Monday, April 2, 2007

"Babel" and Japanese Sign Language

The Problems of Visually Representing Visual Communication...

I sat screaming at the TV, reacting to the inaccuracies of the sign language used by poorly trained hearing actors. "Relax," my significant other told me, "it's only TV..."

I finally had the opportunity to view the film "Babel" (2006) directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Colleagues and students have been asking me about the film for months as one of the main characters in the film is a young Japanese deaf woman (played by Rinko Kikuchi who was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the Oscars). For info on the film, click the following link:

Info on the film "Babel" on Rotten Tomatoes

My interest in the film is the use of Japanese Sign Language and how deaf people are portrayed. There have been several problematic yet popular TV dramas in Japan with deaf protagonists:

Ai shite iru to itte kure (Say You Love Me, 1995 TBS network)
Kimi no te ga sasa yaiteru (Your Hand is Whispering, 1997 - 2001 TV Asahi network)
Hoshi no kinka (Heavens Coins, 1995 - 1996, 2000 NTV network)
Orange Days
(2004 TBS network)

The sign language use in these dramas is horrible most of the time. Hearing actors play deaf characters, and despite claims that actors were coached and taught by deaf teachers, the sign language use is rarely smooth or natural. Signed Japanese (manual signs following spoken Japanese grammar rules) is used rather than Japanese Sign Language (the natural language of the deaf with its own grammar rules differing from spoken Japanese). Very rarely are deaf actors used even in small supporting roles. Even more frustrating is the way that deaf people are portrayed in these dramas. True, these are TV dramas we are talking about, fiction to be sure with the goal of entertaining not educating, but is there no room for any accurate portrayals? These dramas are certainly not the source of information about deaf culture in Japan, and I won't go into much detail here on the many mistakes that were made. But one common mistake is the portrayal of deaf people being able to read lips and perfectly understand everything that is going on around them in the hearing world. I have found that most deaf people have difficulties with lipreading in a conversation with a single individual, let alone in complex social interactions involving multiple people. In the TV dramas such communication problems are minimized, "overcome" or ignored; sometimes deaf protagonists are able to lipread across great distances, in the dark and even around corners.

So I have been very curious about "Babel."

Although I have viewed "Babel" only once, I found the sign language use to be adequate (which can be considered a compliment...). What is impressive is the way that young peoples' sign language is used. The sign language of the hearing father (closer to Signed Japanese) is very different than his deaf daughter's and that of her deaf friends. I admit to not being able to capture/understand every sign used by young people in the film. But I have trouble with the sign language of young deaf people in real life. My experience is with mature adults and even elderly deaf. Deaf children and teenagers are sometime difficult to understand. Of course this is true for the spoken Japanese of hearing young people as well... A sad admission of my accelerating age... I can say that I found the sign language use of the film between deaf people to be satisfactory.

However, the film makes the same unfortunate mistake that Japanese TV dramas make, that is the assumption that deaf people can perfectly read lips and understand everything said to them. Granted, in the film deaf characters repeatedly ask hearing people to speak slowly and clearly. But even so, such a perfect understanding as portrayed in the film is not realistic.

A similar problem dealing with "deaf representation" is happening in my university's sign language study group. Every week we are joined by a deaf woman from Osaka. This woman was raised in a hearing world and didn't start to learn sign language until she was in her 20s. She loves studying languages and communicating with foreigners. In addition to spoken Japanese and Japanese Sign Language, she is conversational in American Sign Language and spoken English. She is very good at lipreading (in a one-to-one situation; it becomes difficult for her with multiple speakers) and vocalizing. In this respect she is hardly a representative deaf person in Japan (and of course any individual cannot be held as a representative of her entire culture).

At the beginning of the semester I had to interpret conversations between her and students. However, she began to speak with students on her own. At one point a student said to me: "Sensei, we don't need you to interpret in sign language - we can speak in Japanese and English!" This is extremely problematic in a sign language study group that also endeavors to expose students to deaf culture.

This is not to say that my deaf friend is not a part of deaf culture. She has every right to participate in the group. And she has every right to communicate in whatever language she wants to. (It's a nice arrangement for students to be exposed to her sign language and for her to have opportunity to practice English.) Deaf culture is as diverse as hearing culture. However this understanding is difficult for people immersed in a hearing hegemonic world that views deafness as a deficit. This understanding is difficult for individuals without much experience interacting with deaf people.

You might be saying that I have critiqued "Babel" yet supplied a real life experience that matches the film. This is not the case. The communication styles of the deaf protagonist and my deaf friend are completely different. The deaf protagonist is usually silent, only occasionally attempting to speak. My deaf friend, because of her upbringing and relative late exposure to deaf culture, seems to prefer to vocalize, at least with hearing people.

To support my critique of the film, check out the following link:

"Babel" sans subtitles despite deaf theme: Film a disappointment to hearing impaired
Variety International (March 6, 2007)

Deaf people were consulted and even appeared in "Babel." Yet when it came down to making decisions about supplying captions or subtitles, the deaf were ignored. As in the film, perhaps the filmmakers thought that the Japanese deaf would be able to lipread the spoken Japanese dialogue. But this was not the case, and as a result deaf people found the movie to be confusing and boring.

"Babel" comes close, but not close enough. Too bad...

As for the overall film itself, I found it disturbing and confusing. What was the point of the film? Was it a critique of the misguided politics of the USA in the Islamic world abroad and at its own boarders? Why was Japan included in this film? Does it suggest that Japan is a passive supporter of US policies? Is the inclusion of Japan an example of orientalism? As orientalism we would expect to see a sexually frustrated Japanese woman throwing herself at men and eventually appearing naked.

What do you think? As always, comments always welcome and appreciated.

Yes, I know this post is way too long and not very visually stimulating. You can't always take the academic out of this blog...


Anonymous said...

In the drama "Summer Snow", Oguri Shun plays a teenager who is hard of hearing.

Codex715 said...

Interesting post. Babel is one of my favourite movies. I find that the deaf culture are very interesting.