Rinko Kikuchi in Babel (2006) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Each anchoring character in Babel's disaggregated narratives struggles with a single objective. Brad Pitt's Richard tries to keep his wife alive. Adriana Barraza's Amelia tries to make sure the kids are alright. Boubker Ait El Caid's Yussef tries to do the right thing. But with each character's best efforts thwarted at every turn, the collateral damage of their failures seem to escalate (while ratcheting the tension) with each passing scene. But while each of these three are concerned with the lives of others, the fourth anchor seem to hold only her own life in her hands. Nevertheless, the stakes seem just as high in her story, thanks to the vivid yet enigmatic performance of...

...Rinko Kikuchi in Babel (2006).
approximately 33 minutes and 2 seconds on-screen
20 scenes
roughly 23% of film's total screen time

Rinko Kikuchi plays Chieko, a defiant teen desperate for something. By turns, Kikuchi's Chieko rages, sulks, goofs, manipulates, dares, plays along, risks near everything, and comes unglued. While the film dodges the question of what Kikuchi's Chieko seeks (love? attention? affection? connection? validation?), her main objective seems simple enough: Chieko wants a boy to like her. As the movie unspools and as she's continuously rebuffed, the film takes great interest in Kikuchi's Chieko as she expresses her desire in increasingly (and hyperbolically) sexual ways.

Kikuchi's Chieko character arc is, like the other anchoring characters, fairly simple. Over the course of a really bad night, Kikuchi's Chieko (1) dismisses familiar male authority (referee/father); (2) exposes her "hairy monster" to anonymous cute boys; (3) tries to molest the dentist; (4) exposes her heart by starting to like a cute boy who might like her back; (5) tries to seduce the detective, and (6) stands naked on the balcony. Each "beat" in this clumsy sequence of failed seductions either begins, middles or ends with Kikuchi's Chieko doing something really bold -- like hollering "fuck you!" to the ref in the opening volleyball scene -- that both makes her presence known and, somehow, also takes her out of the game she's trying to play. And with each humilating rejection, Kikuchi's Chieko implodes a little further into a palpably dangerous vortex of isolation and despair.

Of course, there's a detail that my description has, thus far, omitted: Kikuchi's Chieko is profoundly deaf, "more" deaf even than most of her friends (as she's unable to read lips easily and seems unable to sense the rhythm of even the loudest, bass-heavy music in a crowded night club). Chieko's deafness proves useful for the filmmakers, operating both as an alibi for the character's extraordinary sexual gestures and as an efficient metaphor for the experience of isolation in a post-modern city. At key moments, when Tokyo's hubbub is viewed by Kikuchi's Chieko, the blaring soundtrack cuts abruptly to a buzzing, dull hum. It's an effective device, deploying a profoundly deaf character to express the profundity of post-modern estrangement.

But does such a "resonant" device serve the character of Chieko or Kikuchi's performance? Sadly, no. And it's in Kikuchi's performance that the limits of the Iñárritu/Arriaga connect-the-dots experiment are most evident. In Pitt's performance as "The American Husband" and Barraza's performance as "The Mexican Maid" -- but especially in El Caid's performance as "The Arab Boy" -- the actors were able to find moments of genuine humanity and thereby shade with nuance the film's broad delineations of narrative and character. Kikuchi, on the other hand, seems to be on a high-end fashion shoot, conveying emotion within what seems a larger project of framing stark, gorgeous and powerful imagery. Images of Kikuchi as Chieko are haunting. But the character of Chieko is very nearly illegible.

That said, Kikuchi does have some gifts as a performer that she brings to role (beyond her bold willingness to perform a role that stomps on any number of conventions/taboos in Japanese entertainment). Most notably, Kikuchi's able to maneuver her prettiness in productive ways. In her most emotion drenched scenes, Kikuchi's Chieko is only occasionally the wounded beauty. More often, she's snorting and surly -- as astonishingly unattractive as she was pretty mere moments before. Indeed, StinkyLulu's inclined to think that Kikuchi's got the stuff of a real actress. But in Babel Kikuchi's stuck in the superficial gimmicks of the role, a metaphorical device adorned with Oscar bait. (She's Japanese! She's deaf! She gets naked!) All told, Kikuchi offers a decent performance of an awful role...


Vertigo's Psycho said...

I agree getting nude or deaf onscreen really slays 'em come Oscar season, and I don't get it (where's the challenge in stripping down and keeping your mouth shut in the process?). During the homage to Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, I was praying Leslie Nielsen (as The Naked Gun's Lt. Frank Drebin) would pop onscreen and yell "Nice Beaver!!" across the room to Chieko, thereby pointing out the silliness of the "flashing-as-art" approach to filmmaking.

I did think Kikuchi's imposingly deadpan demeanor was the most memorable I've seen since Heather Matarazzo passively trouched down those school hallways in Welcome to the Dollhouse but, as you mention, the character's circumstances and her environment are largely responsible for the emotional impact the role has on viewers- is there anyone who doesn't empathize with Chieko's lonely despair, as she yearns to find a meaningful connection with someone?

During her final meeting with the officer, Kikuchi does let out a doozy of a wail with vividly conveys Chieko's deep loneliness, but this moving moment, great as it is, only last a second; otherwise I thought her performance was appropriately muted, yet unexciting.

video_ said...

Even though she flashed to boys of her own age in the cafe, I found it interesting that Rinko Kikuchi's character Chieko only tried to seduce older men such as the dentist and the officer. Perhaps this had some reflection on her poor relationship with her father.

That Rinko Kikuchi was nude in Babel seems to be something she herself is comfortable with. Commenting she supposedly said "I like the naked body. It’s beautiful. An actress can’t avoid using her body as a tool and nudity is one form of expression that you have available to you.".

Rightly or wrongly, that Chieko was deaf has a profound effect on how I viewed the character and increased my sympathy for her. her disability made her seem more vulnerable to me.

With love, by Kusano said...

i totally fell in love of rinko