Fear And Trembling

Japan Moviews: Fear And Trembling - (Stupeur et Tremblements, 2003, France / Japan)

Fear And Trembling

Fear And Trembling - (Stupeur et Tremblements, 2003, France / Japan).

by Joe Sinclair, Sept 2004

With a fantasy of becoming Japanese, a young Belgian translator moves to Tokyo to start her dream job in a Japanese company.

But she soon finds that the office can be a cruel and inexplicable place, where strict hierarchies, arcane business culture, and the sadistic behavior of her colleagues go beyond simple translation.

What distinguishes Fear and Trembling from other recent Japan-related cross-cultural-comedy-clash movies, is that Amelie speaks fluent Japanese and is genuinely trying to engage with Japan and its culture.

In Lost in Translation Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are trying to find themselves in an alien world. But Fear and Trembling is more concerned with finding Japan, and the result is a cruel delight.

Amelie feels a spiritual connection with Japan, where she was born and spent a happy early childhood. But on her first day she is greeted with barked orders and grunts of non-communication, and her work is repeatedly ripped up with no explanation. Fitting into her adopted culture will not be as easy as she imagined.

Amelie finds that questioning her bosses, using her initiative, or even speaking Japanese can get her into trouble. Linguistic fluency cannot help her to understand the alternative logic of the Japanese workplace.

With nothing much to do, she happily launches herself into making coffee and updating calendars, and even finds a kind of Zen calm in repetitive accounting.

Amelie is superbly played by the wispy-thin Sylvie Testud, whose mess of mousy blonde hair and freckles make an immediate contrast with the rigid order of the office.

At the core of the film is her relationship with her immediate boss, Fubuki Mori, played to icy perfection by former model Kaori Tsuji. Amelie develops an obsession with Fubuki, whose beauty, elegance and poise embody Amelie's idea of Japanese perfection.

But the husbandless ice-queen has a cruel sense of justice, and takes a sadistic delight in humiliating her underling.

The film has a cunning sense of bathos, as Amelie's flights of fancy are repeatedly battered into submission with the unyielding reality of the workplace. At one point Amelie compares her relationship with Fubuki to that between the camp commandant and a prisoner of war, played by David Bowie, in the film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983). Underneath it all they were just trying to get on, says Amelie. It's different, comes the dead-pan reply, You don't look like David Bowie

In fact, Amelie finds a perverse pleasure in the cruelties she is made to suffer. She suppresses her sense of self, submits to her superiors and willfully demeans herself.

But by taking part in this role-play, and by honouring her one year contract, she finds a bizarre sense of triumph that she is behaving as a Japanese person would do. What saves Amelie from total self-destruction is the unspoken idea that she is playing the Japanese at their own game.

Fear and Trembling is written and directed by Alain Corneau, and based on Amelie Nothomb's autobiographical novel about her experiences of Japan in the early 1990's.

The film's critics have accused it of being vindictive and xenophobic. However, these critics fail to understand that the Japanese sometimes appear to work to an alternative set of rules.

In a telling confrontation between Amelie and Fubuki it is the Westerner whose reasoning appears childish and emotional, whilst the Japanese remains professional and composed.

And although sumo-sized Mr. Omochi (Bison Katayama) is two dimensional, Mr. Saito (Taro Suwa), who has been equally cruel to Amelie, eventually reveals a touchingly human side.

Almost all of the action takes place inside the office and this helps to create a sense of claustrophobia and isolation, although it would have been interesting to see Amelie's life outside work. The office is Amelie's universe, on which she projects her own world order.

Big Boss Mr. Haneda (Sokyu Fujita) is a benevolent (but mostly absent) God. His deputy, Mr. Omochi, is the devil. Mr. Tenshi, whose name means angel, is a sympathetic friend.

And Amelie says that when she was younger she had wanted to be a martyr. She is now unwittingly fulfilling that dream, sacrificing herself to the fantasy of becoming Japanese.

But the point is that becoming Japanese is an impossible task. Cultural differences can be rooted deep, and the mysteries of the East are often harsh realities.

This is a darkly comic film, at times moving, and ultimately strangely uplifting. Anyone who has worked in a Japanese office will recognize some of the characters, attitudes and situations, sympathise with the isolation of a foreign workplace and take a sadistic pleasure watching somebody else going through the mill.

And anyone who plans to work in a Japanese office should watch this first and then decide.

Japan Articles by Joe Sinclair

Hitch-Hiking in Japan
Japan Travel Tips: Missing the last train in Tokyo
Hot Spring Bathing in Japan
Tokyo Story - Movie Review
Memoirs of a Geisha - Movie Review
Tony Takitani - Movie Review
Twilight Samurai - Movie Review
Fear And Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements) - Movie Review
The Fog of War - Movie Review
Zatoichi- Movie Review
Interview with David Mitchell, author of "Cloud Atlas"

Books on Japan