Fear and Trembling – out now

Fear and Trembling, adapted from Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical novel, is the tale of downtrodden Belgian translator Amélie (Sylvie Testud) who takes a job in the head office of a Tokyo firm. Speaking fluent Japanese and determined to become a “true Japanese woman” in the land where she grew up as a small child, Amélie decides to forge for herself a new life in the East. However, her dream job turns into a living nightmare as Amélie suffers ridicule and bullying at the hands of her sadistic Japanese bosses. It is a tale of someone who speaks perfect Japanese, but in another sense does not understand Japan at all.

Working under the 29-year-old Mori Fubuki, Amélie comes to idolise her new boss, a tall picture of beauty, who is initially very kind to her. However, Amélie’s well-meant attempts to be useful in her new office turn out to be serious social blunders in her adoptive society, prompting her Japanese colleagues to question “how the nice white geisha became a rude Yankee.”

One of Amélie’s first tasks at the company is to make tea and coffee for a group of visiting businessmen, which she undertakes with relish. She says to each executive “enjoy your coffee” as she hands the cup to him, and fails to understand why the whole room exits en masse in effrontery: “How could they discuss secret matters in front of a foreigner who speaks Japanese?” the boss of her boss screams. Trying to make amends for her faux pas, Amélie decides to bring everyone their post. However, this results in another severe telling-off, and a demotion, because she undermined the role of the postman with her actions. Whilst western firms may applaud initiative, Japanese firms expect submission to the hierarchy. Eventually Amélie is relegated to the toilets, where she works for the rest of the year – resigning would mean losing face.

Paralleling Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, which is referred to in the film, Fear and Trembling is enriched by the unspoken sexual tension between Fubuki and Amélie. Amélie’s constant submission arouses her superior and in the final scenes Amelie brings her to a metaphorical “orgasm” as she emulates the “fear and trembling” that one is supposed to exhibit when addressing the emperor.

Never having visited Japan myself, it is difficult to know whether this is an accurate portrayal of Japanese corporate life. Certainly the film makes some rather bold premises without offering a counterbalance: Japanese people are driven by hierarchy and honour, and dislike foreigners. However, Fear and Trembling perfectly captures the suppressed desire of the workplace, and just like The Office, cleverly satirises the backbiting, jealousy and petty grudges that characterise much of office politics the world over.

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