Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (漁港の肉子ちゃん, Ayumu Watanabe, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Most children begin to find their parents embarrassing as they approach adolescence, but the problem seems to be particularly acute for young Kikuko. Adapted from the (quite wonderful) novel by Kanako Nishi, Ayumu Watanabe’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (漁港の肉子ちゃん, Gyokou no Nikuko-chan) finds its young heroine struggling to define herself in world of constant anxieties while coming to accept that “ordinary is best” after all and even if her mother is “imperfect” it hardly matters, she loves her all the same. 

As Kikuko (Cocomi) outlines in her opening monologue, she’s recently moved to a small Northern port town with her larger than life mother, Nikuko (Shinobu Otake), after weaving a trail of romantic disappointment over half of Japan. In fact and somewhat unusually, mother and daughter share the same first name (if written with different characters), which is why the sometimes exasperated Kikuko has taken to referring to her mother as “Nikuko”, “Niku” meaning meat in reference to her weight. Though the film Kikuko is less caustic than her counterpart from the novel, there is a good deal of fat shaming in her sometimes contemptuous dismissal of her mother, also often regarding her as stupid both in terms of her intellectual ability, she’s obsessed with kanji puns but often makes spelling mistakes, and in her tendency to be duped by a string of no good men who generally take advantage of her kind heart. 

Being young as she is, Kikuko hasn’t yet learned to appreciate the importance of a kind heart, a lesson she’s about to learn as she finds herself in the middle of a burgeoning conflict between her classmates some of whom feel “left out” in never being picked by the popular girls when they peel off to play basketball at lunch time. When her friend Maria (Izumi Ishii) stages a rebellion, Kikuko doesn’t quite know what to do. After all, what Maria’s doing is only a different kind of bullying, but as she says it isn’t nice to feel left out and even if her solution may be wrongheaded perhaps Kikuko should have looked more deeply at why her friend felt that way rather than rather cruelly assuming she was doing it for attention and deserved everything she got. Bonding with a near silent boy, Ninomiya (Natsuki Hanae), who finds himself compelled to pull faces when no one’s looking, shows her the error of her ways in that she never thought herself to be such a “mean and nasty” person. 

It’s this lack of emotional intelligence that causes her to feel embarrassed by her mother who is, it has to be said, something of walking cliché of a stereotypical working class Osaka woman, loud, brash, and nattering away in her Southern dialect. Mother and daughter couldn’t be more different, tomboyish Kikuko stick thin and a serious bookworm, while the bubbly Nikuko is childishly impulsive and openhearted. Kikuko sometimes feels as if she’s the parent and is embarrassed by Nikuko’s larger than life qualities in a culture that prefers women to remain quiet and take up as little space as possible. Not to mention the fact they live on a boat. About to enter adolescence she’s also sick of being constantly on the move and is becoming paranoid that Nikuko is about to start another relationship with a terrible man meaning they’ll have to move again. 

Yet Nikuko hardly minds Kikuko’s contempt of her and despite having lived a hard life remains compassionate and understanding, seeing the best in everyone and always finding the small moments of joy life has to offer. She is also infinitely in tune with her daughter, half thinking she can hear it too when Kikuko “hears” various creatures and even a shrine “talking” to her as she wanders about the town exercising her rather overactive imagination. A series of climactic events culminating in a medical emergency in which she figures a few things out forces Kikuko to wrestle with herself and stop judging her fiercely non-judgemental mum to realise that she loves her after all even if she can’t resist being a little unkind in expressing it. A gentle coming-of-age tale set in a delightfully old-fashioned and beautifully animated fishing village, Fortune Favors Lady Kikuko is chock-full of heart (not to mention expertly translated kanji puns) as its somewhat resentful heroine begins to find safe harbour and finally steps into herself with a spirit of acceptance and understanding. 


Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

initiation loveMost romantic comedies don’t come with warnings about twist endings and a plea not to give them way, but Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ) is not your average romantic comedy. Set in the early bubble era, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s double sided feature is itself a wry look at the problematic nature of nostalgia. Harking back to a perhaps more innocent era in which lack of political and economic turmoil left plenty of time for romantic confusion coupled with the corruption of the consumerist dream, Initiation Love pits innocent romance against cynical success but subtly suggests that grown up love is a kind of compromise in itself.

Side A: In the summer of 1987, Yuki Suzuki (Kanro Morita) – a geeky, overweight young man who is shy but has a kind heart, is unexpectedly invited to a college drinking party where he earns some major white knight points for interrupting the increasingly inappropriate grilling of new invitee Mayuko (Atsuko Maeda). Mayuko is pretty, sweet, and cute if in a slightly affected way. She is way out of Suzuki’s league, but later confesses that she’s looking for someone a bit different, like Suzuki, an awkward-type who won’t lie to her or play around. Bonding over a shared love of reading, the pair grow closer, Mayuko rechristens Suzuki “Takkun”, and he vows to spruce himself up to become “worthy” of her.

Side B: Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now slim and handsome, is given a surprise promotion to Tokyo. Rather than suggest marriage or that Mayuko come with him, he settles on long distance and promises to come back to Shizuoka at weekends while waiting to be approved for a transfer back home. In Tokyo, however, Takkun’s personality begins to shift. Seduced by city sophistication and the promises of an elite salaryman lifestyle, Takkun draws closer to upper-class career woman Miyako (Fumino Kimura) whose jaded straightforward confidence he regards as “grown up” in contrast to the innocent charms of Mayuko waiting patiently at home.

The overarching narrative is provided to us via a melancholy voice over and accompanied, in the manner of a classic mix-tape, by a song from the era which is deliberately on the nose in terms of its aptness – a song about giving up on summer just as the couple are stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the beach and about to have a gigantic row, or a song about lucky chances coming up on TV just as our hero is plucking up the courage to allow himself to be bamboozled into going on a date with the girl of his dreams. The carefully placed positioning of the songs reminds us that we are inside someone’s carefully curated memories. Just as Takkun’s vision of Mayu-chan is one surrounded by flowers and light, the early days of romance are a condensed and romanticised version of real events seen entirely from one perspective and coloured with the gradual fading of time. Nostalgia is an unreliable narrator, recasting real life as Hollywood fiction.

The warm and fuzzy glow of Side A is undercut by the subtly questionable actions of Mayuko and our own prejudices about why she might be with a guy like Takkun. Self-consciously cute, Mayuko makes needling suggestions – dress better, get contacts, learn to drive, which, objectively speaking, might all help Takkun to gain some much needed confidence if only he were not doing all of them solely because he fears losing a woman like Mayuko. If Mayuko wanted a guy she could remake and boss around, she might have come to the right place but she does, at least, also try to insist that she likes Takkun anyway and so any changes he makes to himself will make no difference to her.

Side B, by contrast, turns the dynamic on its head as Takkun’s Tokyo persona becomes increasingly violent, resentful, and cruel while Mayuko seems genuine, innocent, and hurt by the increasing distance between herself and the man she loves. Seduced by city sophistications, Takkun leans ever closer to dumping the innocent country bumpkin, a love he has now outgrown, for a leg up into the middle-classes by marrying the elegant daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman. He is, however, torn – between the nostalgic glow of first love’s innocence, and the realities of adult life, the certain past and the uncertain future.

This is the philosophy ascribed by Miyako (apparently given to her by her own first love) that the first failed romance is a crucial part of growing up, an “Initiation Love” that breaks your heart by revealing the idea of true love as a romantic fallacy, allowing you move into the adult world with a degree of emotional clarity. A sound idea, but also sad and cruel in its own way. The final twist, offered as a cynical punchline, can’t help but feel cheap, carrying mildly misogynistic undertones dressed up as a kind of joke aimed at cowardly men who are incapable making clear choices and refuse to see their romantic partners as real people rather than the self created images of them they maintain. Takkun remains torn, between past and future, town and country, old love and new but nostalgia is always a trap – a false impression of a true emotion that impedes forward motion with a promise of a return to something which can never be delivered.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 2 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 9 March 2018

Playlist: Side A

Yureru Manazashi (Kei Ogura)

Kimi wa 1000% (1986 Omega Tribe)

Yes-No (Of Course)

Lucky Chance wo Mo Ichido (C-C-B)

Ai no Memory (Shigeru Matsuzaki)

Kimi Dake ni (Shonentai)

Side B:

Momen no Handkerchief (Hiromi Ota)

Dance (Shogo Hamada)

Natsu wo Akiramete (Naoko Ken)

Kokoro no Iro (Masatoshi Nakamura)

Ruby no Yubiwa (Akira Teruo)

Show Me (Yukari Morikawa)