Stupeur et tremblements (review)

In a previous post I took the diabolical liberty to comment on a film about Japan I had not seen yet. Of course such a journalistic or even editorial remiss weighed heavily on my mind so I took great measures to acquire this film for myself, watch it and comment on it again as an informed viewer.
The protagonist Amélie is a Belgian woman in dire need of some gamesmanship lessons. Having been born in Japan and resident until the age of 5 she holds special memories and due to a great desire to revisit the culture that she admired in her early years she comes back as a grown woman with a one year contract as a translator at the big Yamimoto Corporation in Tokyo, with, as they are keen on saying on television, hilarious consequences.

Hilarious? Well, funny it is, but funny peculiar if anything. Amélie, who starts young and keen and full of desire to play by the Japanese rules, soon finds herself in a downward spiral of misery as the system and her superiors stomp on her, try to break and degrade her while she herself, set on finishing the contract if it kills her, stumbles along with the best of intentions. If you view this film as a distant observer with little knowledge or interest of work in Japan you may find it amusing, funny even, but I found myself shocked at how little it is actually exaggerated. Of course it is exaggerated and game development isn’t half as bad as corporate office life, being less formal on rules and hierarchy, but some situations felt awfully familiar. Little consideration is given to Amélie’s qualifications and foreignness, and work quickly becomes dull zombie work with superiors stabbing her in the back, and front, at every occasion. Bosses scream unreasonable orders, working practices are inefficient and there is some manhandling which would land any western employer in a courtroom. On more than one occasion I had to fight off the desire to step through the screen and give some of Amélie’s colleagues a well-deserved slap. “Why are you taking this abuse?” I screamed in desperation as Amélie gets demoted to lower and lower positions.
The main arc of the story revolves around the complex relationship between Amélie, played by Sylvie Testud with a lot of humanity and heart, and Fubuki Mori, played by the surprisingly tall Kaori Tsuji. This relationship is solidly sadomasochistic and, to my dirty little mind at least, has some strong sexual undertones. Fubuki is clearly the antagonist, the person who drives Amélie’s downfall, despite the presence of two other screaming superiors who would seem to fit the bill better. As the film points out, if the President is God then the vice-president is clearly the Devil. And though this is true, it is your immediate colleagues or superiors one needs to be most careful with. Fubuki’s status in the company as in life, being an unmarried and unmarryable woman nearing the age of 30 is particularly well observed.
During the film Amélie talks about Japanese culture and history, about such things as honour and pride, with the same sense of awe as your usual Japanese-wannabe, i.e. in a vastly inflated way bordering on idolatry, and, in my view, false. It always irks me when foreigners talk about Japanese honour while to me it’s clear the western interpretation of the word differs significantly from the Japanese; people confuse honour with unquestioning obligation too much and to their detriment. But in this film at least Amélie seems to learn some lessons and though she doesn’t end up a bitter and twisted wreck like most people that follow in her shoes, she does realize that the real Japan and the memories of her past and the history she studied don’t really equate.

It’s not all great though. Sylvie Testud does have a little bit of a wonky accent when speaking Japanese and some of the Japanese cast are clearly not very good actors. The title sequence shows Sylvie Testud in full Geisha face make-up, which always makes me a little queasy. White face-paint never looks good on western women. That said, I don’t really like it on Japanese women either, but at least they have the history behind them. I’m splitting hairs, of course, as the overall experience of the film is great and as such I recommend it to anyone who is toying with the idea of working in Japan. For others it is just a great story and the film also shows some lovely aerial views of Shinjuku.

The important lessons to learn are that even though this film is slightly exaggerated, there is a real possibility of landing yourself in a similar situation; you must prepare yourself and know what you’re getting into. Also, playing by the Japanese rules, trying to act like the Japanese would simply does not work, ever. It’s not just that these rules can be tediously obscure, difficult to learn or understand but mostly that you’re foreign, you always will be and you’ll always be treated as such; in Japanese society this is your strength, not your weakness, but it’s up to you to make people realise this. I would never allow myself to be in Amélie’s situation, and neither should you. It can be done differently, and this film only proves that differently is the way to go.
Go watch it! It’s a charming and entertaining film that deserves a wider audience. It delivers, in my view, a much more honest view of Japan than most other endeavors, including the much touted “Lost in Translation”. I have not read the book yet, and though I won’t go hunting for it as I did the film I will probably pick it up if I see it in stores on visits home. It certainly dashed my own dreams of writing a novel about my “hilarious” working experiences in Japan. Damn you, Amélie Nothomb! Although, judging by your autobiographical experiences in the story, you have already had the pleasure of experiencing Hell.


  1. "I found myself shocked at how little it is actually exaggerated. Of course it is exaggerated and game development isn’t half as bad as corporate office life, being less formal on rules and hierarchy, but some situations felt awfully familiar."

    This made me laugh out loud ;-D

    Perhaps you could comment on exactly what parts you felt were "slightly" exaggerated, and what was spot on?

    Glad to see you enjoyed the film as I did!

  2. Hi Jc, where did you get a copy of the film?


  3. I loved this movie. It and Cafe Lumiere are my recommended viewing for people who need to be reminded that Japan is a real place, and not a wacky fantasy land.

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  5. That's a very accurate description of the book as well, with Amélie coming to terms with Japan as it is - a world where people live and work just like any other place on Earth, and not some overblown fantasy land.

    Still, I'm still not sure where I stand on just how "foreign" one should behave in Japan. I do believe you, and Amélie of course, that we will never be seen as 100% Japanese. That being said, I still hold true to the ideal that the journey is in the struggle; we should try to behave like the Japanese when we enter their world. Nothing may ever come of it, but I think it's right. That also having been said, I would have quit in her situation, but I believe most Japanese would have as well...

    Despite the stereotype of the geisha in the titles, I do believe this falls under the category of "Japan raw", unlike many western movies we see surrounding Japanese culture.

    Lastly, a rather big detail. I haven't seen the movie, but what in the world is the context surrounding that image? Fubuki pulls a gun on Amélie??? That was never in the book.

  6. Jason, I ordered it on-line after Mattias (above) recommended it to me a while back (for which I still haven't publically thanked him).

    I did check a bit in Japanese shops but they none of them had a clue what I was on about. Besides, a possible Japanese release may have meant an absence of full subtitles; in retrospect not too big a deal, but I am still too insecure about my Japanese ability.

  7. "Fubuki pulls a gun on Amélie???"

    I won't spoil it, just see the film. It's no biggie, but it is the main basis of my assumption of a sexual undertone. Bullets, penetration? It doesn't come more Freudian than that.

  8. Totally agree for the sexual undertone. It's even orgasmic for Fubuki at the end.

    During interviews about the book Amelie Nothomb always told how she was impressed by the beauty of Fubuki Mori. It's a kind of symbolic Japan for her: beautiful and terrible at the same time, her dreamt japan.
    Still, during these 2 years she lived and was engaged with a japanese man, and quite happy with her personal life. A fact which is completly left out by both the book and the movie, and which exaggerate her desperation.

  9. Revealing her personal life isn't necessary - it doesn't give the whole picture, but it doesn't diminish her experience. I hate my job right now but I love Japan.

  10. Perfect film I enjoyed it at home because I like Asian performances, in fact the perform of Amélie was the best because of the adaptation she had to live in that country.m10m

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