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Director Ayumu Watanabe on creating Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko

For many fans of the genre, over-the-top action is the norm for mainstream anime, but Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko, from animation studio Studio 4°C and director Ayumu Watanabe,  is another example of how strong the genre can also be when telling stories that slow the pacing down and bring things back down to earth. This anime adaptation of author Kanako Nishi’s novel of the same name visualizes the colorful and peaceful town that Kikuko and her titular mother share, detailing a tender coming-of-age story for Kikuko that sees her discover her sense of self in contrast to the wonderfully eccentric Nikuko’s unwavering — and inspiring — sense of optimism.

The premise is a simple one, but it uses its sincerity to its advantage in exploring grounded, relatable, and emotionally resonant themes wrapped up in a quaint, yet vibrant world. Remaining faithful to the source material’s spirit is often a challenge for any director in any medium or genre, and Digital Trends spoke with director Watanabe on how he and the studio painted such a visually and audibly atmospheric picture for this anime adaptation of Nishi’s writing.

Note: This interview was conducted with a translator present and has been edited for length and clarity.

The young protagonist Kikuko and her mother Nikuko on their boat home in the harbor.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Digital Trends: When you were first taking on this project, did you foresee any particular expectations or challenges from the offset? And if so, did they change or evolve as you made and finished this movie? 

Ayumu Watanabe: When I took on this project originally, it was a novel written by Miss Kanako Nishi. And when we asked her if we could make this into a film, she just had one request for us, which was that she wanted us to shed light on new talent in the movie. So when we held auditions for the part of Maria — Kikuko’s classmate and friend — we actually cast an actor with little professional experience. This was her debut, and I think that was a challenge for us. But I think as the film production progressed, it turned out to be a huge success.

I’ve seen through your earlier credits that you’ve been a storyboard artist, and I was curious if your experience as a storyboard artist had any influence on the direction of this film.

I do think, yeah, my time as a storyboard artist does come in handy because I can directly convey what I want or ask the animators what I want because I could draw what I want. But I really have to think about trying not to draw too much for them because then that takes away from their creativity. So controlling that aspect is a little bit of a challenge for me, of course.

Nikuko with Ninomiya overlooking the town through the forest.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

One of the things I particularly loved about this movie was the sound design. Everything felt so atmospheric, with so much ambiance. So alongside having to create a visual image for this world, how important was the sound design when directing this movie and giving it audio?

I worked with [sound designer Mr. Kasamatsu] on my previous film, Children of the Sea, and he really understands the importance of sound and how it creates the overall finish of the film. And he really supported me, so I think he did a really good job.

Did you have any particular approach when it came to directing the actors to capture the kind of energy, tone, and how the characters interacted with each other?

I was actually very careful with how I interacted with the actors. I was not very specific. I wanted them to feel the movie and the script. And I really put importance on how they read the lines first and what they felt from reading the lines, understanding the lines, and what came out of them. That was really important to me.

And when it comes to adapting the source material, since this is such an intimate story with the coming of age aspect of a young girl and dealing with things like social structures in school and coming into adolescence, what do you want viewers to take away after they’ve watched Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko?

What you realize in life is really important and realizing that the clues to finding happiness are really anywhere in life, whether that’s school or whether you’re at home.

Director Ayumu Watanabe and Studio 4°C’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is now playing in theaters.

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