“This is unreal, but it’s real” a blocked screenwriter exclaims in finding himself in an uncanny world only slightly divorced from his previous reality but perhaps excellent fodder for his art. Quite clearly influenced by David Lynch in its Twin Peaks-esque setting, jaunty jazz score, and overt references to Mulholland Drive, Fire Walk with Me, and Blue Velvet, Convenience Story draws inspiration from a short story by veteran Japan Times critic Mark Schilling to spin an elliptical tale of otherworldly adventure and inexorable fate.
Down on his luck screenwriter Kato (Ryo Narita) can’t seem to get an idea off the ground and is in an increasingly volatile relationship with aspiring actress Zigag (Yuki Katayama) whose dog Cerberus he barely tolerates. When he has to venture out in search of Cerberus’ favourite brand of dog food, Weredog, the adorable pooch accidentally deletes the screenplay Kato has been working on leading him to decide to abandon him in the remote countryside. However, after damaging a Buddhist statue, he stops at a random petrol station convenience store which looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 1980s. Sucked through some kind of portal, he finds himself in an alternate combini reality in the company of pretty damsel in distress Keiko (Atsuko Maeda) and her decidedly weird husband Nagumo (Seiji Rokkaku).
As the film begins to head into The Postman Always Rings Twice territory, Kato begins to rejuvenate his creative mojo while Zigzag, who is about to get her big break working with an incredibly insecure director (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and sleazy producer, wonders what’s happened to her dog and takes drastic steps to find out. “Life’s big chances come in an instant” the director insists, though for Kato time seems to have stopped while he contemplates the combini existence. After all, it’s called a convenience store for a reason. They have everything you’ll ever need so there’s no real reason to leave. Smarting from his creative block, Kato asks if convenience stores sell interesting stories and in a way they do, or at least this one and the one in his neighbourhood which may or may not be connected by some kind of cosmic combini network, conspire to feed his imagination so he can deliver a promising script to his eccentric editor (Eri Fuse).
Then again, Keiko asks him if he writes about an ideal world or his personal reality and it’s a question that he can’t quite answer hinting that this strange alternate universe may be some kind of fever dream conjured up by his latent imagination. “A screenwriter’s job is to fantasise”, Keiko seductively tells him, though his editor and a producer with whom he had also exchanged a flirtatious email had previously giggled over his non-starter of a screenplay which they described as an embarrassingly chauvinistic male fantasy. That’s certainly one way you could describe his otherworldly combini adventure in the foxy damsel in distress characterisation of Keiko who quite obviously just wants him to take her away from all this, sick of the oppressive convenience of the combini life and of her incredibly strange, seemingly controlling husband.
Then again on their attempt to escape, the couple end up in an endless three-day ceremony of eternity during which the souls of the dead are supposed to journey to the afterlife. Everyone is keen on travelling to another world, except perhaps for Kato who is already in one, yet struggles to escape the uncanny uniformity of the combini society. “Another world exists in here” Kato is creepily told on a visit to his local, much more contemporary though not all that different, convenience store beginning to realise that perhaps there is no real escape from this maddening world of convenience at least not for him. Shades of Orpheus and Eurydice guide him out of his purgatorial existence yet ironically only into more of the same until the inevitable, karmic conclusion. Fantastic production design adds to the sense of retro absurdity strongly recalling Twin Peaks in its use of ‘50s-style diners and the frozen in time petrol station road stop existing for some reason the middle of nowhere with no road in sight, while casting a note of fatalistic dread over the life of a blocked screenwriter who eventually comes to realise that convenience isn’t always quite what it’s cracked up to be.
Convenience Story screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)