'Office cubicle' comedies have by now become an established mini-genre. The protagonists are invariably young adults suffering from acute Dilbert syndrome, reacting in bizarre ways to the dehumanizing corporate lifestyle. Fear and Trembling takes on office life from a new perspective. A young European joins a huge Japanese super-company and endures a crazy ordeal of cross-cultural friction. It's both hilarious and a great think-piece. The rigid office culture in Tokyo crosses George Orwell with Alice through the Looking Glass.
Synopsis: Young Belgian Amélie (Sylvie Testud) lived as a child in Japan and returns there to take a job as interpreter for a large corporation. She's instead parked at a desk and allowed to do only the most menial of jobs. Everything she attempts ends up as an unfinished mess. Monsieur Saito (Taro Suwa) makes her repeatedly photocopy the rules for his golf club, until she's convinced the paper being expended is destroying entire forests. She's finally put under the wing of Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji), a devastatingly attractive and poised bureaucrat who treats Amélie with flawless delicacy...for a while. Amélie falls into hot water when for speaking Japanese while serving coffee at a meeting. Screaming, vice-president Omochi (Bison Katayama) demands that she "forget Japanese." Worse still, Amélie steps outside the chain of command to help another executive prepare some research. This results in humiliating punishments for both of them and a change of attitude from Fubuki, who now considers Amélie a threat and a target for abuse. As her prospects for company success vaporize, Amélie does her best to maintain a cheerful attitude - even if she has to retreat to fantasy daydreams.
A couple of years ago Sophia Coppola made a celebrated picture called Lost in Translation that has its amusing moments. A bored wife drifts around Tokyo and feels even more foreign and alienated amid Japanese customs. Although the humor is executed with sensitivity Japan is basically set up as an unending source of cheap jokes. A less benign variant of the same attitude came from an aunt who returned from a vacation in Sweden with photos of signs that said "fart," or "fahrt", a word that means "to go" or "travel" in Swedish. She couldn't get over the idea that foreigners would be so hilarious as to not know what they were writing.
Fear and Trembling is also hilarious but in a much more useful and meaningful way. The plucky young heroine, a lover of Japanese culture, has a disastrous experience trying to fit into the corporate landscape. It makes no sense to her that she would be hired for a specific function and then be given no work to do. She does her best to react reasonably to a succession of ego-crushing events. Her enraged supervisors act as if she crawled out from under a rock and is an embarrassment just to have around. The one kindly executive who extends sympathy to a clueless Westerner (Monsieur Tenshi, played by Yasunari Kondo) is practically handed his head for trying to give her relevant work to do.
What makes Fear and Trembling fascinating is the complexity of Amélie's situation. At first we assume that these crazy Japanese will eventually appreciate her sincerity and intelligence. The graceful Fubuki becomes verbally abusive in ways that would not be tolerated in an American company. Monsieur Saito just shakes his head and keeps yelling. Amélie can't for the life of her understand why he keeps throwing out her photocopies, without even looking at them.
Saito's behavior makes us wrongly assume he wants her to quit. Amélie is not American, so we can't conclude that her tormentors are taking revenge along national lines. The gargantuan and gross Mr. Omochi shatters eardrums with his screams and throws Amélie bodily around the room. Amélie finally loses her grip when she's assigned the rote function of adding up long columns of numbers. She's a literature student and happens to be completely inept at a task that takes Fubuki only a few seconds. Fubuki harps on this as proof that Amélie is mentally defective, with insufferably direct questions: "How long have you been handicapped?" "What did you do to become so stupid?" "What will possibly happen to you now?"
At this point we have to reassess the situation. The Japanese company is not extraordinarily abusive, it's just that Amélie doesn't fit in a system that places 'fitting in one's place' as the first priority to functioning. She shows up at her desk with her cute ragged hairstyle, a big smile and an eagerness to get involved with her co-workers. According to Japanese rules, all of these things make her unfit to even begin the day's work.
Everything seems to be an unwritten rule. When Amélie violates the pecking order she's subjected to humiliating treatment. But we have the same rule here, except that it is violated all the time: American office workers live in constant resentment of employees who use personal connections to leapfrog bureaucracy and trample on the concept of seniority. Japanese observers probably think that the typical American office situation is chaos and anarchy. Well, so do we. Just look at How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying?
Amélie shows her feelings on her face, itself considered a gross breach of etiquette. Fubuki may comport herself like an emotionless statue but she's no robot -- she caves in miserably when Omochi yells at her in front of the whole office. We learn that Fubuki's life is no success and that everyone knows it --- Tenshi says that she's worked eight years for one lowly promotion and has sacrificed her hopes for marriage by staying with the company. In the vision we are offered of Fubuki at home, the supposedly ideal woman looks disheartened and unloved.
Things are really not all that much different in western companies. People obscure their true feelings ("I hate this job. I hate working with you") by hiding behind different masks: Calculated chitchat, monotone sarcasm, practiced politeness. It's really the same. In business situations it is not uncommon to be addressed with hearty goodwill by an executive who thirty seconds later will be completely dismissive.
Amélie is shocked at Fubuki's casual abuse, when she's merely being direct. All of our sarcasm and contempt is expressed indirectly, but it's still there. As wrong-headed as Fubuki is, from her point of view she's being honest. Fear and Trembling aids Savant in understanding confusing "oriental" behaviors in scenes from classic Japanese movies -- unlike Lost in Translation, I've learned something.
Amélie's comic descent into career failure poses no great lessons. Her coworkers can't articulate what the problem was. When she leaves at the end she's given a meeting with the company president, a man so warm and friendly that we wonder how he even fits in. The answer is that he doesn't fit in. He has no contact with ordinary office life and makes promises he can't possibly keep. The real power is in the next office with Omichi.
Fear and Trembling is beautifully made and an eye-opening experience. Sylvie Testud is adorably human as Amélie, and the film uses passages from the book as a hilarious running commentary. When Amélie swells with pride for having served her new company, the voiceover talks about her gratitude being such that she'd be happy to crash her Kamikaze plane into an American aircraft carrier. The film presents her daydream flights of fancy high over Tokyo, but the main attraction is just seeing Amélie struggling to fit in without the proper preparation. Testud reportedly learned her Japanese phonetically and is convincingly fluent, at least to this non-speaker.
Home Vision's disc of Fear and Trembling is a perfect transfer of an extremely well shot film, with a good 5.1 track in Japanese and French with subtitles. A surprise for Japanese music fans occurs in the last act when Ryuchi Sakamoto's score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence makes a welcome appearance.
The disc has a trailer and some raw video coverage of the shooting that is billed as a behind the scenes featurette. Film critic Mark Peranson contributes a thoughtful essay that will help steer viewers toward a better understanding of this terrific film.
For more information about Fear and Trembling, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Fear and Trembling, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
1. I think it's Tokyo Story in which we find a widower sitting alone after his wife's funeral. A neighbor pauses to offer unsolicited remarks: "Oh, you poor man, you must be so lonely!" "No woman or children in the house, what will you do?" "You must be very miserable indeed!" To us Westerners this is an outrageous breach of privacy and decency. It's apparently not in Japan, depending on who is speaking to whom.