Consumerist wasteland

Tokishi Okada's subtle examination of Japanese culture through the prism of a convenience store

How long do you have to walk from one 7-Eleven to another in Bangkok? Most Bangkokians would probably say: "Not very."

Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich. Photo: Naphatrapee Suntorntirnan

Given the number of convenience stores in the capital, many Bangkok residents would probably find it easy to recognise the comfort this type of business provides and our increasing dependency on it in Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich, which ended its three-day run at Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts this past Sunday. The play, by Japan's Chelfitsch theatre company, is a funny and refreshing take on Japan's consumerist culture.

Written and directed by Chelfitsch's founder Tokishi Okada, the play takes place entirely among the convenience store aisles occupied by employees, managers and customers. Okada populates the story with characters as absurd as they are human. The play itself never sets foot in sentimental or even dramatic territory, and these characters are archetypes. But through them, Okada astutely captures the psyche and mentality of a cloistered, exclusionary and complacent culture.

There are the long-time cashiers who try to make their work more interesting by creating chaos that goes unnoticed or convincing themselves that the menial tasks they carry out is intellectual work. The new employee, who also belongs to a theatre company, is as green as they come and treats her job like a humanitarian rescue mission. The branch manager, whose marriage is a topic of gossip among the employees, desperately seeks approval from his incompetent and heartless supervisor whose job it is to uphold the cult of the brand. Then there are the customers: a woman who finds comfort in her daily purchase of a brand of vanilla ice-cream and a man who rebels against the store by entering and never buying anything.

The play is a test of patience at first, with the actors (all wonderfully funny and quirky) moving in inexplicable ways as they speak. But eventually, the odd choreography, which continues throughout the play, comes to feel intrinsic to the world of these characters. The rhythm of their daily life -- their dance -- is defined by the store and its grating background music (Takaki Sudo rearranged all of J.S. Bach's preludes and fugues in The Well-Tempered Clavier into a piece fit for a convenience store).

In his director's note, Okada explains that the play is his response to the lack of change in Japanese society following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Fukushima. For Okada, the convenience store, or combini, "stands for this social status quo".

In the end though, the play offers both hope and realism. Those who become disillusioned are empowered to leave and even denounce it. And there are those who complain but are unable to do anything beyond ineffective and cowardly acts of resistance. Sure, the convenience store carries many things that nourish us, and in a consumerist society, we often seek and find comfort in merchandise and the act of purchasing. But as Okada suggests, it is an intellectual and spiritual wasteland.

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