It's always exciting to see Satoshi Miki announcing a new film, but the news that Convenience Story [Konbiniensu Sutori] would be based on a short story by famous Japanese film critic Mark Schilling really added some extra appeal. It is always a bit curious to see a critic cross over into the medium he's been critiquing for such a long time, but with the people involved it did look to be a sure win. And sure enough, Convenience Story is a film that will please fans of the weird and kooky, as long as you don't expect one of Miki's more straightforward comedies.
Miki is the uncrowned king of Japanese comedy. He's been going at it for two decades already and he hasn't made a bad film yet. Even though his films are never quite as outrageous as some of the more recognized films in the genre (think Survive Style 5+, The Taste of Tea, Symbol, ...), there's a consistency in his signature and quality of output that is quite rare. He continues that trend with Convenience Story, except that the film isn't as explicitly comedic compared to his other work. All the more impressive that it still feels like a vintage Miki film.
I've seen Convenience Story being compared to the work of David Lynch, which is quite understandable but also a bit of a stretch. Personally, I was a bit more reminded of a slew of horror/mystery films that were released during the second half of the 00s (films like Reeker or Stay). Depending on people's interpretation of the story, they might find different reference points, but it should be clear that the film doesn't offer any easy explanations, and quite a bit is left to the imagination of the viewer. That may not be everybody's cup of tea, certainly not if you're the type of person who needs everything explained in full at the end of the film.
Kato is a struggling screenwriter who can't seem to get a break. His girlfriend on the other hand is an actress on the cusp of landing her first big gig. While Kato does his best to overcome his writer's block, a trip to a local convenience store is about to change his life. He discovers a world behind the fridges, though one he can't seem to return from. In this world, he meets Keiko, a young clerk who runs a shop together with her oddball husband. She agrees to help Kato return home, but the two inevitably fall in love. Kato is also less eager to return when a local mystery proves to be the perfect inspiration for his latest script.
Miki declared he was inspired by the film noirs of the 50s, and that influence is pretty obvious throughout, even though he opts for a more colorful variation on the theme. The camera work is moody, the colors are stylish and emotive and the lighting adds plenty to the atmosphere. Miki has always had a good eye for visual flair, now that he's more established and the budgets of his films allow for more embellishments, it's good to see that he doesn't let the opportunity pass him by. Especially when doing a film that isn't primarily focused on comedy, but relies on mood and mystery.
The soundtrack on the other hand could've used a little extra polish. It's not that the music detracts or is ill-fitting. The classical pieces are actually a nice touch and the music does add to the atmosphere, it's just that it doesn't have a strong enough overall identity, and looking at some of the films it's being compared to (in particular the link with Lynch), the potential was there to do more. That said, it's par for the course, as the scores have never played a pivotal role in Miki's films, but for something like Convenience Story, I think a more definitive selection of music could've made a real difference.
Luckily, the cast is on point. Ryo Narita isn't exactly a newcomer, but this is one of his most remarkable roles to date, and he does a great job making himself noticed. No doubt he was pushed forward by Atsuko Maeda, one of Japan's big talents who is building a stronger and more impressive oeuvre with every project she takes on. The secondary cast is pretty cool too, with a stand-out performance from Seiji Rokkaku and a fun cameo by Kiyohiko Shibukawa. Everyone finds the right balance between kooky and serious, which isn't always a given in films like these.
The setup is pretty basic and easy enough to follow, but once Kato arrives in the alternate world the film switches to dream logic and the audience is given minimal grip on how all the puzzle pieces fit together. All you can do is watch, take in whatever Miki puts in front of you, and try to connect the dots yourself. Some things seem obvious, others only appear that way but are flipped around, and then there's the vintage Miki stuff, that is just flat-out weird (like the forest concert scenes). It's this uncertainty of not knowing which bits are important and which aren't that creates a very adventurous and exciting film, if you're able to commit that is.
Even though Convenience Story is probably the furthest Miki has ever ventured from his trademark comedy, fans of his work should feel right at home and needn't worry about the quality on display. The cinematography is lovely, the plot is intriguing, the film is overflowing with weird and ridiculous details and the actors are on top of their game, all adding to the otherworldly experience. Fingers crossed that the film is doing well on the festival circuit, though looking at how other Miki films fared, chances of a Western-friendly home release appear to be slim. In other words, watch this one whenever you get the chance.