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Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko(2021) [FANTASIA 2021]

Japanese animation studio 4°C has been around longer than most people realise. Founded back in 1986, they rose over time to become one of the most respected animation production studios in the world. Their high-production values made them a sought-after partner by overseas producers, producing animation for western films and series such as MFZK (aka Mutafukaz), Thundercats (2011), Batman Gotham Knight and The Animatrix.  Their own productions often go against the grain of mainstream anime- it was 4°C that brought much of anime auteur Masaaki Yuasa's early work to the world. The studio's 2019 fantasy feature Children Of The Sea was undoubtedly one of their more conventional works.

Children Of The Sea director Ayumu Watanabe returns for the studio's newest feature Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko.  The film was adapted from Kanako Nishi's novel by Satomi Ohshima, a screenwriter who has until now worked almost exclusively in live-action TV and film. Originally released in Japanese cinemas on June 11, 2021, it recently had its North American premiere as part of the 2021 Fantasia Festival virtual event.

If Watanabe's earlier film was more in line with typical Japanese high-end feature animation, Lady Nikuko is a return to the quirkier output typified with the studio's collaborations with Yuasa. It's made clear right away as we are introduced to the backstory of the eponymous character in a  sequence that is stylised in both its animation and tone.

It's also clear right away that the title is more than a little ironic. The opening regales us with Nikuko's romantic misfortunes as she bounces between unsuitable men who take advantage of her naivety and good nature. Eventually, she settles in a quiet seaside town where our story takes place. She lives on a houseboat with her daughter Kikuko (our protagonist and narrator), working in a nearby restaurant and forming a surrogate father-daughter bond with its gruff owner.

Nikuko is definitely not your typical anime character. She definitely doesn't look like one- she's  a very overweight (described bluntly as "meaty" by Kikuko), middle-aged single mum and about as far as you can get from the gravity-defying amazon sex bombs that are more common in anime heroines. She's also extremely lovable, full of girlish energy and joy and big-hearted.

Daughter Kikuko could hardly be more of a contrast- at least on the surface. With her mother going through life as a big kid, tomboyish Kikuko seems to on some level feel the need to be the 'adult' of the house(boat), adopting a quiet and serious demeanour most of the time. Of course, being embarrassed by parents is a normal part of growing up and Kikuko is definitely shown to experience this. However, not nearly to the degree as Nikuko's antics might make you think- perhaps due to her pre-adolescent age. Their relationship is definitely a largely friendly and non-combative one, which is a nice contrast with most parental-offspring relationships we see on screen.

There's not really much here in the way of plot, it's mainly a slice of life of a particular time in this unusual little family's life. It follows Kikuko as she goes to school, tries to navigate playground politics and befriends a quiet and mysterious boy in her class. There's no romance here, although I suppose it could be inferred that that's a possibility for the future. It's only in the final act that it steps into drama and drops a revelation with the power to change Nikuko and Kikuko's relationship forever.

For the most part, the film is a light-hearted and fun watch. It presents a quirky world where animals (and sometimes buildings) can be heard speaking and where cute penguins are muttering plans to "kill everybody". It's often funny, although there are some Japanese word-play gags and puns that are obviously lost in translation.

Jokes at the expense of Nikuko's size are definitely going to trouble some western audiences. Although it's not exactly PC, they somehow never seem to stray into true mean-spiritedness or nastiness, staying more in the realm of friendly joshing between friends or family. Of course, depending on your personal experiences and perspective, your mileage may vary on this.

The film's best running gag is its repeated comparisons of the rotund Nikuko with the furry forest king from Hayao Miyazaki's classic My Neighbour Totoro. Our first introduction to her (outside of the introduction) is a visual tribute to the slumbering Totoro laying on his back. There are other visual and dialogue comparisons throughout, but best of all is a hilarious recreation of the iconic bus stop sequence.

A Studio 4°C production usually guarantees impressive visuals, and Lady Nikuko does not disappoint. It features lush backgrounds that help bring the town to life, making it feel like a living, breathing real-world location. The character animation somehow manages to strike a balance between cartoony and exaggerated and incredibly fluid and intricate when required. An example of that is in the lovingly depicted cooking sequences peppered throughout the film. A word of warning: if you're a fan of Japanese food at all, don't watch this on an empty stomach. Overall it doesn't have quite the  'wow' factor that Children Of The Sea's managed, but this is a completely different kind of film- and it's still beautifully made.

Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko is an odd duck of a film. Small in scale and narratively unambitious (anyone who is surprised by the 'twist' has probably not been paying attention), it's nonetheless consistently funny, endearingly bonkers and exquisitely made. Fortune may or may not favour Lady Nikuko, but we are definitely lucky to have Studio 4°C.


IN A NUTSHELL:  Studio 4°C's latest is sweet, funny and big hearted, just like Nikuko Herself.