Babel and Planetes: Listen, and Speak Love (愛)
August 21, 2009
Once upon a time, men built The Tower of Babel in their own arrogance and conceit, aiming to reach the height of heavens. In turn, God punished men by confounding their language. They couldn’t understand each other because they spoke different tongues, so they scattered across the globe, Tower of Babel forever incomplete.
Inarritu’s film Babel is based on this simple premise of people’s inability to understand each other. American tourists can’t communicate with Arabs, Mexicans with American policemen, and mutes with normal people. But the language that Babel is interested in is not American or Arab. It’s the language of human nature. Language of selfishness. Language of arrogance. Language of impudence. Language of desperation. We are speaking all these different languages and that is precisely why we are divided by misunderstanding and hatred. When even American tourists speaking the same language can not solve anything, because they speak only of their own interests and refuse to listen to each other’s situations, how can you hope to achieve peace and unity? God has not made different tongues to punish us. God has created greed, jealousy, rage and desperation.
And yet, the movie gives us a faint light of hope amidst the darkness, from the Japanese policeman who listened to the mute’s cry of loneliness, and the Arab who listened to the American tourist’s plea. They didn’t listen to words. They listened to other people’s heart. And they spoke back with a language of love and understanding.
This theme of division between people due to lack of understanding is also the core message of Planetes. Although the series starts off in an episodic format with ‘slice of life’ stories about garbage men in space, the plot takes a more grim and serious turn, as those who believes in the importance of space exploration collide with those who wants more resources to be spent in helping poorer countries. At macroscopic scale, there is the Space Defense Force, representing the part of us that pushes forward and breaking new frontiers. Then there is the Terrorists, who aren’t happy with the richer countries monopolising space resources while the poorer ones are left behind.
And at microscopic scale, Hachi’s struggle with Hakim represents that conflict between those who wants the humanity to progress, and those who wants the humanity to look behind. But who can say which side is right? It is true that Hachi was blinded by his goal, and jettisoned his friends, families and lover, and refused to listen to anything Tanabe had to say. But without making any sacrifices and taking those forward steps that left his loved ones behind, would it have been possible for him to attain his goal? Most likely, his dream spaceship would exist only in that picture he drew, and never being materialised in life. So what is the solution?
The obvious solution seems to be finding the appropriate balance. Unfortunately, it is hard to find the balance that both sides can agree with. Everyone speaks of their own interests, aren’t willing to listen to other voices of desperation, and end up shouting only hatred and violence. Although there is no God to punish men in Babel, people have imposed powers to imitate god. And the ones being punished are always the weak and helpless, which is pretty much what the Space Defense Force are doing in Planetes. Consequently, the Terrorists resort to violence to let their voice be heard. One has to wonder though if terrorism will really force people to sympathetise with their plea and not incur further hatred and misunderstanding.
But there is hope, just as we found hope in Babel when the characters listened to each other. When Hachimaki ran too fast and too far without looking back and found himself drowning in loneliness and despair, he found something as he reached out his hand. He realised that the space he was looking at was small. Everyone is connected to each other, we depend on each other. And the thing that connecting it all was understanding and love (ai 愛).
It may sound incredibly cheesy, but watching something like Babel makes one feel like love really is the answer to all our problems. (whether it’s political or ethnic dispute, lover’s quarrel, or even between anime industry and fansub community). And watching Planetes takes you on a journey to a whole new view, a beautifully grand view of earth from space. In episode 11, a scientist from El Tanika (a third world country divided by civil war) looked at the earth and shed his tears. “All we can see is earth, and even when you can’t see any borders from here…”. Perhaps more people need to look at earth from the above, because the truth is we are all connected together, and the only universal language that connects us together is love.