Rinko Kikuchi reveals how she clung to movies like a lifeline during her tumultuous teenage years, and now she views acting as her way of returning the favor — while director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu says she was robbed of an Oscar

Twenty-six-year-old Rinko Kikuchi is the current toast of cinema, both in Japan and the world over. A virtual unknown a year ago, her appearance as Tokyo teen Chieko in the film “Babel” — which opens throughout Japan on April 28 — and a clutch of award nominations and prizes have turned her into a cinema icon. No one before her, it seems, managed to portray the poignant angst of a Japanese 17-year-old with quite her guts or insight. The role won her the best supporting actress award at the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards and a slew of nominations for best supporting actress or breakthrough performance at events including the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Golden Globes and the Oscars.

Kikuchi auditioned tirelessly for a whole year (mastering sign language skills along the way) before director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu finally agreed to give her the role, one that she has stated many times she felt had been “tailor-made” for her. What was it in her own life that made her identify so strongly with Chieko?

“Looking back to the days before I became an actress (at the age of 15), it’s not like I had an ecstatically happy childhood,” she says in a low, sweet drawl while dragging on her trademark Marlboros (nonfiltered). “But then, I wasn’t brimming with discontent, either. It’s just that, well, reality always felt remote for me. So I would escape into another world — movies — and for a long time that was how I lived my life.”

Devoid of makeup and wearing a worn white T-shirt over khakis last fall in Tokyo before the tidal wave and fame and notoriety hit her in earnest, she already had that don’t-give-a-shit- whether-I-look-fabulous-or-not aura. Our conversation continued, via e-mail, after the Oscars in February, and she seemed unchanged and unfazed (by the attention or the award that slipped by): “I’ve seen ‘Babel’ four times. And each time I realize anew what a monumental project that had been for me.”

She is candid when asked what, in her mind, is the most important asset for an actress. “Looks has a lot to do with it,” she says with a disarming smile. “But not all actresses know how to express their looks, I think. For me, it’s an on-again, off-again thing. I’m still struggling.”

Raised with two other siblings in a single-parent home in Yokohama, Kikuchi (her first name means “cool and collected child” in Japanese) says she couldn’t wait to grow up, leave home and start living her own life. Yet, she was always fuzzy about what exactly her life would turn out to be. Though her height (nearly 1.7 meters) and her elfin looks got her modeling and television commercial jobs, she never lost an urge to “express” herself. For her, that meant serious acting or nothing.

“When watching movies, I was always inspired by the performances of the cast,” she says. “Of course, the story and the direction and all that intrigued me. But what actors would propel themselves to do, and be, was awesome. It was like, how could these people give so much?”

As a child, Kikuchi watched both foreign and Japanese films on the family VCR. She liked “wrenching drama, blood-and-guts stuff,” but she also appreciated how the best of Japanese actresses hid their emotions behind a veneer of tranquillity and revealed their turmoil (or whatever else the script called for) in calculated spoonfuls.

“They had the audience in mind,” she remarks. “You know, we all have small stomachs in this country. Too much emotion causes indigestion.”

Later, she would join the same agency that represented the charismatic Tadanobu Asano, one of the few actors in Japan to learn English, go overseas and work with foreign directors like Christopher Doyle in Hong Kong and Thailand’s Pen Ek Ratanaurang. “I figured I’d have a better chance if I were able to work in both environments. Versatility counts.”

At the same time, she always wondered “why Japanese actresses just won’t or can’t, make it overseas?” Indeed, the best and brightest talents in Japan choose to stay put, and the results are often desultory when they do venture to do offshore projects.

“But then, I’ve been told it’s because Japanese actresses look weak and diluted on celluloid — they’re often uncomfortable about coming on strong and to really make the appeal,” says Kikuchi. “I guess that’s true . . . after all, it’s part of our culture to value excessive modesty, right? But I’m more motivated. I do this (acting) as a living, and it’s the only thing I can do. I want to give my best shot to every job that comes my way.”

That motivation soared when she heard about the role of Chieko. “I said to myself, this was something I can really sink my teeth into and dedicate myself heart and soul.” She added that she understood Chieko, mainly because at 17 she too had “wanted to be saved.”

Chieko’s festering frustrations at herself and the world explode in a scene where she removes her panties (from under her pleated school-uniform skirt) in a restaurant, opens her legs and flashes herself at a group of boys sitting at the next table. Kikuchi carries this off with a boldness and nonchalance not often seen in young Japanese actresses. “I felt that if anyone could do this it was going to be me,” she says. “There’s just no other way to describe it. It had to be me.”

The audition felt like “the hardest thing I had ever done. Gradually, the other actresses’ names fell away from the list, and mine remained. But still, there was no guarantee I would get the part. I just had to keep the faith and keep working.”

The other thing that worried Kikuchi was her lack of English ability (a fact which she is now trying to rectify with a vengeance), even though the part of Chieko didn’t require her to speak. Kikuchi agonized that she wouldn’t be able to communicate with Gonzalez Inarritu on set. “I knew I wasn’t dealing with just any filmmaker here. He was the man who made ’21 Grams,’ the man who put Naomi Watts through that ordeal and drew out that incredible performance. I was fired by a real and urgent need to communicate with him, to really know what he wanted from me.”

How did she get along with him? “Well . . . he was a gentleman every step of the way. But I got the feeling that with actresses, he always demands stren- uous, uphill work. I mean, the man is relentless. And in the process I learned a lot about myself, and I also realized how insulated I was, working in the cocoon that is the Japanese film industry.”

Gonzalez Inarritu’s direction has whetted her appetite for the challenging and difficult, and she says that for now, “I’m not worried about the type-casting thing. I suppose I have a certain kinkiness that I can turn on at will — and directors will zero into that, so I’m interested to know how far I can go. But I don’t want to limit myself. I want to keep doing all sorts of roles. I guess what lies behind this urge is the conviction that movies have changed my life. And certain performances have inspired me to try to be someone different. When I was growing up, it seemed that I wouldn’t be able to live if I didn’t have the escape hatch. So I want to return the favor. I want to do things in front of the camera that would save someone, in the same way that it saved me.”

That Kikuchi is unafraid to share a raw, unvarnished assessment of herself is clear. This boldness sets her apart not only from the “excessive modesty” she sees as a trait of her countrymen and women but perhaps from that of most people. Gonzalez Inarritu admires her approach so much that he believes her performance in “Babel” has not been sufficiently recognized. In Tokyo last month on a trip to promote the film, he spoke to The Japan Times and applauded her performance.

“One of the best things about working on ‘Babel’ was that I was able to discover and work with Rinko. I didn’t mind that we didn’t win an Oscar for the film. An award is an award, and everyone forgets about it in a week or a month, whereas the film . . . is forever. What I did mind was that Rinko didn’t get the Oscar. To me, that was criminal.”

What made him shape the character of Chieko that propelled Kikuchi to fame? “I needed someone who couldn’t speak, at all. Who really represented the difficulty of communication and of being understood.” This is something a non-English speaker experiences in varying degrees “all the time and every day” in an English-speaking world, Gonzalez Inarritu says. Over the years, he himself has had many unpleasant incidents when crossing the Mexican border into the United States. “Not that this is an anti-American film, far from it. It’s not a political story but a story of personal relationships, especially those in the family.”

Consequently, Gonzalez Inarritu has dedicated the film to his children, from whom he professes “to get the most inspiration, in everything from work to life.” Accordingly, in “Babel” mothers are a presence felt but rarely seen, and it’s the fathers who struggle to connect with their offspring.

“I think I wanted to say that in the industrialized world, men rarely get to interact with their children, mainly because the social system has developed in a way that they just can’t, even if they wanted to. Not that this situation is very different in places like Morocco, as you can well see . . . in many ways it’s more difficult for men to be parents. I feel like being a good father is the hardest thing of all, more than being a good husband, or a partner, and much, much more than being good at one’s job.”

Despite the accolades that have flooded in since the making of “Babel,” Gonzalez Inarritu says he plans to depart from the particular structure of this story, and that of his previous film, “21 Grams” (i.e., tying seemingly random events and characters in a way that shows them, in the end, to be fatefully and often tragically connected). “I think I’ve done enough experimenting with this method, and I’m ready to try something different,” he says. “(But) I still believe that the actions of one person may have repercussions on someone else, in a totally unexpected way. I do believe lives are connected like that, though these connections have to be unearthed, and then recognized.”

For Gonzalez Inarritu, that recognition is one of the pillars that support his filmmaking. “I know that ‘Babel’ is often viewed as an angry film, one dealing with despair. And it’s true, there’s a lot of negative emotion in there, primarily because the characters can’t commun- icate with each other. Contrary to what is being said, though, I wanted to stress the similarities between people, instead of the differences. I wanted to show that, in spite of different cultures and languages and the distance that divides us, humans are basically the same.”

See related story:
Communication is the key that links us all

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