A Belgian woman looks back on her year at a Japanese corporation in Tokyo in 1990. She is Amélie, born in Japan, living there until age 5. After college graduation, she returns with a one-year contract as an interpreter. The vice president and section leader, both men, are boors, but her immediate supervisor, Ms. Mori, is beautiful and trustworthy. Amélie’s downfall begins when she speaks perfect Japanese to clients. She compounds her failure by writing an excellent report for an enterprising colleague. The person she least expects to stab her in the back exposes her work. Thus begins her humiliations. What can become of her and of her relationship with Ms. Mori and with Japan?
The latest movie to explore (and to exploit) Western fascination with Japan is Alain Corneau’s “Fear and Trembling,” adapted from a slim, autobiographical novel by Amélie Nothomb. Like “Lost in Translation,” Mr. Corneau’s film concerns a young strawberry-blond woman undergoing a comical and painful process of self-discovery in a Tokyo high rise. Unlike Scarlett Johansson’s character, though, the protagonist of “Fear and Trembling,” whose name is Amélie, is not entirely a stranger to Japan. Like Ms. Nothomb, she was born there, and returns as an adult hoping to transform herself into “a true Japanese woman.”
To achieve this, Amélie (Sylvie Testud), who grew up in Belgium and speaks flawless Japanese, takes a job at the Yumimoto corporation, a giant conglomerate in whose towering headquarters the entire movie takes place. She is hired as an interpreter, but soon discovers that particular tasks are less important than observance of the intricate, rigorously hierarchical codes that govern corporate behavior. Yumimoto, which seems to manufacture, import and export just about everything, runs according to a minutely calibrated pecking order and by notions of honor, shame and deference, all of which Amélie, in her eagerness to please, manages to violate, with disastrous consequences.
On a simple, anthropological level, “Fear and Trembling” illustrates a distinction between workplace cultures in Japan and the West that has long since been a truism in the business world, namely that Japanese companies value loyalty and obedience over individual initiative. When Amélie helps a mid-level executive who is not her boss with a report, both of them are punished and humiliated for violations of protocol, rather than rewarded for good work. Moments like this one seem well observed, though there are also times when the movie slips toward stereotyping.
But Mr. Corneau, an eclectic director with a mildly perverse sensibility, turns the conflict of cultures into a psychodrama that is at once lighthearted and intense. When Amélie first arrives at Yumimoto, she is fascinated by her immediate superior, Fubuki, whom she initially regards as a friend and protector. Fubuki (Kaori Tsuji), though, turns out to be Amélie’s principal tormentor, putting her through a series of torments and degradations that turn the bland offices and conference rooms of Yumimoto into a scene of sado-masochism that rivals the chateau in “The Story of O.”
The ingenuity of the film is that it conjures up this kind of erotic implication without being explicitly, or even implicitly sexual. The office turns out to be such a perfect setting for Fubuki’s voluptuous psychological cruelty that it seems to have been designed for just that purpose, with the company’s actual business as a sideline. As far as we know, neither Amélie nor any of her superiors and co-workers have a life outside Yumimoto, though they must go somewhere when the workday is over. But following them home would spoil the slightly artificial elegance of the story by introducing extraneous questions of psychology and motivation. This is a study of human behavior in captivity.
— A. O. SCOTT (New York Times)
Subtitles:English, Bulgarian (muxed)