Japan recast as a konbini state

by Mika Eglinton

Special To The Japan Times

Following its May world premiere in Mannheim, Germany, and a summer spent gathering great reviews from its European tour, “Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich” finally debuted in Japan last week at the Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama.

This latest work by cutting-edge playwright-director Toshiki Okada, 41-year-old founder of the influential Chelfitsch theater company, is set in one of Japan’s more than 50,000 konbini (convenience stores), whose numbers have been rising since the 1970s even as the population declines.

Brightly lit and air-conditioned, these sanitized emporiums typically pack around 2,500 neatly displayed items into roughly 100 sq. meters of sales area, along with copying, cash-dispensing and ticketing machines. Hyper-efficient, standardized and omnipresent, they have become, in Okada’s view, not only indispensable to daily life, but diminutive “Holy Lands” in superficial Japanese society — a phenomenon incisively satirized by “SPSDVR.”

Set in the Smile Factory, a 24/7 konbini whose wares exist on stage only as pictures on paper symbolic of its throwaway culture, the store is staffed by two young male part-timers in company-issue uniforms who kill time chatting about trifles such as the sexless marriage and inefficient management of their branch boss (Makoto Yazawa).

Gradually, two opposing characters emerge. Required to enter a precise set of data into the till along with every transaction, Igarashi (Hideaki Washio) purposely misrecords customers’ ages, genders and purchases to mess up the marketing stats as a feeble act of “terrorism.” In contrast, Usami (Shingo Ota) — a self-declared “konbini worshipper” — takes pride in following his orders down to the smallest detail.

When a kind but timid new sales assistant named Mizutani (Mariko Kawasaki) joins them, she is totally confused as the two give different advice — then intimidated by a tyrannical supervisor (Tomomitsu Adachi) from head office and two unsociable customers.

Enter, for example, a woman (Azusa Kamimura) whose idea of food heaven is a Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich ice cream — and who feels betrayed by its upgraded new version. Then there’s a self-styled konbini-atheist (Shuhei Fuchino) who preaches “freedom from consumerism” before leaving empty-handed. Although the staff get their revenge by denying him use of the toilet in the last scene, there are no winners in this frivolous but dark 100-minute comedy populated by isolated and frustrated underdogs.

With continual musak via J.S. Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” and every line, movement and change in pacing eliciting laughter and sighs from the audience — and minutely weighed in concert with that baroque piece — it’s as though the play metaphorically reveals a people’s lives controlled by some unseen conductor orchestrating an unseen consumerist machine.

“Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich” runs through Dec. 21 at KAAT before touring to Miyazaki and Okayama prefectures in March. For details, visit www.kaat.jp and chelfitsch.net.