, Nikuko’s frequent consumption of it, often shown in impolite close-ups — bears examination, since “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” emphasizes it repeatedly. One could read into that recurring impulse to accentuate Nikuko’s weight (along with her clumsy shortcomings elsewhere) and deem it unkind. But working from a novel by Kanako Nishi, screenwriter Satomi Ohshima and director Watanabe are thankfully careful in avoiding cheap laughs at the expense of their big-hearted character. Their film doesn’t mock Nikuko, but rather sees her through the eyes of her skeptical daughter Kikuko. After all, she is at a confusing age of colliding hormones and complicated emotions, a period in which children tend to be harshly critical of their parents and see nothing but what they perceive as their mistakes.
In that regard, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” joins Pixar’s recent “Turning Red” as a loving coming-of-age tale where fiercely dissimilar mothers and daughters have to entertain each other’s lenses. And the script is refreshingly open-handed to allow audiences, young and mature, to taste ample amounts of both perspectives and find traces of their own truth in the duo’s evolving story. On one side, there is the young Kikuko, a tomboyish, introverted bookworm dealing with her share of mean-girl school drama (in which she could be the perpetrator) and growing romantic feelings toward a lovable weirdo. On the other, there is Nikuko, yearning to keep their boat afloat in the best way she knows how.
What packs a punch in their richly constructed journey, one in which Kikuko has a lot of growing up to do despite seeming like the mature member of the household, is a piercing last-act reveal beautifully told in a flashback. Without saying too much, rest assured, it’s as surprising and lavish in spirit as Nikuko, rejoicing the notion of acceptance and generosity as the key ingredients of any loving familial relationship.