Review: ‘Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,’ starring the voices of Shinobu Ôtake and Cocomi

June 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kikuko (voiced by Cocomi) and Nikuko (voiced by Shinobu Ôtake) in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko”

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: The Japanese animated film “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” which takes place primarily in an unnamed village in Japan, tells the story of an unlucky-in-love single mother named Nikuko and her teenage daughter Kikuko, with a cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Kikuko is somewhat of an outsider at her school, where she pines over a boy she has a crush on, she longs to be accepted by a clique of popular girls, and she is often embarrassed by her mother’s goofy and larger-than-life personality.

Culture Audience: “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime films about family love and the true meaning friendship.

Nikuko (voiced by Shinobu Ôtake) in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” tells a moderately entertaining story about an eccentric single mother and her teenage daughter, who is the story’s narrator. This comedy/drama anime film isn’t great though. It has some problematic mocking of the title character’s large body. The movie’s title is a little misleading because Nikuko (the mother character, voiced by Shinobu Ôtake) isn’t in the film as much as you might think a title character would be. The story is really about Nikuko’s daughter Kikuko (voiced by Cocomi), who is Nikuko’s only child. The movie spends a lot of time on Kikuko’s social interactions with Kikuko’s peers.

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” is based on Kanako Nishi’s 2014 novel of the same name. The novel was also made into a manga series. Satomi Ohshima wrote the “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” movie screenplay. The movie’s animation and performances from the voice actors are perfectly fine. The screenplay is where “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” falters the most.

The beginning of “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” has a montage, with voiceover narration from Kikuko (who’s about 14 or 15 years old), explaining some of Nikuko’s background. Nikuko has a pattern of choosing love partners who are liars, cheaters and con men. These loser boyfriends break Nikuko’s heart and often drain her of her money.

Every time Nikuko has one of these bad breakups, she then moves to another city in Japan, as if she wants to start a new life and try to put her heartbreak behind her. It’s mentioned that Nikuko grew up in an unnamed small town. She moved to Osaka at age 16, and then Nagoya at age 27, and then Yokohana at age 30, and then Tokyo at age 33. And now, at age 35, Nikuko has moved with Kikuko (whom she calls Kukurin as a nickname) to an unnamed small city in Japan.

Nikuko and Kikuko live on a small fishing houseboat owned by Nikuko’s friendly boss Sassan (played by Ikuji Nakamura), who also owns a restaurant/bar called Uwogashi Grill House. Nikuko, who works as a server at Uwogashi Grill House, has had working-class jobs all of her life. She was working at another bar where she met one of her swindler ex-boyfriends. Nikuko doesn’t like to discuss who Kikuko’s father is, so Kikuko has gone through life not knowing anything about her father.

All of Nikuko’s relocations and romantic disappointments have left her “tired,” according to Kikuko. Despite being unlucky in love and experiencing a lot of betrayal, Nikuko has a jolly and exuberant personality. She’s very friendly to strangers, but she doesn’t have many friends. It’s an indication that underneath her extroverted persona, Nikuko is hiding a lot of loneliness and emotional pain.

However, Nikuko gets her greatest joy from being a mother. Kikuko and Nikuko love each other very much, but Kikuko is in that teenage stage of life where Kikuko wants more independence. Nikuko has her share of quirks. As Kikuko explains in the movie’s introduction, Nikuko likes to make puns about numbers and kanji. Nikuko also has an almost juvenile outlook on life, because she likes to make childlike jokes with people. By contrast, Kikuko is serious-minded and introverted.

Nikuko is also the type of person who’s impossible not to notice in a room, because she often talks loudly and can be clumsy. Nikuko also occasionally gets drunk in public. When she gets drunk, she becomes even louder and goofier. And when a parent acts this way, you know what that means for a child, especially if that child is a teenager: That parent is often an embarrassment to the child.

The beginning of “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” somewhat oddly lists Nikuko’s measurements, which seems redundant because people watching the movie can already see that she’s a large-sized woman, in terms of her weight proportion to her body. But for anyone who cares, Nikuko’s measurements are listed as being 151 centimeters tall (which is nearly 5 feet tall) and weighing 67.4 kilograms (or about 148 pounds). One of the movie’s flaws is that it seems fixated on Nikuko’s body size as a way to explain why Nikuko is a social misfit.

It’s not really body shaming, but several times throughout the movie, Nikuko’s body size and eating habits are used for slapstick jokes. She often falls down or gets into physically uncomfortable predicaments because of her weight. There are also multiple scenes of Nikuko devouring large quantities of food, because the filmmakers obviously intended viewers to laugh at Nikuko when she eats.

The movie also has some unnecessary and tacky scenes of Nikuko farting or burping. No one watching this movie needs to know how Nikuko’s digestive system is processing gas, but there it is in unavoidable scenes in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko.” The movie also hints that Nikuko might have sleep apnea, based on the way she loudly snores and seems to have some difficulty breathing when she sleeps. Any health issues that Nikuko might have are treated as jokes—and this mockery is the movie’s biggest failing.

Nikuko’s physicality is used as the movie’s “comic relief,” but it’s not the movie’s main story. Most of “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” is about Kikuko’s angst over her social situation at her school. This not-very-original teen storyline has Kikuko wanting to be liked by a clique of popular girls, led by a snob named Mori.

Kikuko has a schoolmate named Maria (voiced by Izumi Ishii), who was Kikuko’s closest friend at school. However, Maria has been shunned by Mori and her clique, just because they think Maria isn’t cool enough to hang out with them. Because Kikuko wants to be accepted by Mori’s clique, Kikuko has recently been snubbing Maria too. Kikuko says in a voiceover about her social life at school: “When I transferred here, Maria was the first one to talk to me.” And now, Kikuko says she doubts that Maria will ever talk to her again.

Kikuko, who has a tomboyish appearance, is also insecure about how she looks. She has a secret crush on a schoolmate named Ninomiya (voiced by Natsuki Hanae), who is somewhat of a loner and has a reputation for being a little rebellious. Ninomiya, a shaggy-haired teen who has long bangs that almost cover his eyes, seems to know what Kikuko has a crush on him because he notices that she often stares at him.

One day at school, when Ninomiya and Kikuko are talking with each other, he praises Maria for “dressing like a princess and looking feminine.” This comment makes Kikuko jealous, so she tells Ninomiya that Maria had a plan to be the center of attention, and it backfired. Kikuko tells Ninomiya it’s the reason why Mori’s clique has made Maria an outcast.

It’s a catty side to Kikuko that makes her look small-minded and petty. When Ninomiya points out that Maria and Kikuko used to be close friends, Kikuko has to come to terms with how she also played a role in enabling bullying and making Maria feel excluded. The movie shows how Kikuko then handles this reckoning.

Meanwhile, the movie continues with scenarios that show Kikuko being embarrassed by Nikuko. They take a mother-daughter trip to an aquarium. You can easily predict what happens when Nikuko encounters a wet floor.

And then, there’s a School Sports Day at Kikuko’s school, where students and their parents compete against each other in athletic competitions. You can also easily guess what that means for Nikuko and Kikuko. Ninomiya will be watching whatever ends up happening, which adds to Kikuko’s anxiety about this event.

“Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” has a lot of slapstick comedy, but the movie takes a sharp turn into serious drama when a secret is revealed in the last third of the film. It’s here where “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” somewhat redeems itself in how it portrays Nikuko, who no longer becomes a caricature in this part of the movie. How this secret is revealed puts Nikuko in a different context than just embarrassing herself and Kikuko in a buffoonish way.

The reveal of this secret is meant to add more depth to the story, but it comes so late in the movie, some viewers might perceive it as a manipulative plot twist. Other viewers might be emotionally moved by this secret, while some viewers might even shed some tears over it. After the secret is revealed, it brings up some questions that the movie never answers. Even with all of its shortcomings, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” has a meaningful message about family love and true friendships, but viewers have to watch a lot of the movie’s cliché-driven scenarios before it finally gets to this message.

GKIDS released “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022, with a sneak preview on June 2, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on July 19, 2022. “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” was originally released in Japan in 2021.

Review: ‘Children of the Sea,’ a magical adventure from Japan

September 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Children of the Sea” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Children of the Sea”

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in an unnamed Japanese city, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters, representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl, whose scientist parents work at a local aquarium, encounters two mysterious aquatic teenage boys who were found at sea and who want to get away from the scientific experiments that have forced on them.

Culture Audience: “Children of the Sea” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to fans of Japanese anime and animated adventure films.

“Children of the Sea” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

The gorgeous Japanese animated film “Children of the Sea” immerses viewers into a fantasy world that compares and contrasts life on land and life underwater, but there’s a very “real world” environmental message that is present throughout the story. Directed with both enchanting whimsy and technical prowess by Ayumu Watanabe, “Children of the Sea” has some eye-popping animated visuals that deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Daisuke Igarashi wrote the “Children of the Sea” adapted screenplay from his manga of the same title.

The story, which takes place in an unnamed Japanese city. is told from the point of view of a teenage girl named Ruka Azumi (who’s about 15 or 16 years old) during her summer break from regular school sessions. Her vacation gets off to a rocky start when Ruka, who is a rugby player for her school, is wrongfully accused of starting a fight with a fellow student during rugby practice. The other student, who was playing on the opposing team, was the one who was the physical aggressor, because she deliberately tripped Ruka during the game. 

A supervising teacher calls Ruka into his office and scolds her for being a “troublemaker.” He doesn’t want to hear Ruka’s excuse that the bullying student was the one who started the fight. And he tells Ruka that if she won’t apologize to the other student, then Ruka shouldn’t bother coming to practice anymore.

Feeling dejected and misunderstood, Ruka decides to go to Enokura Aquarium where her father Masaki works as a scientist. Ruka has happy memories of spending her childhood at the aquarium. One of these memories, which is shown at the beginning of the movie, is when Ruka saw a ghost in the aquarium. Her father is one of the aquarium’s scientists who evaluate aquatic life and do experiments, such as seeing how dolphins respond to certain sounds. 

While at the aquarium, Ruka discovers a friendly teenage boy in a back room. He’s about the same age as Ruka, and his name is Umi. He shows Yuka that he has an extraordinary ability to swim and float underwater for long periods of time without any breathing equipment. Ruka is very intrigued by Umi and wants to become his friend.

Ruka’s father tells her that Umi was found 10 years ago with another boy off of the shores of the Philippines. Scientists discovered that Umi and the other boy (who is slightly older than Umi) were raised primarily underwater by dugongs. The boys, who are apparently orphaned and raised as brothers by the dugongs, were kept at the aquarium for research.

One evening, Umi invites Ruka to go with him to see a will o’ the wisp at the beach. Ruka is surprised to see what she thinks is a comet or shooting star, but Ruka insists that it’s a will o’ the wisp. He also tells Ruka that animals shine when they want to be found.

While at the beach, Ruka sees the teenager who is described as Umi’s adoptive older brother: His name is Sora, whose skin is so pale that at first Ruka thinks that Sora is a ghost. Sora has blonde hair and blue eyes, which implies that he’s of European descent, while Umi has the appearance of being Filipino. It’s never explained in the movie how Umi and Sora ended up being stranded at sea together, since both boys don’t seem to have any memories of their human families.

Unlike the amicable reaction that Ruka got from Umi when they first met, the first time she meets Sora, he’s rude to her. Sora tells Ruka that she’s “boring.” He adds, “Umi has me. He’s not interested in you.” It also becomes clear as the story unfolds that Sora is more rebellious and more impulsive than Umi.

Sora is growing tired of being a research subject and wants to spend less time away from the aquarium. This restlessness is one of the main reasons why Sora, Umi and Ruka end up taking a joyride on a boat. It isn’t until they’re in the middle of the sea and that Sora admits he doesn’t know how to sail the boat and he was just winging it as they went along. And so, when the boat’s engine mysteriously stalls, the three teens don’t know how to fix it.

It’s during this fateful boat ride that Ruka discovers Umi’s and Sora’s seemingly magical powers to communicate with the aquatic creatures. She also gets to experience underwater life for the first time in some of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, including seeing whale shark creatures. Sora eventually warms up to Ruka, but he still feels leery about anyone he thinks might try to break his brotherly bond with Umi.

It’s implied that Ruka has special powers too, but she isn’t fully aware of them yet. Meanwhile, Umi and Sora tells her that numerous creatures in the ocean will be gathering for a Birth Festival underwater and are looking for festival guests. Sora says he’s been traveling the world with a scientist named Jim to research the festival’s connection to Umi and Sora.

The trio makes it back to shore, but it won’t be the last time Ruka, Umi and Sora go out to sea together and experience dangerous situations. There’s a boat they use called the Rwa Bhineda that is a key part of their adventures together. One of the people they encounter near the boat is Angurâdo, a young man who wants to be Jim’s assistant.

There’s also an aquarium scientist named Anglade, who wants to keep Umi and Somi at the aquarium for research, even though it’s becoming obvious that the teenagers are growing into young men and want more independence. And there’s a town eccentric named Dehdeh, an elderly woman with apparent psychic abilities.

Ruka is close to her father, but she has a tense relationship with her mother Kanako, a scientist who also works at the aquarium but is on a leave of absence. The reason is because she’s an alcoholic, which is a secret that has brought shame to the family and has caused Ruka to have resentful feelings toward her mother. Kanako’s work colleagues describe her as “brilliant,” but Ruka doesn’t have much respect for her mother because of how Kanako’s alcoholism has negatively affected the family. It’s one of the reasons why Ruka doesn’t like to spend much time at home.

“Children of the Sea” has subtle and not-so-subtle environmental messages about the world being destroyed by humans’ recklessness and greed. Climate change and how it’s affecting the environment are on display when a megamouth shark and hundreds of fish wash up dead on near the aquarium. A typhoon suddenly occurs during one part of the story. And the movie has constant themes of urgent messages that aquatic animals are trying to communicate with humans.

STUDIO4°C, the animation studio behind “Children of the Sea,” infuses this story of teen rebellion meets environmentalism with a lot of reverential images of aquatic life. Creatures such as dolphins and whales are portrayed as just as intelligent (and sometimes smarter) than humans. And underwater life, although certainly not a utopia, is presented as a lot more harmonious and tranquil than the land inhabited by destructive humans.

The animation also takes risks by having some truly psychedelic imagery toward the end of the movie. Joe Hisaishi’s musical score perfectly complements the mood of each scene. And even though “Children of the Sea” is longer than a typical animated film (the total running time is 111 minutes), director Watanabe makes it a well-paced story. Some of the characters are more layered than others, so viewers will want to keep watching to see what it all means in the end. (There’s also an end credits scene that shows an epilogue to the story.)

The voices of the “Children of the Sea” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “Children of the Sea.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Mana Ashida as Ruka, Hiiro Ishibashi as Umi, Seishu Uragami as Sora, Win Morisaki as Anglade, Goro Inagaki as Masaki Azumi, Yu Aoi as Kanako Azumi, Toru Watanabe as The Teacher, Min Tanaka as Jim and Sumiko Fuji as Dehdeh. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Anjali Gauld as Ruka, Lynden Prosser as Umi, Benjamin Niewood/Benjamin Niedens as Sora, Beau Bridgland as Anglade, as Marc Thompson as Masaki Azumi, Karen Strassman as Kanako Azumi, Wally Wingert as The Teacher, Michael Sorich as Jim and Denise Lee as Dehdeh.

Some adults might think that animation is mostly for kids, but “Children of the Sea” is a great example of an animated film that can tell an intriguing story that’s relatable to people of any generation. It’s clear that the movie has a viewpoint that if aquatic animals could talk, they would be begging humans to treat the underwater world with more respect because how underwater life is treated affects us all. The movie’s environmental message isn’t preachy, but it shows how people on land are connected to the life that’s underwater and how lessons learned from the past can shape the future. 

GKIDS released “Children of the Sea” on digital, Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix on September 1, 2020.

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