Babel – Chieko’s Journey: A Disabled Individual’s Analysis of Film’s Most Truthful Portrayal of the Disabled

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When you look at these images, what do you see?  Hope?  Motivation?  Inspiration?

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Let me tell you what I see.  I see a child playing a sport, a woman taking in a view with her arms outstretched and two shamelessly exploitative messages.  In the disabled community, we have a term for images like these: inspiration porn.  The meaning of inspiration porn, a term coined by Stella Young, is quite simple.  Pornography, as it pertains to sex, promotes the objectification of men and women as sex objects.  With inspiration porn, the disabled are objectified for the purpose of inspiring the non-disabled.  The creators of these types of images want you to say, “Well if that boy in the wheelchair can do it, I can do it too!”  Or, “If that blind guy can lead a happy, productive life, no obstacle should be too much for me!”  This concept only hinders the efforts made by our community to be recognized simply for what we are: human beings, not objects for inspiration.

Inspiration porn also pervades the film industry.  Many portrayals of people with physical and/or mental disabilities in film, however good the intentions of the filmmakers might be, leave something to be desired.  Disabled characters are often relegated to inspirational roles or are simply used to elicit sympathy.

“We’re not the ones been teachin’ Radio…Radio’s the one been teachin’ us.”  Gee, thanks Ed Harris.

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This, to my mind, is the most egregious problem: choosing to focus on eliciting sympathy rather than empathy.  More often than not, disabled characters are not multilayered.  If they are developed only to the point of being tools for inspiration or sympathy, then how can we expect viewers to truly understand them?

Film is certainly not devoid of strong portrayals of the disabled.  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Intouchables spring to mind.  But out of all the disability-related content I have seen, one film stands out for containing the most honest depiction of disability.

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Babel, a 2006 film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, features four interwoven narratives: one in United States/Mexico, two in Morocco and one in Japan.  The primary character of the Japan segment is a deaf teen named Chieko.  Chieko appears in less than half of the film, yet she left a stronger impression on me than any disabled character in film history.

Chieko and I do not share the same disability.  I have a congenital visual disorder called Achromatopsia, a condition that affects about one in every 33,000 people in the United States.  From what I understand, I have an incomplete form of the disorder, resulting in severe nearsightedness (to the point that I am considered legally blind), red-green color blindness and nystagmus.  Taking all of this into account, you might ask why I chose Chieko over a visually disabled character.  By taking an in-depth look at her emotional journey over the course of the film, my reasoning will become readily apparent in time.

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Chieko is first seen playing volleyball in what is, presumably, a school for the deaf.  Within five minutes of her first appearance in the film, we get a clear sense of the feelings dominating her psyche: frustration, isolation and loneliness.  The referee makes a call that she does not approve of, prompting her to exclaim, “I’m deaf, not blind!”  This confrontation results in some of her teammates blaming her for causing them to lose the game.

During this locker room conversation with her teammates, the first hint of Chieko’s desire for intimacy is revealed.  One of the girls asks her why she is in such a bad mood, to which another girl replies, “She’s always in a bad mood because nobody’s fucked her yet.”  Throughout the Japan segment, it is evident that Chieko is starving for a genuine connection with someone.  Her teammate equates this to a desire for sex, but I think it is much deeper than that.  Later scenes will indeed show Chieko trying to achieve a connection via sexual means, but her lack of sexual experience is not the crux of her struggles.

Later while in the car with her father, Yasujiro, Chieko further displays a sense of distance.  Yasujiro asks where they should have lunch, a question Chieko answers by reminding him that she already said she was going to meet her friends for lunch.  “You never pay attention to me,” she says, adding, “My mother always paid attention to me.”  It is later revealed that Chieko’s mother committed suicide, a tragic event that likely compounded her feelings of loneliness and caused the disconnect between her and her father.  Yasujiro says goodbye to Chieko as she exits the car, a courtesy which she does not return.

At the cafe where she meets her teammates, Chieko struggles to communicate with the waitress who asks, “Do you have a table?”  She sees the table where her friends are sitting, awkwardly points in that direction and rushes over.  Her nervous demeanor instantly changes as she meets her friends.  In a way, they act as a source of security for her, a group where she need not fear being misunderstood.

The subsequent scene is the first of three critical scenes for examining Chieko’s emotional arc.  She and her friends spot a group of boys sitting at another table, one of whom Chieko takes a liking to.  Chieko and her best friend, Mitsu, go to play an arcade game.  The boy who Chieko likes approaches them, attempting to start a conversation.  Chieko signs to Mitsu, who can speak a little, and asks her to tell the boy to speak slower so that she can understand him.  Upon realizing that the girls are deaf, the boy walks back to his friends’ table and says, “You assholes.  How embarrassing.”  Chieko, who had been excited at the prospect of connecting with a boy she likes, realizes that she and Mitsu were merely sources of amusement for the teens.

“They look at us like we’re monsters.”

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This is a beautifully handled sequence.  Rinko Kikuchi, the actress portraying Chieko, does such an admirable job conveying how emotionally gutted one would feel after an exchange like this. Mitsu is able to shrug off the encounter, but it cuts deep for Chieko.  She attempts to release her pent-up emotions via the only option she feels is available to her.  Removing her panties in the bathroom, she walks back to her table, sits down and proceeds to flash the boys who made fun of her.  The first in a handful of provocative outbursts, Chieko’s willingness to put herself in such a revealing state is alarming.

Chieko leaves her friends and heads out for a dentist appointment.  While in the waiting area, she watches people casually converse and notices a child listening to music or playing a game.  This scene is one of two instances where González Iñárritu wisely chose to remove the sound from the film.  While it would seem like the obvious way to put the viewer in Chieko’s shoes, its impact could not be more powerful.  Again, the fact that the technique is used sparingly makes its two occurrences memorable.

The appointment does not go well.  Chieko, desperate to make any connection beyond mere pleasantries, attempts to seduce her dentist.  Shocked, the man forces Chieko to leave immediately.  Her expression at the end of this scene is heartrending.  Chieko has, once again, been cast aside, with no attempt made by the man to understand why she is acting the way she is.

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Right as she is about to head up to her family high-rise apartment, two detectives, Hamano and Kenji Mamiya, approach her.  They ask if they could see her father, wanting to ask him a few questions.  Mamiya, a fairly young detective, gives Chieko his card and asks her to call him when her father is available.

After spending some time alone in her apartment, Chieko meets up with Mitsu and one of her other teammates in a park.  The other girl has brought her non-deaf cousins along.  One of them, Haruki, catches Chieko’s eye.  The boys convince the girls to drink whiskey and take ecstasy, causing their night to transpire in a haze.  This is the best scene in the film and, to my mind, one of the most profound scenes I have ever witnessed.  I have included the sequence in its entirety below.  Watch it, as I will reference this part frequently throughout the rest of this analysis.

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The second of three critical scenes in Chieko’s emotional arc, this six-minute sequence conveys so much with a very minimal amount of dialogue.  It almost feels as if this could be Chieko’s moment.  She looks visibly elated during the first half of this clip.  Granted, this is probably partially due to the ecstasy, but she does seem genuinely pleased at having the chance to socialize with boys.  Maybe she will finally overcome the feelings that have shackled her life.

This state of euphoria comes to a grinding halt as soon as she enters the nightclub.  Now, it appears to be unclear whether or not Chieko knew she would be going clubbing.  But given her look of unease upon entering the club, I would say she was not fully aware.  If that is the case, it seems somewhat inconsiderate of the non-deaf boys to not have asked if she was cool with it beforehand.

González Iñárritu uses the absence of sound technique to devastating effect here.  Moments of exuberant youths dancing to a remix of Earth, Wind, & Fire’s timeless classic “September” are sharply juxtaposed with moments of pure silence, aiding the viewer in their understanding of Chieko’s experience.  Watching her try her best to have fun is an immensely soulful sight.  When Mitsu begins to make out with Haruki, it breaks her.  Yet again, she has been rejected and, probably from her point of view, betrayed by her best friend.

As she leaves the club and walks around the streets of Tokyo, an inescapable sense of loneliness pervades each frame of the film.  The silence continues, as Chieko looks around and sees people happily chatting and street bands rocking out.  Witnessing these sights only compounds her insecurity, and she walks back to her apartment feeling utterly alone.

In the last critical scene, Chieko makes one final attempt at connecting with another.  She invites the young detective over to her apartment so that they can discuss her father.  She assumes the detectives wanted to speak with her father about her mother’s suicide, as many policemen had come previously to question him.  She explains to Mamiya that she saw her mother commit suicide by jumping off the balcony, and that her father was not involved in any way.  Taken aback, Mamiya explains that he and Detective Hamano were actually inquiring about a hunting trip her father made in Morocco, as a gun he owned was used in a shooting.  Now knowing that there is no information to be gained from talking to Chieko, the detective prepares to take his leave.  Desperate, Chieko tells the detective to wait, and exits the room.

A few minutes later, she returns fully nude and attempts to seduce Mamiya.  The detective rejects her advances, causing Chieko to break down into tears.  However, unlike the dentist, Mamiya does not push her away and attempts to console her.  After having taken some time to calm down, Chieko writes Mamiya a long note, a note whose contents are never revealed to the viewer.

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Mamiya runs into Chieko’s father upon exiting the lobby area.  Yasujiro answers the detective’s questions related to the Morocco incident.  Satisfied, Mamiya offers his condolences to Yasujiro, explaining how Chieko told him about her mother’s suicide from the balcony.  Yasujiro, puzzled by the comment, explains, “My wife shot herself in the head.  Chieko was the first to find the body.  I’ve explained this to the police many times.”  Mamiya leaves as Yasujiro heads up to the apartment.

He later finds Chieko standing nude out on the balcony.  Shocked, Yasujiro approaches Chieko.  After a brief pause, Chieko begins to cry, and the two embrace one another.  The film ends.

What makes Chieko’s journey special?  What is it about this portrayal of disability that resonated with me on a level that has yet to be matched?  I mentioned earlier how many films about the disabled unfortunately focus more on eliciting sympathy rather than empathy.  This, however, is not the case with Babel, a film that excels at the latter and avoids the former.  As a disabled individual, I sincerely empathize with Chieko’s struggle.  We may not share the same disability, but I think I can understand what she is going through.  I was around her age when I went through those same feelings of isolation, frustration and loneliness.  I remember how much I envied my friends as they got their licenses and first cars, free to travel where they pleased while I felt confined.  I remember the shitty feeling of having to take a mandatory driver’s ed class, knowing that I would likely never be able to drive.  I remember being told to walk the track, play by myself or simply to just sit and watch in gym class while other students played sports I would never be able to effectively participate in.  I remember the looks of pity I received as a result of this, unwarranted and unasked for.  At that time, I had never felt more alone.

But I overcame, just as Chieko did.  It is remarkably easy to become engulfed in despair, feeling as though there is no one left to lean on when, in reality, there probably is.  Chieko comes to this realization towards the end of the film.  A detective who she barely knows takes the time to sit with her in her time of need, offering as much comfort as he can.  A distant father begins to realize how much his daughter is suffering, and embraces her.  Chieko’s journey is, overall, one of positivity.  While she struggles a great deal over the course of the film, this ending implies that she realizes she is not alone in the world.

You do not have to be deaf like Chieko.  You do not have to be legally blind like me.  You do not have to have any disability whatsoever in order to be able to empathize with this character.  Why?  Because you have been there yourself.  You may not have experienced isolation, frustration and loneliness the same way Chieko or I have, but at some point in your life you have felt their sting.  These feelings are universal, and that is something Babel does a superb job at conveying.

In an interview for The Japan Times, González Iñárritu said something that struck a chord with me.  He said that what he wanted to do with Babel was “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.”  We all struggle, and that is something that unites us.  The film’s tagline is, “If you want to be understood…listen.” Effective communication involves reciprocity. You must have a willingness to hear others if you want to be heard.  Hear the voices of people like Chieko and I.  Do not look at us solely as a source for inspiration.  Do not pity us.  But, most importantly, do not forget us.

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Want to check out Babel?  The film is currently available to stream on Netflix.  It is also currently available to rent on Amazon and other streaming services.  


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