Satoshi Miki is on fire this year. Besides granting the spectator a look at what happens after a kaiju has been defeated in What To Do With Dead Kaiju? (2022), he also accepted the challenge to brings a narrative by Mark Schilling, a well-respected critic of Japanese cinema, to life to the silver screen. Can he deliver another enjoyable narrative or will this narrative reveal that he took on too much?
Shinjiro Kato (Ryo Narita), a young screenwriter who has had some success in the past but finds himself struggling to deliver something acceptable. Yet, he only realizes how dire his position by accidently overhearing Kunikida (Eri Fuse) and assistant producer Hirasaka (Sawako Fujima) critique him for merely delivering male fantasy narratives.
At night, Kato’s subjective melancholy is disturbed by the whining of his girlfriend’s dog Cerberus. He needs food. As Kato has no idea when Zigzag (Yuki Katayama), who successfully auditioned for a movie by movie producer Sasaki (Ryo Iwamatsu) and director Numazu (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), will return home, he decides to go out and buy Cerberus’s favourite snack Weredog at the convenience store. Ready to pay at the register, a car suddenly drives into the store.
Convenience Story stands out due its elegant narrative structure, a structure that thoughtfully plays with signifiers and images-as-signifiers and offers a refined balance between revealing enough for the spectator to allow him to follow the threads of the narrative but withhold plenty of crucial information to keep the spectator engaged with the elements of mysteries that guide Sato’s story. Such thoughtful balancing of signifiers and imagery ultimately enables Miki to deliver a finale that not only smartly plays with fantasy and reality, life and death, and the fabric of time, but also presents the spectator a final riddle for him to work out.
Yet, the narrative structure – a slow build-up that culminates in a great pay-off – of Convenience Story might also put off certain spectators. If the spectator is not able to be ‘seduced’ by the narrative elements of mystery, he will merely encounter a narrative that merely chugs on with little to no clear direction. Yet, even for such spectator, the exciting finale will deliver the goods.
So, what is Convenience Story about? It is, in a certain sense, about Kato’s desire. The nature of his unconscious desire speaks in his acts (e.g. trying to dump the dog) and in his fantasies (e.g. him seeing Zigzag’s dead body after defenestrating her). His desire, obviously, also speaks or better screams into what he writes. So, what desire is delineated in Kato’s male fantasies – the fantasy of romancing a married woman? Are his writings not an attempt to produce a phantasmatic frame that express his desire to be desired (by a female other)? It is, in our view, from a position of discontent, a position of not feeling desired by Zigzag (i.e. of not being her object-of-desire) and, because of that, of not being able to desire, that he writes, speaks, acts, and fantasizes.
It is from a position of lack, a lack of being desired, that Kato encounters the charming convenience store worker Keiko (Atsuko Maeda) and hears her request to take her away from her husband Nagumo (Seiji Rokkaku) and Lisow Mart (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3). Miki beautifully underlines that it is precisely due to her request that his desire is ensnared by Keiko – her beauty, her charm, and her ‘inviting’ signifiers. The visual image of Kato’s match that lights up does not only echo the enflaming of his desire (to be desired by her), but marks the moments that he feels he has what she desires – the impossible and ungraspable phallus. And maybe this convenience store might offer Kato something else, a convenient object or an idea that enables him to circumvent the hold his unconscious desire has over his scripts (Narra-note 4).
The composition of Convenience Story stands out due its pleasant dynamism, its engaging compositional rhythm, and its elegant use of connotative imagery and signifiers (Cine-note 1). Within his composition, Mike also richly utilizes shaky framing. The use of shakiness allows him to create a naturalistic frame upon which, in the opening of the narrative, the peculiar relational tension between Kato and Zigzag can be painted. Shifts to shakiness are also utilized to reverberate Kato’s subjective turmoil – upon hearing how female others really think about his writing, to heighten the impact of the real on his subject (e.g. when a car suddenly driving into the convenience store), or to indicate the mysterious nature or the tense character of certain moments.
The visual fabric is, furthermore, littered with strange elements (e.g. assistant producer’s Hirasaka’s play with her feet, the name Zigzag, a Buddhist statue cracking in two, … etc.) and some awkward moments (e.g. an unexpected burst of laughter). These occurrences, by either puzzling the spectator or by making him/her feel somewhat uneasy, reveal the unheimlich character of the narrative’s atmosphere and engender the feeling within the spectator that something otherworldly is interfering with the mundane societal fabric Kato and Zigzag move around in.
The visual pleasure of Convenience Story is heightened by the soft colour-schemes and nice colour-contrasts. Of course, Miki’s dynamic play with colour-schemes and contrasts also play an important role in emphasizing the unheimlich quality of Convenience Story’s atmosphere and allowing the narrative elements of mystery to seduce the spectator. In this sense, the pleasure of the spectator heavily depends on the effect that the unheimlich atmosphere has on him – whether it compels him or subtly pushes him away.
With Convenience Story, Miki delivers a great psychological mystery narrative. Yet, his latest might not be for everyone. Miki’s narrative structure, which sprinkles fragmentary signifiers and puzzling imagery but refuses to give any definite answers, thrives due to the unheimlich atmosphere. Yet, for some, this atmosphere might not be captivating, but frustrating. Yet, even this spectator should keep on watching, as Miki delivers a finale that is not only satisfying but offers the spectator a riddle that will keep the narrative lingering in his mind long after the credits have ended.
Narra-note 1: The attempt to dump the dog is merely an attempt to erase his romantic rival. It is an attempt to re-focus Zigzag’s desire on him. Yet, as can be expected, such acting-out by Sato does not have its intended effect.
The fantasy of seeing her dead body after defenestrating her is, in this respect, a phantasmatic expression of his anger at not feeling desired by her.
Narra-note 2: Attentive spectators will notice that the fantasy of romancing a married women as explored in Sato’s script seems to become real. Instead of approaching his own desire to be desired through writing, Sato is seemingly given the chance to realize himself as the object of desire for a female other.
Narra-note 3: Spectator who have little to no knowledge of Japanese might miss the meaning that hides in the name of the desolate convenience store. The name Lisow comes very close to the American pronunciation of the Japanese signifier risou, which means nothing other than ideal. By realizing this subtle word-play, the spectator is able to realize a fragment of the truth of the place Sato wanders in.
Narra-note 4: And what about Sato’s girlfriend Zigzag? What is her desire? By putting this question forward, we urge the spectator to not think too quickly that he figured out the riddle the narrative poses.
Cine-note 1: Miki also add decorations like slow-motion as well as repeating shots from different angles.