Review of Convenience Store Woman (2016)


Murata Sayaka (writer).

Read in 2022.

36-year-old Furukura Keiko has spent half her life working part time, five days a week, at a convenience store. She loves it, but begins to have her doubts about the lifestyle when she encounters a deadbeat incel who can’t stop talking about the Stone Age and the pressure to conform for social status.

I read this in the form of a Swedish-language audiobook, which means I can’t tell exactly how Murata teed up the onomatopoeia, nor how stylized the “whaaat!” reactions really are. This kept me wondering whether the book is supposed to be a comedy or a tragedy. It’s certainly marketed as a comedy, but it touches on the same territory as Strange Weather in Tokyo (2001). It does so in a lighter manner, but with darker subject matter. Both novels are about a middle-aged woman’s lonely and ultimately rather sad lifestyle, casting her unfeminine insensitivity to social convention as a humorous impediment to romance. Where Tsukiko in the earlier novel had a more rounded character, Keiko’s gaffes and surprising conclusions are presented in the manner of deadpan manga comedies, at least to the extent that a movie adaptation could reasonably follow the template of low-budget live-action Japanese romcoms of the period. The screenwriter would have to file off some sharp edges.

The novel has two tragic aspects. The first is that Furukura Keiko is autistic, and not stereotypically brilliant like Rain Man (1988) or Sheldon Cooper. Her autism is somewhat realistic: Too realistic to be heartwarming or very funny, but probably not realistic enough to champion the interests of autistic people in society. In the end, Murata positions Furukura’s profound alienation and corporate subjugation as a funny quirk of personality, more than an illness or injustice, which is awkward.

In the second tragic aspect of the novel, Murata shows that Shiraha the incel understands the reactions of people like Furukura’s family, friends, and coworkers. In fact, he predicts and sometimes manipulates these reactions. That testing shows that his bleak ideology is substantially correct in this fiction, even though Shiraha himself is clearly an unsympathetic creeper and moocher. That’s dark, and not black-comedy dark or Michel Houellebecq dark, but again awkwardly hovering on the edge of realism without taking a stance. Like Strange Weather in Tokyo, it ultimately says little about the true drivers of its society.

text Japanese production fiction