Elizabeth Paich Prof. Bloom CPLT143 January 31, 2011
The Character of Rain and Fear and Trembling: Nationality and Language
This essay will examine the relationship between language and nationality as portrayed in Amelie Nothomb's The Character of Rain and Alain Corneau's film Fear and Trembling, an adaptation of Nothomb's novel of that name. In The Character of Rain, the narrator refers to herself as God and believes that she can understand all languages – thus allowing her to choose not only her spoken tongue but also her nationality – which she claims is Japanese. God’s ability to speak multiple languages in the novel allows her to better understand Japanese customs through her nanny, Nishio-san. However, while God proclaims herself to be Japanese, those around her regard her as Belgian. God eventually discovers she will have to leave Japan because of her father’s work as a diplomat, so she struggles to remember all she can about the country before she is taken away from it. In the film Fear and Trembling, the protagonist’s identity is encountered in a different way. Even though Amelie-san chooses to be Japanese as a young girl, she discovers that while she behaves with proper Japanese etiquette, she is still regarded as a foreigner by others. This happens especially when she makes mistakes, because she is a Caucasian woman. Amelie-san then feels conflicted between her Belgian and Japanese mannerisms as she tries to find her place in the Yumimoto Company where she works. Her superiors in the company see her bilingualism as a bad trait and she is considered mentally disabled as she tries to appear Japanese. Unfortunately, everyone in the company regards her as a Western foreigner. Eventually, she leaves the company being viewed by her coworkers as an inferior Westerner, only to regain face by finding success as an author, while her rival Fubuki-san remains unmarried and ashamed.
In The Character of Rain, God’s growth from infant to toddler mirrors her learning of language. God believes that with sound, there is life. The reader discovers this as God focuses on Nishio-san’s tale of being buried alive from World War II bombings: “I must head towards the noise. That is where there is life” (Nothomb 43, emphasis author). At first, God is unable to communicate because she is only an infant. Until the age of two and a half, she is silent - but then she begins to scream, marking what she deems her birth – yet she is frustrated that she cannot communicate: “They [God’s family] move their lips and words come out. God moves its lips and all that comes out is noise. This is not fair. It will yell and scream until noise turns into language” (Nothomb 19, emphasis author). God combines the sweetness of Belgian white chocolate with sentience as she proclaims mentally after a bite: “It is I! I’m talking! I’m not an ‘it’ I’m a ‘me’! You can no longer say ‘it’ when you talk about yourself. You have to say ‘me’. And I am your best friend. I’m the one who gives you pleasure” (Nothomb 24, emphasis author). It is not until God is able to communicate and identify herself that she finally claims to be born “in Japan at the age of two and a half, in February of 1970. ” after a taste of her grandmother’s Belgian white chocolate – a hint at the sweetness and beauty of her European heritage to which she also belongs, even if she herself does not recognize her Belgian heritage (Nothomb 24). She states that this way of thinking has been with her ever since that moment in Japan, and states that “[the] voice in my head has never died since that day, and it still speaks in my head” (Nothomb 24). This mental voice is above and beyond language as God explains: “I hadn’t known there were such things as separate languages, only that there was one great big language and that one could choose either the Japanese version of it or the French version, which ever you preferred. I had not yet heard a language I couldn’t understand” (Nothomb 42). This belief on God’s part allows her to believe that she has ability to decide to be Japanese – and God thusly claims: “. at the age of two and half, in the province of Kansai, in the village of Shukugawa, I became Japanese” (Nothomb 49, emphasis added). Her reasoning behind the choice was very simple: “Choosing between my parents, who treated me like the others, and my nanny, who treated me like a god, was not a real choice. I would become Japanese” (Nothomb 48). However, it is stated that, “God’s parents were of Belgian nationality, meaning that it, too was Belgian” (Nothomb 9). Her family ultimately explains to her that she is in fact Belgian, and not Japanese, though she proclaims herself to be Japanese. When she eventually discovers that she will leave Japan because of her father’s work, she cries to her mother, “I can’t leave! I have to live here! This is my country – and this my house!” – a statement which her mother is quick to refute (Nothomb 105). She struggles to remember all she can about the country before she is taken away from it – possibly deciding to become an author while sealing away thoughts of Japan in her memories simultaneously:
You must remember because you will not always live in Japan, Because you will be thrown out of the garden, because you will lose Nishio-san and the mountain because that which is given to you will be taken back. Memory has the same power as writing. When you see the word ‘cat’ in a book it looks very different from the neighbor’s cat with the beautiful eyes. Yet to the word written gives you a pleasure like the one the cat gave you when its golden gaze was fixed upon you. (Nothomb 108) God ultimately declares to herself: “If you could write of the marvels of the paradise in your head, you would forever carry in your mind, if not their miraculous nature, then at least something of their power” (Nothomb 108). God decides she will hold onto Japan in her thoughts if she must be forced to move away as the daughter of a Belgian diplomat, showing that while she chooses to be Japanese, she is nonetheless Belgian.
In the film Fear and Trembling, Amelie-san realizes that despite self-identifying as Japanese, others still view her as an outsider. Amelie-san is hired as an interpreter for the Yumimoto Company but is never truly assigned actual interpretive work. She is berated for letter writing by Saito-san, which marks the beginning of her trials of never knowing how to act or what to say, although she knows Japanese customs. She is scolded for speaking proper Japanese while serving coffee at a high power meeting – being told that she makes clients feel uncomfortable with her being a foreigner. At this point in the film, she is practically considered a traitor for her appearance and speaking abilities. Amelie-san then feels a sense of difficulty finding a place within the company as she struggles between her Japanese and Belgian customs. When she tries to confide in Fubuki-san, she is compelled to explain that her mindset and mannerisms are both Western and Japanese. Her superiors in the company see her individuality as a threat to the company and a conflict with her self-proclaimed “Japanese“ mannerisms. She leaves the company at the end of her contract humiliated but nonetheless “saving face” and returns to Europe. While in Belgium, after the success of her novel, she receives a letter from her former superior, Fubuki-san in Japanese that shows an acceptance of Amelie-san’s identity as worthy of the Japanese language. In addition, the portrayal of young Fubuki-san and young Amelie-sanin the rock garden at the end of the film also symbolizes this acceptance of Amelie-san’s assumed Japanese heritage by Fubuki-san. As Nothomb comments in The Character of Rain: “To be Japanese meant living among beauty and adoration. To be Japanese meant inhaling the intoxicating odor of flowers in a garden moistened from rain; sitting on the edge of a pool, gazing at distant mountains as large as the heart they contained; and feeling rapture at the mystical song of the yam seller who passed through the neighborhood at twilight” (49).
Nothomb, Amelie, and Timothy Bent. The Character of Rain: A Novel. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. Print.
Fear and Trembling. Dir. Alain Corneau. Perf. Sylvie Testud, Kaori Tsuji, Taro Suwa. Homevision, 2003. Film.
Word Count: 1373
Grade: 140/150 points