Credit: GKIDS
by Paul Attard Featured Film Horizon Line

Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko — Ayumu Watanabe

June 2, 2022

Ayuma Watanabe‘s latest anime is both bland and loathsome, dull when its not offending and contemptible the rest of the time.

Let’s not beat around the bush: Ayumu Watanabe’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is — to an almost impressively obnoxious level — cloying and fatphobic gobbledegook that believes itself to be far nobler than that description suggests. The degree to which something this relaxed and laid-back in its pacing and tone can also be outright despicable is a testament to how insidious the modern-day anime industry is. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here: before launching into accusations this inflammatory, one must provide some baseline evidence, especially for a slice-of-life narrative this unambitious and unassuming.

There’s the titular Nikuko (voiced by Shinobu Otake) and her teenage daughter Kikuko (famed flutist Cocomi), but the film’s far more about the latter than the former; if anything, Nikuko serves more as window dressing than an actual character within her own narrative, with Kikuko’s perspective favored throughout. The two live an inauspicious life on a boat docked at a small seaside village, their latest homestead after a series of failed romances on Nikuko’s behalf — briefly flung through during the prologue like one needlessly cruel run-on joke — where the two begin to butt heads as Kikuko enters into young adulthood. Simple enough, though perhaps a bit too simple in scope: the narrative never comes together and builds into anything meaningful beyond regurgitating some surface-level platitudes about accepting others and the inscrutable bonds between a mother and her daughter. It’s also a story about childhood painted with the broadest strokes possible: Kikuko has a close friend, loses said friend, then becomes friends with her again at the end. How riveting. Which, for a 24-episode series of the “damn, that anime food looks good” variety — and, to be fair, the anime food does look really good here — would work well enough; for a feature-length, stand-alone package, this isn’t enough to keep viewers engaged and isn’t given the space to build depth. Nothing terribly exciting ever happens, nothing is ever demanded of the audience. They get to watch some nice watercolor-inspired animation set to some tear-jerking (if also super bland) piano chords and call it a day.

But while all of that essentially suggests inoffensive mush, the turning point into outright loathsomeness is with the characterization of Nikuko, a plump, infantilized woman who quickly becomes the butt of every single joke attempted whenever the film feels like it’s losing a pulse. When she’s sleeping, she snores so loud it shakes the boat. She speaks in a whiny, child-like pitch that emphasizes how unsophisticated this crass mass of blubber is. She’s always crying for some reason. She drinks too much. She has no idea who J. D. Salinger is (which, to be fair, his canonical status is likely skewed heavily American). And, of course, she’s always eating in every scene she appears in; “scarfing” might actually be a better word for it, with “gorging” running a close second. There’s an uneasy mixture of contempt and cruelty that went into constructing this character, but the film tries to play it both ways by ending on a message of acceptance: that while Nikuko may be annoying, juvenile, and thick as hell, she’s still Kikuko’s mother, and dammit that’s supposed to be beautiful in and of itself. This is, for a film that’s been using her as an easy punchline, at the absolute best a completely disingenuous message. It’s aiming squarely for the feels, but the only ones it really ever musters are either apathy or outright animosity.