Political Film Society - Newsletter #223 - April 1, 20055

April 1, 2005


Fear and Trembling
(Stupeur et tremblements), directed by Alain Corneau, is a screen adaptation of a 1999 autobiographical novel by a French-speaking Belgian, Amélie Nothomb (played by Sylvie Testud). The daughter of Belgium's ambassador to France, she was born in Kobe, left Japan at the age of five with her family, and completed her education in Belgium. Upon graduation from college, Amélie yearned for the serenity that she experienced in Japan in her youth, so she signed a one-year contract to work in Japan and thereby become a "real Japanese," not realizing that speaking the language fluently does not entail fully understand the cultural taboos. Whereas Lost in Translation (2003) looked at Japanese culture from the outside, Fear and Trembling immerses Amélie and filmviewers in a culture which in the 1980s was thought to be superior in business. Japan's economy was then admired and analyzed as a model, possibly explaining why Amélie decides to work there, but she does not realize that she will never be accepted as an equal because she is white. Japan's economic decline has been a puzzle to many analysts, so Fear and Trembling may serve as a perceptive critique of sorts. In any case, Amélie enters her employment at Yumimoto Corporation in early 1990 as an interpreter; she is assigned as a subordinate to impeccably groomed Miss Fubuki Mori (played by Kaori Tsuji). Arriving disheveled on her first day, she pauses after coming out of an elevator to look at the view of Tokyo from the window of the forty-fourth floor. Along comes Mr. Saito (played by Taro Suwa), who scolds her for being idle and rudely directs her to report to Fubuki, who is his immediate subordinate. Amélie has already made her first two mistakes--sloppiness and loitering. (She never realizes that she is offending others with an unkempt personal appearance.) Because of her apparent malingering, Saito assigns her to write a simple business letter and snarls disapproval at each draft, frustrating her until she realizes that the task is crude punishment that should not be taken seriously. When she finally presents herself to Fubuki, the latter has no need for an interpreter or translator; instead, she first assigns Amélie to provide beverages to the employees, so now she is a hostess. One day, after interrupting a meeting of dignitaries from outside the corporation chaired by Vice President Omochi (played by Bison Katayama) by speaking in Japanese while serving tea, the guests depart quickly if quietly; as soon explained by Saito, they are angry that a foreigner speaks Japanese, thus breaching the confidentiality of the meeting. Other scoldings follow as Amélie tries to find something to do. One day, Mr. Tenshi (played by Yasunari Kondo), the only nice guy in the office, approaches her while she is photocopying. He seeks her help to prepare a report about a Belgian agroindustrial invention; although, she does a fine job, but both she and Tenshi are disciplined by Vice President Omochi. Tenshi apologizes for doing something that was the responsibility of another worker, who was on vacation. Omochi at first criticizes Amélie for accepting an assignment that did not come through proper channels, but he is outraged when she attempts to shift all the blame onto herself. Who, she wonders, tipped off her role in the research and writing of the report? Twenty-nine-year-old Fubuki, infuriated that Amélie has tried to gain a promotion in a few weeks that has taken her seven years is the one; being overshadowed by a newcomer is particularly painful to her because she was so career-oriented to get a promotion that she is now past the marriageable age.


As punishment, Fubuki assigns some monotonous accounting tasks to Amélie, who in turn bungles the assignments. On one occasion, Vice President Omochi publicly rebukes Fubuki. When Amélie tries to console Fubuki, who has departed to the ladies room to shed tears, Amélie again goofs; she is depriving Fubuki of the privacy of showing emotion. In response to the loss of face that Fubuki thereby suffers, she assigns Amélie to toilet duty, which she at first handles conscientiously and later botches deliberately. As the end of her contract year arrives, she prevaricates to everyone on the chain of command that she is leaving because she found herself incapable of taking advantage of the many wonderful opportunities to serve the company. Nevertheless, Amélie has learned a lot about Japanese culture; her humble departure is calculated to leave a good impression. She realizes that her efforts to befriend her superiors were in vain; as her immediate superior, friendship was never an option for Fubuki, whose belief in Japanese superiority impels her to push Amélie to do tasks for which she has not been trained so that she can conclude from her mistakes that she is mentally disabled, thereby feeling racially superior. Even President Haneda (played by Sokyu Fujita), who accepts her resignation more graciously than anyone, only tries to say what she might want to hear after she has done likewise. Thus, the main critique of Japanese business culture is that everyone is held in check in a rigid, militaristic chain of command. The film title is based on the traditional manner required of those who spoke to the emperor--with fear and trembling. Superiors enjoy the opportunity for public humiliation of subordinates; they can show negative emotions, but subordinates cannot. The rigidity, in turn, stifles creativity as well as productivity, provoking employees to do only what is safely conventional while saying what other want to hear rather than speaking honestly. Rather than quitting in her various assignment demotions, Amélie survives because she decides to enjoy the spectacle of a Kafkaesque work environment, convinced that Western ways are better than Japanese ways while pretending otherwise for her own amusement so that she can tease her bosses into displaying their verbally sadomasochistic tendencies. Based on a true story, Fear and Trembling starts out as a comedy and then becomes a noir film, exaggerating how she was treated for tragicomic effect. The main puzzle is how Japanese, who developed the concept of the quality control circle to identify work-related problems and forward suggested changes to upper management, perceive the film. The only review from Japan that is posted on the Internet is uninformative. In Okoge (1992), director Takehiro Nakajima has one of his characters poke fun at conventional expectations among office workers regarding sexuality, so the sentiments expressed in Fear and Trembling are not without precedent in Japan films. Although Sylvie Testud won an award as best actress among French films of 2004, the film has not received an award in Japan.  MH

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Fear and Trembling
by Amelie Nothomb

Amélie, our well-intentioned and eager young Western heroine, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfillment of a dream for Amélie; working there turns into comic nightmare.