Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements)

Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et tremblements)

A mindboggling view into the heart of Japan, Fear and Trembling includes some of the incongruous hilarity of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and the monstrous (if ceremonially correct) barbarity of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but it’s also new and different. It will make you laugh, cringe, learn, and refuse to accept what appears obvious to those on the screen.

As with those two other Western perspectives on Japan, director Alain Corneau’s story is about the comedy and trauma of East-West relations, in this case seen through the epic (and yet deeply personal) struggle of a young Belgian woman to "fit in" with a Tokyo corporation. The film is based on an autobiographical novel by Amelie Nothomb, played in the film by Sylvie Testud.

Amelie was born in Tokyo, daughter of the Belgian ambassador to Japan (although the film doesn’t say this), and lived there until age five when her family returned to Belgium. She considered Japan her real home, maintaining a deeply-felt, romantic attachment to the language and culture of the country.

In her mid-20s, Amelie gets a job as a translator with a giant corporation in Tokyo.The film tells the story of her often incredible life of abuse, humiliation, and (to an outsider) near-insane routines that is the lot of employees in Japan, especially those who are women. Amelie starts doing brilliant multilingual research– in violation, as it turns out, of company procedures, defying a supervisor’s hatred of "odious Western pragmatism." She is relegated to resetting calendars, to serving coffee, to being made to copy the same document over and over again, to months of cleaning restrooms.

Impossible? Well, yes, but it is both "a true story" in fact, and Corneau (Tous les matins du monde, New World) somehow gets the audience a few tentative steps closer to the "Japanese mind." It is, of course, only a partial success, but in the end, there is a fragile, right-brain appreciation of what is "most Japanese" in the film: Amelie’s persistence through it all, to "save face."

At the same time, much of the conflict remains incomprehensible to an outsider, such as a supervisor’s order to Amelie (hired because of language ability) "to forget Japanese" when there are visitors to the office. His explanation: "How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of white girl who understood their language? From now on you will no longer speak Japanese."

In the large, uniformly excellent Japanese cast, Kaori Tsuji is an amazing physical presence: a 6-foot-tall Japanese woman with a face that’s both icily "perfect" and achingly vulnerable. In her film debut, Tsuji successfully copes with a major role that requires projecting many deep, often conflicting emotions without changing her uniform, constant "correct expression."

– Janos Gereben

fear.jpg (14299 bytes)

Janos Gereben Janos Gereben From refugee scholarship in Helena, MT, and Atchison, KS, Janos worked his way up from copy boy to the copy desk at the NY Herald-Tribune of blessed memory. When the Trib went under, he worked for TIME-LIFE, UPI Audio, then switched coasts, published the Kona Torch, was a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and taught journalism at UH-Manoa. He received an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, reported from the European political and cultural scene for a year. In the S.F. Bay Area, he worked as arts editor of the Post Newspaper Group/East Bay for 20 years, writes about performing arts and films for the S.F. Examiner, continues writing for the S.F. Classical Voice which he joined when Robert Commanday established this first professional online publication about music and dance. He also participated in the work of CultureVulture in the publication's first years.