Award-winning director Ayumu Watanabe explores family, friendship in ‘Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko’

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The following quotes from Ayumu Watanabe were translated from Japanese to English by Satsuki Yamashita.

By the seaside, a secret history lurks under the harbor’s blanket of blue water.

However, it’s a mystery that’s initially unapparent in the idyllic veneer of “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko.” Based on the novel by Kanako Nishi, the film chronicles a heartwarming familial tale cradled at the intersection between a quaint coastal town and the looming world of the unknown. Following mother-daughter duo Nikuko (Shinobu Otake) and Kikuko (Cocomi), acclaimed director Ayumu Watanabe unveils a sentimental anime that radiates with an uplifting coming of age storyline. While the wistful, introspective Kikuko is often endearingly agitated by her brazen mother Nikuko, their bond is unwavering until it is imperiled by a startling realization.

Nikuko, the film’s eponymous heroine, has a presence that feels larger than life. Plucky, spirited and zealously eager, her exaggerated character design carries an incongruence that doesn’t quite match the groundedness of her peers. Yet, as Watanabe noted in a roundtable interview, he is able to better illustrate Nikuko’s relatability by juxtaposing her fictive, comical persona with moments of lifelike pragmatism, and this dichotomy is part of what makes the movie so compelling.

Even so, Nikuko’s whimsical quirks often veer closer to fantasy. “When we talk about the existence of Nikuko, I wanted the audience to think, ‘Oh, does she really exist? Perhaps she doesn’t exist, but I would like her to exist,’ ” Watanabe said. “So in order to make her a character like that, I incorporated a lot of fantastical elements to her. She does have a lot of cartoonish reactions, for example.”

Nikuko’s caricature-like qualities aren’t the film’s only tether to mythological mystique: As its animals babble in human speech and snow falls on the oceanside village, the movie’s charming animation pays homage to the comforting mysticality of the film “My Neighbor Totoro.” Forging a mirific ambience of magical realism, Watanabe’s balance of dreamlike flair and down-to-earth gravitas pays off as the movie approaches its emotional climax.

Similarly wondrous is the anime’s sublime and vivid portrayal of food. The act of eating and making meals functions as a love language in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” showing delectable delights ranging from pillowy French toast to mouth-watering meats. More than a vehicle of love and care, the food links a greater thread of truth between Nikuko, Kikuko and their unconventional family. “In the end, (with) humans, it’s really easy to form a relationship when they’re eating — especially with Nikuko,” Watanabe said. “When we first came up with the idea of doing this film, making and eating food was a big part of it.”

While “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” is, at its heart, a moving narrative about intricate familial bonds, Kikuko is also placed at odds in her friendships. Amidst her complicated relationship with school outcast Maria (Izumi Ishii), she finds herself confiding in Ninomiya (Natsuki Hanae), a boy with a face obscured by a curtain of hair and a personality obscured by elusiveness. When Ninomiya’s sporadic tendency to contort his features into bizarre expressions piques Kikuko’s interest, they forge a peculiar friendship in which his secrets are all hers to share.

“They sort of feel this natural, mysterious connection to each other; they might feel like they are a little bit alike in the way they think,” Watanabe said of the two friends. “With Kikuko and Ninomiya, it’s really not romantic, right? It’s the feeling that comes before romantic feeling — something that attracts each other to them as humans. I wanted to depict what (it takes) for humans to be drawn to each other when they’re not family.”

It’s through speaking with Ninomiya that Kikuko ultimately arrives at meaningful discoveries about herself, her relationship with others and the distinct exceptionality of her town’s quotidian life. As she navigates the familiar turbulence of middle school — basketball court drama, social fallout, the terrifying newness of puberty — she uncovers her mother’s unique past and the magic of normalcy entrenched in the harbor city’s picturesque solace.

Though the film explores family, friendship and growing pains within its touching story, Watanabe emphasized that its main theme is a search for joy. “You can figure out how simple it is to find happiness. That is the most important thing,” Watanabe said.

As Watanabe noted, he particularly enjoys depicting his characters’ chance encounters with open doors and new life perspectives. While he doesn’t always get to choose what he works on, he feels lucky that his work tends to deviate towards projects of emotional weight, opportunity and revelatory experiences. “I wanted to create a film that everyone could enjoy in the same space,” Watanabe remarked.

Tender, poignant and brimming with otherworldly cinematography, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” is a film that can undoubtedly speak to many. In this serene imaginary world, Watanabe’s lustrous moments of pathos luminesce through the movie’s gossamer-thin fictiveness.

Contact Esther Huang at [email protected].