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Ayumu Watanabe On Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko And Komi Can't Communicate - Exclusive Interview

Ayumu Watanabe is an anime director who can't be pinned down to one particular style. His credits range from the kid-friendly "Doraemon" movies to the realistic sci-fi "Space Brothers" to the TV adaptation of the "Ace Attorney" games. He gained attention from arthouse crowds with 2019's gorgeous but divisive and utterly confusing "Children of the Sea," animated by Studio 4ºC. His follow-up film with Studio 4ºC is "Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko," a slice-of-life comedy about an angsty teenage girl and her wacky, food-obsessed mother.

As "Nikuko" finally comes to American theaters after winning awards at festivals and being nominated for best animated independent feature at the Annies, Watanabe is keeping busy directing two TV anime: "Komi Can't Communicate" (streaming on Netflix) and "Summer Time Rendering." Looper got the chance to speak with Watanabe (via a translator) about how he approaches such a wide variety of genres, the thematic connections between "Nikuko" and "Komi," and what sort of anime he wants to make next.

From Children of the Sea to a lighthearted comedy

"Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko" is your second film with Studio 4ºC after "Children of the Sea." This is a much lighter and more comedic film. What made you decide to shift gears so heavily for your follow-up film?

Last time, I aspired to be stoic and represent what "Children of the Sea" was about. Using the word "tired" is a little wrong, but we really wanted to go in a simpler direction, or a simpler way of moving characters, and we wanted to change directions and change our feelings. That's really what motivated me to make this film.

There are a lot of fat jokes in the movie, which some viewers might find excessive or uncomfortable. At the same time, Nikuko is an incredibly lovable character and one of the rare plus-size heroines in anime. What was your approach to dealing with these issues?

[With] the jokes, it's half and half. Some of them were in the novel, but also, our producer, Sanma Akashiya, he is a legendary comedian in Japan. He added a lot of ad-libs and jokes during the recording session, so my only hope is that they all convey [correctly] to the audience. That's the first answer.

Speaking about characteristics of Nikuko, when you think about fantasy stories — if you think about, let's say, fairies or kaiju monsters — there are a lot of chubby characters. I wanted to have Nikuko be a part of that — like someone who perhaps doesn't exist in real life, but you would like [them] to. I really wanted to depict that with Nikuko.

On Komi Can't Communicate, friendship, and anxiety

One of your other anime, "Komi Can't Communicate," is one of my favorites currently running. There are a lot of great characters in the show, so I am curious — who is your favorite character, and who would you have most wanted to be friends with in high school?

That's a good question. My favorite is Najimi. I think I would get along with Najimi.

Both "Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko" and "Komi Can't Communicate" are stories in large part about teenage anxiety. Is there anything in particular that draws you to this material?

It's not like I'm purposely choosing teenage anxiety topics for my work, but what I really like about characters, or what I see in characters, is the moment that they can open a new door for them, or open a new life for them. I'm not sure if it's growth — or it doesn't exactly have to mean that it's growth — but I really like it. I'm lucky that I get to depict all the characters where you get to experience that in my work.

The "Komi" manga has been running for 25 volumes and counting. Are you prepared to continue directing the anime for as many more years as it's going to run?

Yes. I think any director would love to work on whatever they're working on and see it until the end. I would love to, at least until they graduate.

Favorite scenes and future plans

You have another show currently airing on Disney+ in Japan, "Summer Time Rendering," which has yet to have an American release announced. Can you tell us more about that show, and if there are any plans yet to bring it to the United States?

I'm surprised that you know about it! Unfortunately, I have no idea if it's going to be released in the United States, but I would love to have it shown in the United States.

What do you think your favorite scene was to direct in "Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko"?

I can't choose one favorite scene because if I bring one scene up, it'll bring up a lot of problems with my staff. But all of the scenes with Ninomiya and Kikuko, I really like them.

I liked the penguin scene a lot.

Thank you.

Given the wide variety of genres you've covered in your career, what sort of anime do you want to make next?

I would like something that depicts a character that purely challenges himself or herself against something. So please look forward to it.

"Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko" is now playing in limited theatrical release. New episodes of "Komi Can't Communicate" premiere Wednesdays on Netflix.

This interview was edited for clarity.