s Chieko, Babel's heartbreaking deaf-mute teenager, Rinko Kikuchi's work is nothing short of revelatory. Her character moves through the streets of Tokyo, trapped in a world of silence, and Kikuchi uses her wonderfully expressive face to convey every emotion: simmering rage, explosive sexuality, painful adolescence. She makes Chieko's isolation real.
That Kikuchi seems so connected to the part is no accident: It's a role she felt passionate about and had to fight for. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu initially wanted to cast a hearing-impaired actor as Chieko, but Kikuchi convinced him with her auditions and her commitment to the role. "I spent time with deaf students, and I actually lived not only with the deaf students but as a deaf [person]," Kikuchi said. "I tried to find out what kind of clothes [Chieko] would wear, and I actually tried to wear the character's wardrobe. And then also she was a 16-year-old girl, and I gained a little weight to have a little baby fat."
The role required Kikuchi to be naked, both emotionally and physically, in a way we're not used to seeing in modern cinema. Luckily, the deep bond she formed with Iñárritu helped her do it in a way that is convincing and ultimately gut-wrenching. "Something that I haven't experienced with any other director was that Alejandro had such a strong desire for his interpretation [of Chieko] to be the same as what I have interpreted, and he made sure that the two visions were the same," she said. "I trusted him fully, and I knew that he trusted me completely, because we had the same vision, and that was what freed me to do everything that I did on screen."