Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko: Review
Morbid obesity (classified as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of above 40, where normal is below 25) is a growing health emergency in Western cultures, driven by our consumption of highly-processed food full of sugar, salt, empty carbohydrates and trans-fats. Sedentary lifestyles with lack of physical exercise don’t help either — desk jobs are killing us!
In Japan, this epidemic hasn’t yet become so established as in the US and UK. It isn’t so usual to see enormously obese Japanese people requiring electric scooters to navigate the streets. In a country with such ingrained values of collective responsibility, as opposed to Western individualism, morbid obesity is seen as an acute source of public shame. It’s with knowledge of this cultural sphere that we must judge this fascinating, and at times troubling, animated film.
Studio 4°C is an unusual production house. It’s been around since at least the 1990s, and has produced a plethora of eclectic and sometimes challenging movies that don’t always follow the cultural zeitgeist. Recently, they animated the spectacular but trippy Children of the Sea. Their early work included Spriggan, Memories and Princess Arete, later producing the movie adaptations of Berserk the Golden Age Trilogy and Tekkonkinkreet. You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Studio 4°C film, other than it will be be almost certainly technically astonishing and thought-provoking. I love that there’s a prominent Japanese animation studio that releases such high quality and experimental movies to the mainstream market.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is directed by the very busy Ayumu Watanabe who is also responsible for the the currently-running TV anime Summertime Rendering (still, inexlicably, in Disney+ Jail), plus he was chief director of Netflix’s recent Komi Can’t Communicate. He’s also known for the Space Brothers TV and movie anime, the aforementioned Children of the Sea, and one of my personal favourite TV anime shows After the Rain. Watanabe brings his keen eye for character animation that is so important to the tone of this movie.
Tiular character Nikuko (real name: Kikuko) is referred to everyone as Nikuko-san because it quite literally means “Meat Lady”. She is morbidly obese, her entire body wobbles as she walks. People laugh at her, but she never seems self-conscious about her weight (which increases throughout the movie, as she is shown to eat constantly). Your mileage may vary regarding her portrayal, but it’s certainly very honest, and never mean-spirited. If anything, she could have come out of this so much worse. Her character is never reduced purely to her love of eating — she can’t read nonverbal cues (her daughter bemoans her inability to take a hint), is trusting to a fault, and is pathologically self-sacrificing to the point of unintentional self-harm.
This is the story of Nikuko’s difficult adult life, as narrated by her adolescent daughter (named Kikuko, after her mother, but using different kanji). Following a string of failed relationships with predatory/deadbeat/untrustworthy men, Nikuko and her daughter wind up living in a remote northen Japanese fishing village, living on a small boat in the harbour. Nikuko is a selfless, extremely hard worker, employed as a waitress at the local grill restaurant (hence her “meat lady” nickname). Nikuko is as excited about the grilled meat she serves as her appreciative customers.
Primarily focusing on the relationship between mother and daughter, Nikuko loves Kikuko unreservedly and with gusto. Kikuko finds her mother embarrassing — especially her terrible (and essentially untranslatable) puns. (Unfortunately a lot of the movie’s humour is deeply cultural/language-based, and doesn’t translate all that well to English.) However, Kikuko is never mean to her mother, and never hides their association from others, even when Nikuko is very loud, and often the centre of attention.
Other characters often comment on Nikuko’s unhealthy relationship with food — though with the exception of Kikuko — strangely never to her face. My daughter (17) who saw this with me hated the portrayal of Nikuko, criticising that she “was always eating”, and that “she was the butt of every joke”, but I disagreed that this was necessarily problematic. It’s clear from the story that Nikuko comfort eats because she’s had a difficult life and food is something she derives great pleasure from. She feeds herself enormous portions and swallows them without chewing. It’s medically recognised that obese people often grossly underestimate their calorific intake, and tend to eat quicker than others too.
Morbid obesity is not merely a physical problem — there are always social and psychological issues that combine to perpetuate it. Most characters who comment do so out of concern, mainly because Nikuko’s appearance is so markedly abnormal compared to everyone else’s. They’re worried for her, understandably so. That there’s no resolution to this is depressingly realistic. There are occasional surreal interludes where Kikuko imagines her mother as a literal jolly meat lady made from marbled beef, running around extolling the joys of copious volumes of grilled meat. This does come across as very strange, but is all part of the charm of an incredibly weird movie.
My one criticism of the weight issue is that earlier in the movie, Nikuko is described as being 151cm tall and 69kg in weight. That gives a BMI of only 30 — barely into the “obese” range, and certainly not big enough to cause a wobbly marshmallow appearance like Nikuko’s. She’d need to be at least 91kg to scrape a BMI of 40, and she’s drawn to look more like a BMI of 50 — i.e. 114kg. Now someone that obese is not just fat — they’re desperately, life-threateningly unwell. Such unrestrained corpulence is associated with heart failure, heart attacks, deep venous thrombosis, pulmonary embolism… essentially sudden unexpected death, or at least severe disability. As a medical doctor, I don’t mince my words with patients in these situations. They need help, and minimising it or denying it isn’t helpful.
It’s even more of a concern when such enormously unwell people are in sole charge of children. Part of my job is to offer opinions on prospective adoptive parents to the social workers on adoption panels. A BMI of over 40 is a massive red flag, with a BMI over 50 that flag is on fire. I generally won’t refuse a prospective adoptive parent on weight alone, but morbid obesity is not “just” being overweight. It’s associated with a cornucopia of mental and physical illnesses.
Nikuko does a fantastic job as a parent, despite her physical limitations. The film does’t shy away from the biological realities of morbid obesity: Nikuko snores loudly, plus she gasps for breath and sweats buckets with the merest of exertions. Life is exhausting for morbidly obese people. That Nikuko manages to raise her daughter so well is testament to the fact that human beings are multifaceted individuals who should never be reduced down to a single characteristic. I try to remember this when I’m making my medical panel recommendations. Nikuko is exasperating and flawed but ultimately very sympathetic and lovable. There’s a stunning plot twist towards the end that recontextualises everything Nikuko has done (though it’s extremely well signposted since the opening minutes of the movie so may not come out of left field if you’ve been paying attention), making her even more sympathetic. I challenge you to remain dry-eyed through the climax.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is a heartwarming film with a dark undercurrent about how shitty people can be, and how others make up for it with sheer selflessness. Even our viewpoint character, the young Kikuko, recognises her innate selfishness and mean-ness following some bitchy girl interactions at school that almost cost her a friendship. Kikuko is an interesting protagonist — quiet, intelligent, empathetic, accepting. She’s a testament to Nikuko’s parenting. Kikuko’s also quite weird, emitting strange voices whenever she sees animals like lizards or seagulls. It gives the movie a strange, light-hearted vibe, especially during Kikuko’s interactions with her male classmate Ninomiya who appears to have Tourette’s Syndrome and finds himself compelled to make bizarre facial expressions. They develop a very sweet friendship.
The fishing village where the majority of the action occurs is a wonderfully detailed, fully realised locale. I imagine it’s based on a real place, with its irrigation systems, rice paddies, busy harbour, small shops, steep hillsides and forest groves. The film takes time to portray a close-knit community where everyone looks out for each other, and how family bonds may not necessarily need to be biological to be deep and meaningful. In view of my professional responsibilities towards fostered and adopted children, I found this to be deeply affecting.
Although much of the frequent humour doesn’t hit due to language and cultural obstacles, the funniest part involving a murderous penguin transcends all barriers. Themes of self-sacrifice, family, friendship, self-acceptance and adolescence are also universal, so I’ve no qualms in recommending Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko to a wide audience, as long as the viewer is willing and able to let some of the more slightly problematic “fat jokes” pass them by.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko
Directed by: Ayumu Watanabe
Written by: Satomi Ooshima
Character design by: Kenichi Konishi
Music by: Takatsugu Muramatsu
Based on: Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (novel, 2014) by Kanako Nishi
Production company: Studio 4°C
Japanese cinematic release: June 11th, 2021
US Region A Blu-ray release: July 19th, 2022 (GKIDS/Shout Factory)
UK cinematic release: August 10th, 2022 (though first screened at Scotland Loves Anime film festival in October 2021)
UK distributor: All the Anime (Anime Limited)
Language: Japanese audio with English subtitles
Runtime: 97 minutes
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