Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko: a playful response to Studio Ghibli

This production from Studio 4°C celebrates the rhythms and rites of daily life; the deliberate dissonance of its drawn styles ultimately gives way to a tender pathos.

9 August 2022

By Andrew Osmond

Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko (2021)
Sight and Sound

In Watanabe Ayumu’s latest animated film, the excellent Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko, the huge-bodied title character asks her boyish tweenage daughter how her day was. When the girl says it was ordinary, her mother cheerfully replies that that’s the best kind.

Many Japanese TV cartoons celebrate daily life, highlighting small events over any overarching story. It’s a less common approach in anime cinema, but Watanabe handles it masterfully. The film takes the viewpoint of the daughter, living with her mum on a rented boat in a port town. While the characters are mostly drawn realistically – though with some leeway from shot to shot – the girl’s rotund mother is drawn far more cartoonishly, as if from a different film. She beams, simpers and giggles in ways her daughter finds painfully embarrassing, and viewers will too – though her peculiarity is clearly subjectivised, reflective of how her daughter pictures her. Their names are confusingly similar, rendered in English as “Kikuko” (the daughter) and “Nikuko” (the mother).

Nikuko is less central to the film than the title suggests; the pleasantly overlapping storylines devote equal time to Kikuko’s school peers, including a boy who pulls very strange faces, making him another incongruously cartoonish figure. A related story about Kikuko’s falling out with a girl friend rings painfully true. The country images (rice fields, shadowed roads) have a delicacy that’s often associated with Studio Ghibli; hearing the wistful score, some viewers may recognise the composer – Muramatsu Takatsugu, who scored Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There (2014).

Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko was made by another studio, Studio 4°C, but it works as an intelligent response to Ghibli. The film has overt jokes about Ghibli’s 1988 classic My Neighbour Totoro, with the tubby Nikuko compared to that film’s titular fantasy creature. But Fortune… feels far closer to Ghibli’s 1989 film Only Yesterday, directed by Takahata Isao, with its grade-school scenes, hazy-feeling narrative and deliberate dissonance in drawn styles. Fittingly, Takahata was a pioneer of animating daily life: his epic 1974 TV version of Heidi is beloved in Japan.

Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko, though, is far more playful than Only Yesterday, bestowing strange voices on lizards and birds in hilarious cutaways. Some viewers will find the character of Nikuko unbearably annoying, though the tonal shift in the last act gives her great pathos. Near the end, she has an extended crying scene; one thinks at first that the film is missing a trick by not rendering Nikuko more “realistically” here, but Watanabe leaves that to a tender final shot.

► Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko is showing widely in UK cinemas tomorrow, and will be showing in selected cinemas for a few days thereafter.

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