Mark Schilling on Convenience Story

Satoshi Miki has established himself as a dependable, recognizable comedy director, to the point where I look forward to every new one of his films. Convenience Story turned out to be even more interesting as it was based on a story written by Japan-based film critic Mark Schilling. If you care about Japanese cinema, there's no way you haven't read at least one of his reviews at some point in your life. Mr. Schilling was nice enough to answer some questions about his involvement in the production of the film, so if you want to take a peek behind the curtains of Miki's latest, do read on.

Mark Schilling on Convenience Story

Niels Matthijs: When you started writing Convenience Story, did you ever consider it becoming a film, or were you purely focused on making it a stand-alone book?

Mark Schilling: I wrote the rough draft on a notebook in a commuter train and finished it by the time I arrived at my home station. At that point it was just a story; it was only later that I thought it might be a film.

It came out of my experience with the March 11, 2011 triple disaster, when supermarkets all over Tokyo were emptied by panic buying. But the owner of my local convenience store told me that they were getting deliveries of bread and milk and other basics at five in the morning. So I set my alarm clock and showed up at five, just when the delivery truck was pulling in. I began thinking of that convenience store as my oasis in the food desert. From there it was a short leap to imagine a world with only a convenience store – but the gestation took about four years.

Fans of Japanese cinema will know you as one of the most prominent English-language reviewers of Japanese films, how difficult was it to make the switch to writing fiction?

I started writing fiction many years ago, but it ended up in a drawer. So writing “The Convenience Store” was less a switch than a return to an old default position.

As an American surrounded by Japanese culture for such a long time, did you write the book with a specific audience in mind (i.e. how much cultural background did you expect your readers to have), or did you only care about telling the story you wanted to tell?

I had read a fair amount of fiction by non-Japanese with Japanese main characters and most of it struck me as stereotyped or trying too hard to be ‘more Japanese than the Japanese.’ The rock-jawed samurai or the sensitive loner under social pressure to conform.

I tried to avoid all that by putting my Japanese hero in a non-stereotypical fantasy setting. No one cares if Alice in Wonderland is British or Dante in Hell is Italian so I thought no one would think of Kato as an odd sort of Japanese since he is in an alternative reality that has only an indirect relationship to Japan. The idea was to make a Japanese film with no cultural barriers whatsoever, so my target audience, if you want to call it that, was more international than strictly domestic from the beginning.

I heard quite a few people say they were reminded of David Lynch when watching, personally it took me to late 00s horror/mystery films like Reeker and Stay. Was that ambiguity part of the original story, or was it added by Miki? And did you have any clear influences when writing the story?

Miki has his own world view and, knowing how he works and thinks, I didn’t want to impose mine. Still, the ambiguity of the story – is Kato really in another world, or is he hallucinating in an ER or dead? – is also present in the film, to the Lynchian max. So for all the changes Miki made, I thought he respected the spirit of my story and used many of its elements in his script.

A story always make sense to a writer, if only on an emotional level. You don't seem too eager to spoil anything for the audience though. How much room for interpretation was intended and did you pay any specific attention to pushing people to come up with their own interpretations?

I wanted to leave it open-ended. Keiko and the Master (Nagumo in the film) are not there to teach Kato life lessons; they serve more as catalysts that stir him into action, with no clear outcome. There is also a sexual and emotional current running between Kato and Keiko but how their relationship turns out is up to interpretation. Happily ever after? Maybe.

How connected are you to the film? Does it feel like a part of you is in there, or it is someone else's work that is merely based on something you did earlier?

I shepherded the film through three project markets, as well as meeting many times with Miki and the producers, so I do feel a strong connection to what is on the screen. At the same time, it’s Miki’s film, based on his script, so I’m fine with him taking most of the creative credit. That’s the nature of the medium.

Apart from writing the book, did you have any other part in the production of the film? Did you talk with Miki about the script, had any say in the casting, or maybe even the choice of director?

I was involved in getting the film made from Day One, working with two directors, two scriptwriters, and three producers, as well as trying to raise financing (a long story). I brought Miki into the project, gave him notes on the script, and suggested Narita Ryo and Atsuko Maeda, among other names, as the leads. But the final casting choices were made by the producer, Morishige Akira, in consultation with Miki.

Not to discredit Miki of course, but are there any other directors you'd have loved to see adapt your book? You've interviewed many of them directly, I'm sure you must've had some fun imagining what other people could have done with your story?

I did have one, who agreed to make the film but was finally unable to come up with a script. I’d rather not mention his name.

Do you think you could ever review the film, or is that just a little too close for comfort?

Since my name is in the credits, I leave the reviews up to others.

The film is featured in respected festivals, but the broader audience reception seems a bit lukewarm. That seems to be a general issue with films of this genre nowadays. Do you think it would have made a bigger impact if it had been made 20 years ago, during the international boom of Japanese cinema?

Post-pandemic, the trend here has been to make either big commercial films, including the occasional comedy, or serious dramas for the arthouse market and festival circuit. Miki’s sort of ‘Japanese quirk’ film has become rarer, but I think audiences here and elsewhere will again become more receptive to films on the funny/strange/unhinged spectrum just as they eventually warmed to “Branded to Kill,” a notorious flop on its first release, and now regarded as a masterpiece.

Where do you see Japanese film going this following decade? Do you think they'll make an effort to become a bigger player on the international stage, or will they keep their primary focus on the local market?

The streamers are dragging the industry here, screaming and kicking, into the international market, with anime leading the way, but for Toho, it still makes more sense to invest in a proven property that will play well in Kyushu than spend the same money for a series on some streamer that might sink without a trace. I foresee evolution, not revolution.

Are there any concrete plans for the future? Another book you're working on, maybe try your hand at screenwriting? Anything you can tell us about?

I’m writing another treatment, but it’s still in the preliminary stages. All I can say is that it’s another fantasy based on real people and events, as was “The Convenience Store.” And the main characters are Japanese again. That’s just the way my mind works.