Fear and Trembling is a fascinating French film spoken in Japanese and French with English subtitles. The film washes over you and the multiple languages enhance the spectacle of the story.
Sylvie Testud — an amazing actress who performs her role speaking both fluent French and Japanese — plays Amelie, born in Japan from Belgian parents, and she longs to work as a translator in a major Japanese trading company.
After she is hired, one of the first directives from her boss’ boss is to never speak Japanese while working or she’ll be seen as a spy and shame the company — so the very reason for her hiring negates her very being.
Fear and Trembling will help explain the curious disconnection from human interaction in the intricate hierarchies in Japanese culture that many Westerners find troubling. If you have ever been confused by Asian cultural norms or by personal interaction with those who were raised to value Japanese customs and found yourself wanting and lost and conflicted with the cold and rigid — and unspoken — rules of Japanese personal interaction, then this movie will lay it all out for you in painful detail and show you precisely why and where and how that chill was created and is sustained by the Japanese system.
The fantastic Japanese actress Kaori Tsuji plays Fubuki — a name, Amelie tells us, that translates into “snowstorm” indicating “when the beauty of the sky fell upon the beauty of the earth” — and we watch in amazement as Fubuki, Amelie’s immediate boss and intimate tormenter, threatens and punishes and force-feeds cruelty and hatred to Amelie under the necessary approval of an ancient structure of a Japanese business culture built to command obedience and to require inborn identical sameness.
We always hope Amelie and Fubuki might find a way to help each other advance instead of killing the other’s career dreams — but we realize early in the movie an immutable will can never move a mountain of molehills — and the fact of that human tragedy is plainly spoken to Amelie by Fubuki when Amelie mentions how similar their names are: Fubuki means “snowstorm” and Amelie means “rain” — they are both falling from the sky — and Fubuki, with dead-cold glassy eyes, and barely able to contain her insulted fury, asks in a glossless tone, “Are you comparing yourself to me?”
The lesson of Fear and Trembling is nothing is as it seems in Japan and what you think you know you can never learn. The key to surviving in Japan is to go along, to play dumb, to obey; and if that process of spirit repression crushes individuality and honesty and intellectual creativity — all the better.