A tweenaged girl growing up in a beautifully-cluttered and weather-worn Japanese coastal village narrates the story of her mother, and her life with her, in the delightful “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” an anime coming-of-age confection based on a YA novel by Kanako Nishi.
Director Ayumu Watanabe (“Space Brothers,” “Children of the Sea”) serves up a bubbly, touching tale of a skinny and pretty child learning to love and more importantly appreciate her mercurial, roly poly single mom and the life’s she’s had raising her.
To hear Kikuko tell it, her over-the-top, over-eater waitress/cook mother has been something of the town character every place they’ve lived. Kikuko is prepubescent, she tells us, but mature for her years. A fortune teller on TV makes her wonder about how her mother Nikuko’s “fate was sealed” by past lives, because her current one is something of a tale of woe.
There was “The Casino Dealer, “The Bar Tender,” “The Married Man” and “The Novelist” — men who used Nikuko, borrowed money from her and left her holding the bag, over and over again.
Mom traveled from a small village to Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, Tokyo and beyond, working until she was “worn out” at bad jobs, often working to pay down debt some feckless man left with.
They wound up in their current town, with Mom a fixture at Uwogashi’s Grill, serving “Meat, meat, meat MEAT” and rice or noodles dishes to the ravenous working class customers. They live on a rusting houseboat. And at school, Kikuko dreads any occasion that will expose her classmates and their families to this barrel-shaped barrel of fun who raised her.
Mom is fond of puns of many varieties, most of which don’t translate that well (“Fortune Favors” is in Japanese with English subtitles). But her very name is a pun. There’s “meat” in it.
What will a maturing Kikuko figure out about Mom’s life, via clues and hints related in flashbacks, that will explain her struggle and their current lot?
The sight gag above tips us as to Watanabe’s approach here. He’s taking just a little inspiration from Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” about the best friend a child could have, but a “friend” who’s something of a puzzlement.
Nikuko is a walking sight gag who morphs, in her daughter’s mind, into a chocolate Michelin Mom force of nature in her moods — bouncing, twirling, grinning constantly, entertaining customers, loud and not shy about her unchecked appetites.
Food and its prep are a big part of the animation — French toast for breakfast, “Meat Spag” (spaghetti) from a can, “meat meat Meat, MEAT” grilled, broiled or boiled.
Does that explain Kikuko’s thinness, her constant stomach aches? How is a girl who is “sweet on” a shy, face-making boy in class ever to get a boyfriend with a mother like this, she wonders?
The film has frankly adult suggestions about pieces of Nikuko’s past, not just her menial jobs, but connections with exotic dance clubs and sex work.
But “Fortune Favors” suggests that when a child’s old enough to care about and ask frank questions about her or his parents’ past, they’re old enough to understand them.
The physical comedy might appeal to younger viewers just getting hooked on anime. Nikuko’s rotund shape has its graceful and clumsy moments such as when she’s romping through the local aquarium until she practically passes out from joy, and a penguin squawks “DEATH to you ALL” in judgment.
Yet the ideal audience for this film is going to skew older, better able to appreciate the themes and the higher-end anime art that Watanabe and his team achieved.
Cast: The voices of Shinobu Ôtake, Cocomi, Natsuki Hanae, Ikuji Nakamura
Credits: Directed by Ayumu Watanabe, scripted by Satomi Ohshima, based on a novel by Kanako Nishi. A GKids release.
Running time: 1:37