What They Say:
From acclaimed director Ayumu Watanabe (Children of the Sea) and STUDIO4°C (Tekkonkinkreet, Mind Game) comes a heartwarming and moving comedy-drama with touches of magical realism. Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is about an unconventional family and the bonds that they share in their sleepy seaside town.
Brash single mother Nikuko is well-known for her bold spirit, much to the embarrassment of Kikuko, her pensive yet imaginative daughter. In contrast to her mother, Kikuko wants nothing more than to fit in as she navigates the everyday social dramas of middle school. Life in the harbor is peaceful until a shocking revelation from the past threatens to uproot the pair’s tender relationship.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
When famed film critic Pauline Kael first viewed Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut (for a theatrical film) she harshly wrote “If there is such a thing as a movie sense—and I think there is (I know fruit vendors and cabdrivers who have it and some movie critics who don’t)—Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else. There’s no sign of the emergence of a new film artist (such as Martin Scorsese) in The Sugarland Express, but it marks the debut of a new-style, new-generation Hollywood hand.” To put it in plain English: Kael could sense there was a great director in the making but felt that Spielberg had nothing to say with his movie. Of course, Kael would prove to be correct and incorrect at the same time. Spielberg’s earlier efforts had little to offer besides potential, but once he realized said potential, he would become one of the greatest directors of all time.
I had a similar moment when I first saw “Children of the Sea” by Ayumu Watanabe. The film was beautiful beyond words. Watching the movie, I felt more like I was watching a living, breathing painting, and in the theater, I commented to my wife that I had rarely seen such beauty on the screen. When the film ended, she asked if I liked it and I replied with a curt “no” before getting up. My wife was confused, as I had just praised the beauty of the film. I had to correct her that while I did feel like I had never seen a film animated quite like the one we just saw, I felt that there was nothing of substance to be found underneath the animation. Sure, it was one of those movies that waxed about philosophy and humans’ relationship to nature, yet none of it mattered and most of what was said felt empty.
It felt as if Watanabe was writing poetry that could only be appreciated by poets who only wrote words that touched other poets. Still, I did admit that the director had talent, and if he could find the “heart” in his next movie he would potentially be someone worth paying attention to in the future. That latest effort is “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” and the title feels extremely appropriate as fortune appears to have also favored Watanabe, whose third movie (seventh if you count a strong of ‘Doraemon’ films…which I don’t) is such a marked improvement I can only imagine if this is what it was like for Kael to go from viewing “The Sugarland Express” to “JAWS” one year later?! For “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” is much wiser with its time, has much better characters, and a journey that feels like it has a true purpose behind it.
Nikuko, in contrast, is a woman full of life and fun; she knows who she is and what makes her happy, and if others find her to be an embarrassment, she either couldn’t care less (or is completely oblivious to such judgments). That the two’s relationship comes off as genuine and caring without a hint of cynicism shows that Watanabe has something deep to say about human relationships, especially as the film goes on and the mother and daughter end up having a much more complicated relationship than I could have predicted. Unlike “Children of the Sea” the animation in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” is more restrained and less (for lack of a better word) “artsy.”
Great animation is always nice to look at, but if you’ve ever looked at a Thomas Kinkade painting you’ll know that pretty images alone do not move the soul. In “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” the animation has more purpose behind it and thus is used more wisely. Watanabe has wisely made a movie whose beauty is more understated this time, giving viewers a chance to truly accept a world that they can relate to on an emotional level, rather than one that is beautiful but feels distant. It’s still a much better-looking film than most you will see in theaters (and it certainly has more life in the images than “Lightyear” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru”). The screenplay – written by Satoshi Ooshima – is a heartfelt little thing, tugging on the heartstrings while never losing sight of Nikuko’s love for life! It is filled with not only wonderful characters but wonderful moments.
With “Children of the Sea” Ayuma Watanabe made a visual masterpiece that had no heart and little to say. With “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” he has made a movie that isn’t going to grab an artist’s attention in the same way, yet it has a story that is more heartfelt and souths the soul. Hopefully, when he directs his next film he will be able to deliver the best of both worlds, and when that day comes there is a chance we will be seeing the next great director in the world come full circle. He’s not there yet. There is still more work to be done before he can be the next Makato Shinkai. I sense he will get there though. I sense that sooner or later he’s going to make that classic film that makes the world stand up and take notice. Despite how much I loved “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” I don’t believe the world will notice this film much because it is much too small to get that kind of attention. He came close though, and I’m excited to see what his next project will be!