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Back when there were just whispers of Babel sweeping the awards boards, Sally A. Edwards met Rinko Kikuchi to discover her particular set of skills and tried but failed to trade boots. Just look at those YSLs.

The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 2 Nø 9 print edition in 2008

Interview and Art Direction: Sally A. Edwards
Photography: Sarah J. Edwards
Styling: Polly Banks at Terri Manduca
Hair and Make-up: Carlos Ferraz at Carol Hayes using Givenchy and Bumble & Bumble for Windle.
Photographic Assistance: Kyrre Wangen

& Action! 
Rinko Kikuchi

Rinko Kikuchi is one cool lady, not only in style, but her ambition and willingness to work. Born in 1981 in Kanagawa, Japan, Rinko has over a dozen films to her name, the latest being the much lauded ‘Babel’ – her first American film – in which she plays deaf mute teenager, ‘Cheiko’ with great conviction.

She’s lounging on a huge sofa in a room at London’s Soho Hotel accompanied by her translator. Dressed all in black, designer platform boots, tight trousers, a short skirt, top and leather jacket. Her hair is dyed strawberry blond and contrasts her attire. She’s “tough, sexy” as her publicist puts it, and she’s also lots of fun.

‘Babel’ is one of the most talked about films of late, and rightly so. Based on four families divided by language and life, but connected through a chain of events, the film moves between Mexico, Morocco and Japan. Director, Alejandro González Iñárritu (‘Amores Perros’ and ’21 Grams’) used the Bible’s ‘Tower of Babel’ for inspiration.

Babel: n. 1. In the Bible, a famous tower built by a united humanity to reach toward heaven, causing God in his anger to make each person involved speak diffeent languages, halting the project and scattering a confused and disconnect people across the planet.

Alejandro González Iñárritu gathered the perfect cast for this. In Morocco Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are an American holidaying couple. Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Amelia (Adriana Barraza) are Nephew and Auntie, who are take care of Susan and Richards’ children and of course, in Japan is Chieko (Rinko).

The film is hard-hitting and emotional, especially the Japanese aspect in which Rinko steals the show. Her character, Cheiko as mentioned above is deaf-mute, she’s rebellious and craves love and attention. To add to the emotion, her father is wanted by the Tokyo police. Alejandro González Iñárritu drew inspiration from a collection of experiences; an erotic dream, a trip to Stockholm and an experience in Hakone, Japan. For Chieko he created a very strong individual which took him and his crew months to find the perfect actor for the role.

A year before filming began, the director was casting in Japan, where he met Rinko. He was drawn to her, but swayed from making a decision, as he wanted a deaf-mute actress for the role. Over the next nine months while Alejandro González Iñárritu was working on the Moroccan and Mexican aspects of the film, his Japanese casting director continued looking for ‘Cheiko’.

During this time, so passionate about getting the part, Rinko took the unusual step of researching and educating herself on the real life aspects of the character completely on her own accord, without notifying anybody and without the part confirmed as hers. She undertook sign language classes, in what she calls her “one year long audition”. Throughout this time she was working on other roles. “I lived together with deaf people in real life and I went to school together with them.” Some of whom she now considers great friends. “I also associated with teenagers because I had to play the role of a teenage girl. So I spent many hours with teenagers and deaf people. I learnt a lot of things from real life.

“A one year audition seems to be a very long period, but it’s good enough for me to create this character. Chieko’s sensitivities and also her identity are different from other people. So that was a wonderful experience for this role.” When Alejandro González Iñárritu returned to Japan and met Rinko again she won the part. He couldn’t believe her authenticity and her determination stunned him.

Determination seems to be general practise for Rinko, who inherently found acting to be her vocation. She grew up with two older brothers, “They were always noisy,” she recalls, smoking a cigarette. “My mother used to take care of them rather than me. So I started crying for no reason, and I did some naughty things because I needed my mother’s attention. So that means maybe, I started acting naturally in my life. Also, my parents love films, they were always watching them. Then I started to buy the films and so I learnt many things. For example, I learnt how beautiful it is to listen to music, what it’s like in a relationship, and what it’s like in other things and a lot of history of this world. I learnt everything through films. So I thought it’s a good idea if I get involved in the film world. I can learn more, I can find something. So that’s why I started becoming interested in acting.

“The wonderful thing is you know, creating a character. It’s a great process because you can live somebody else’s life through your character, but acting is very enjoyable and a wonderful experience for me.”

Given the mass appreciation of ‘Babel’, Rinko remains very down-to-earth, “That’s wonderful,” she says of the reactions. “Though, I don’t think any is not easy for me to play. For example, if you play a role in a comedy that’s also a very difficult thing, because it’s not really easy – none are easy. The good thing is outside of Japan I get to come [to London] and promote the film. It’s been wonderful getting to work with a non-Japanese film director. It’s a great experience, but the really good thing is I wanted to make a film that people would remember for all time. Those are the sort of films that I really want to do. Anyhow, the very good thing is, it’s such a nice reaction from people, but I’m very strict to myself. I don’t want to indulge myself. So I don’t want to be satisfied with myself all the time. So for my next role, I’ll try to make more effort, with more concentration and more passion.”

So who would Rinko really love to work with? “Of course, you know I have many, many, many people’s names in my list to work 

together with in the future. But I’m really thinking I want to do an action film because I’ve never done that in the past, and a fantasy film. So, I would love to work with Tim Burton Actors I really want to work with in the future? There are many, many, many names again, but I especially respect Sean Penn...a lot. So if I have the chance to work together with him it would be very, very, very much appreciated!” she smiles.

An action film would be very apt as Rinko is proficient with sword skills. “Well, yes I can do the sword technique very well,” she says modestly. “Also, I’m very good at Japanese Archery, bows and arrows. And also I’m good at horse riding. So in the future maybe I can do something with horse riding. If I could do it, that would be fantastic.” We’re sure Tim Burton would love that.

Rinko has wide taste in film too. Although she’s been very busy over the last year, “‘Babel’, Brokeback Mountain’ by Ang Lee and ‘L’Enfant’ by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardanne,” are the ones that really standout.

Outside of film there is of course music, “I love listening to many sorts of music. Before coming to London I was in New York and I loved David Bowie’s DVD which I couldn’t find at home, so I bought it. It’s a collection with lots of promotional videos on it. I also like, John Brion, who composed the music for ‘Eternal Sunshine...’”

To add to her world there is also modelling, which Rinko has as a separate career, “I love to wear fashion,” she says sighting, Balenciago, Tom Ford, Isabelle Huppert, the main actress in ‘La Pianiste’, Bruce Weber and of course, Gael Garcia Bernal as style icons.

Rinko wears: First outfit – her own. Second spread, Sequinned catsuit by Labour Of Love, Angora cardigan by Aimee McWilliams and her own boots. Third spread, black rabbit dress by Camilla Staerk.