There’s more warmth than wisdom in the animated Japanese coming-of-age drama “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” an exceptionally well-realized variation on a by-now familiar anime story: a young girl learns how to love herself and her life in a picturesque seaside town.
The typically impressive craftsmen at the Japanese animation studio Studio 4°C (“Tekkonkinkreet”, “Mind Game”) have successfully highlighted the most endearing parts of this mother-daughter dramedy, which is as much about going through puberty as it is about accepting a parent or guardian for who they are.
Director Ayumu Watanabe and supervising animation director–character designer Kenichi Konishi (“Children of the Sea”) capture the halting rhythms and awkward splendor of daily life in a small port town. That makes all the difference in this story about a shy pre-teen who learns not only to look forward to her adolescence, but also how to empathize with her embarrassing single mother.
Based on Kanako Nishi’s novel, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” often concerns, but doesn’t always focus on, the core relationship between gangly fifth grader Kikuko (voiced by Cocomi) and her bubbly, uncoordinated mom Nikuko (Shinobu Otake). A playful and visually dynamic opening scene introduces us to Nikuko from her daughter’s perspective: naïve and eager to please, Nikuko gives away too much of her pride (and money) to a string of suitors, all of whom are represented as nameless, feature-less silhouettes that dance through Nikuko’s life. Nikuko consequently over-eats and over-extends herself even further and then retreats with Kikuko (then eight years old) from urban Yokohama to live in an unnamed small town, where most of the movie’s action takes place.
Living with Nikuko has taught Kikuko to see avoidance as a kind of self-care. Kikuko worries about her evolving friendship with Maria (Izumi Ishii), a local girl whose overbearing personality sometimes alienates Kikuko. Kikuko also gravitates towards Ninomiya (Natsuki Hanae), a shy boy who compulsively makes grotesque faces. So it makes sense that, in this angsty context, Kikuko thinks and then promptly tries to forget this characteristically sharp and moving line of voiceover narration: “I hope my chest never grows and my period never starts.” She spends more time suppressing than articulating unkind thoughts about her mother, who fusses over creature comforts like food but doesn’t really listen well or seem to care about her daughter beyond a point.
There’s not much of a plot driving “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” since so much of it concerns Kikuko’s deliberate and unhurried processing of her emotions. She only realizes that there are some things about Maria that she doesn’t like when the other girls in Kikuko’s class ask her to join them in ostracizing Maria. She stammers and turns over her options while the other girls demand that she make a choice. She does; she chooses to keep mulling things over for herself.
That said: Nikuko’s more of a supporting character than a co-lead. She’s a major part of her daughter’s life, but she’s also never the most important part of Kikuko’s story, which helps to make the drama’s unhurried conclusion that much more satisfying. Kikuko also clearly articulates her feelings for her mother through fragmented daydream images of Nikuko, usually running around and/or eating.
The leisurely pace and granular details that define Nikuko’s relationship with her mom — and herself — feel specific enough to be inviting, but also unsentimental enough to be rewarding. The movie’s accomplishments reflect the high level of craftsmanship that anime fans have come to expect from Studio 4°C and Konishi in particular. (Konishi’s earlier credits as an animation director include “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” and “Millennium Actress”)
Konishi’s character designs tend to be subtly nuanced, especially when it comes to how these characters move or stand in relation to each other. He and Watanabe have come a fair way since their uneven and ill-proportioned “Children of the Sea,” which lurched from keenly observed teen drama to oversized fantasy clichés.
By contrast, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” allows greater room for its withdrawn characters to indulge in whimsical daydreams and quirkiness without ever really pathologizing or over-indulging their eccentricities. We hear the nearby forest and its native wildlife as they’re imagined by Kikuko, scurrying or lurking under-foot while murmuring to themselves, “I waited all that time, just for this?” (a cricket) or “a season yearned for never comes” (a gecko).
Konishi also occasionally cuts away from Kikuko and her fellow protagonists to show off their cozy and sometimes stifling environment. Here’s some dirty, but brightly colored crates, and a mini-fridge for beer; and here’s some nostalgia-inducing streaks of red sauce that slash across Kikuko’s white and otherwise empty bowl (she’s just eaten some delicious misuji beef).
“Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” succeeds where so many other movies like it fail simply by making its characters seem real enough to be going through a series of familiar growing pains. There’s nothing new or surprising about what Kikuko goes through, but her process of self-discovery still feels low-key thrilling for all of its graceful, lived-in details.
“Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.