The big dilemma with Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko, a new anime film based on a novel by Kanako Nishi, is best summed up in a scene early on when 11-year-old Kikuko tries to wake up her sleeping mother, Nikuko, and comments that she looks like Totoro. On the one hand, this is just one of many jokes in the movie making fun of Nikuko for being fat. On the other, who doesn't love Totoro? Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is one of the rare anime with a plus-size title character who's incredibly lovable but also subject to a nonstop barrage of fat-shaming humor (even her name is Japanese for "meat child").
For what it's worth, Nikuko seems to be meant less like a generic stereotype of plus-size people and more like a specific stereotype of people from Osaka. Overeating is part of the Osaka stereotype; so are boldness, friendliness, rash decision-making, familiarity with the seedy side of society and an affinity for puns. The pun-heavy nature of Nikuko's dialogue, in combination with the culturally specific nature of much of the movie's humor, might explain why American distributors haven't yet jumped on the chance to license Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko. It's possibly too Japanese to be a massive hit stateside.
Even so, many of the film's charms are universal. The animation is almost as gorgeous as Studio 4°C and Ayumu Watanabe's previous film, Children of the Sea, and Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko thankfully lacks the frustrating obtuseness as its predecessor. The food is nearly Ghibli-level appetizing (vegans might wanna skip this one lest the gorgeously-rendered steaks get too tempting). Nikuko's cartoony character animation is somewhat reminiscent of My Neighbors the Yamadas, and there's a gag manga sensibility to the episodic nature and semi-fantastical flights of fancy (a scene with the inner narrative of a penguin is a comedic highlight).
While Nikuko is the personality that dominates the film for better or worse, most of the story is told from the perspective of Kikuko. Kikuko's story is well-written if somewhat typical coming-of-age, slice-of-life material. On the verge of puberty, she's perpetually struggling with embarrassment over her mom and navigating friendships with other girls. For all her attempts to distance herself from Nikuko's eccentricity, Kikuko ends up falling for a boy with a tic-like compulsion to make the strangest faces. Imitating his wacky expressions proves a mild form of liberation.
There's not really a lot going on for most of Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko. The first hour jumps back and forth between Kikuko's realistic social issues and broad comedy with Nikuko. There's a lot to enjoy, as well as a lot to criticize in regards to fat-shaming, but the minimalism of the plot might leave viewers tired or impatient over that hour. The story suddenly gets a lot more dramatic in its final act, finding the more serious side of Nikuko's backstory and bringing in more complicated themes to their familial relationship. While the movie ends with the exact message you know it will from the start, the twists introduced in the final act make that message even sweeter and all the more meaningful.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is a mixed bag of a movie. Parts of it are cute and heartwarming, others border on the offensive while others might be lost in translation. In the end, though, the charm wins out over the problems, making for a solid if mild recommendation. Again, who doesn't love Totoro?
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko had its North American premiere at Fantasia Fest 2021. Further American release plans have yet to be announced.