Meet Mako Mori: “Pacific Rim” Sets a New Bar For Action Heroines
Alex Henderson | On 29, Oct 2013
When you think feminism, the first image that comes to mind is probably not giant robots (though giant robots would be an excellent vehicle for crushing the patriarchy. And everything else their pilots accidentally stepped on, so give that a lot of thought and engineering before you try it out, please).
Pacific Rim is a movie about just that, giant human-piloted robots (called “Jaegers,” if you see me bandying around that word) beating up giant aliens that come out of an interdimensional rip under the sea and are in the general business of wrecking the planet’s most iconic coastal cities for their own gain. That may not jump out to you as the synopsis of a very thoughtful or meaningful movie, but you may just be pleasantly surprised. There are many good factors about this film (apart from its deliciously fun world building, portrayal of a hopeful future where mankind saves the earth instead of destroying it, a truly multicultural effort toward saving the world, genuinely likeable protagonists and oh my god giant robots punching giant aliens, guys), which have all contributed to the snowball growth of its enormous and enthusiastic fan following. But one of my utterly favourite things about this is that it’s an action movie with a great female lead.
Of course, Pacific Rim still has its issues, for example its failure of the Bechdel Test, a hugely skewed ratio of female characters to male, and one possibly racist Jaeger name. But as summer blockbusters containing lots of explosions, it had genuinely well-played aspects from the view of the ever-scrutinous pop culture feminist. Really, it all comes down to the solid wonder of the character of Mako Mori.
We are introduced to the world of Pacific Rim through the eyes of Raleigh Becket, a very traditional candidate for the role of the hero. Though as the movie progresses, we see that the spotlight is not shone entirely on him, but shared equally, if not skewed moreso toward, Mako. In a cinematic world where it’s still rare to have female protagonists (and non-white ones, at that!) this is worth note on its own, though it really shouldn’t be and that’s kind of sad. I digress. Mako does not just fill the space alongside the hero, but she shines in it.
Her story arc is a traditionally male one (naturally, it can be and has been applied to women characters before, but is a traditionally male one): that of the helpless child raised by a mentor that gives them the tools to fight and get revenge against the force that took their family away. She’s like a tiny cute Japanese Batman, without the nasty side-effects that a revenge orientated plot threatens to bring on, like being turned into a mad villainous “bitch” or stoic ice queen incapable of affection or empathy due to her dark past. She also doesn’t grow up to be expressly “one of the boys” and throw away her connection to her feminine side, even if her beloved saviour, mentor and adoptive parent was a man.
On the contrary, Mako is nothing short of adorable. She balances traditionally feminine traits with her heroic skills, showing that acting like a girl does in any way hinder her ability to be a badass. The front of her hair is dyed blue, so immediately it’s evident she takes pride in her appearance. She likes cute animals, openly showing her affection for another team’s mascot dog, and she ogles Raleigh when she spies him shirtless. She is not shamed for this at any point throughout the movie, nor is she sexualised or preyed on by the characters, writers or cinematography (blissfully, she did not feel like a cute badass Japanese girl cut-out inserted for the gaze of drooling mecha fans).
Nor do any of her traditionally girly traits impede her when she strides into battle in a giant robot and slices an alien monster in half with a sword. And these are all combined somewhat believably, rather than writers jamming a gun into the slender hands of a sexy female sidekick because they felt a bit awkward having the eye candy just stand there looking pretty.
She also proves physically equal with Raleigh in a sparring match, which is greatly satisfying to see. Often when writers go down the “badass chick” route, they feel the need to have their leading lady absolutely wipe the floor with a room full of bumbling minions for emphasis, and the only people who will dare hit back are the villains to show how villainous they are. The entire point of the Drift exercise is that Mako and Raleigh are equals, both physically and mentally. With, of course, a little bit of teasing at his lack of skills on her part, which is all part of their friendly banter, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Mako is not perfect, of course, and needs to be rescued and protected occasionally. Yet she is not reduced to a damsel in the process. When she first Drifts, she gets stuck in a powerful childhood memory which reveals her backstory (and, some argue, reveals that her motivations stem from the mind of a frightened hero-worshipping little girl. Thoughts?) She’s also jettisoned out of the final battle in an escape pod by Raleigh, though that was after she did most of the work toward saving the day. Stacker, her guardian and the leader of the Jaeger program belting out authority in Idris Elba’s magnificent voice, is reluctant to let her go into battle because he thinks of her as his own family. But never once, I would like to point out, are her skills trivialised or the fact that she is a girl brought up when his refusal to let her fight comes up in conversation.
Though the Jaeger teams and supporting crew are predominantly male (as I suppose is justified, as it is a military sector and that is a mostly male field, but there are also giant monsters coming out of the sea, so), there are other women around, both as pilots and less physically strong figures. Especially in the prequel comic Tales From Year Zero, where we meet Stacker’s pilot sister, ex-Drift partner and the scientist who developed the Drift and essentially created the technology that enables the entire Jaeger program and subsequent world-saving. All individuals and all ladies! That’s merely the tip of the iceberg too, with creator Travis Beacham happily hinting to fans that there were all kinds of pilot teams across the spectrum of gender, race, sexuality and relationships. Perhaps we’ll see more in supplementary material. But back to Mako.
The most important factor to me was that while there’s obvious chemistry between Mako and Raleigh, there isn’t any attempt to shove a love story down the audience’s throat or jimmy her into the love interest role. At the very end, you may just be expecting a big damn kiss, but instead the two partners just hug and bump foreheads in a genuine and sweet gesture of being glad to see the other alive, no romantic strings attached.
Naturally, you can ship the two to the moon and back if you wish it, or you can just sit back and enjoy a relationship (be it platonic or romantic, it’s all down to interpretation) based on mutual trust and admiration that doesn’t slot the female lead into any kind of simpering love interest sidekick role and doesn’t devalue or dismiss the concept of friendship, especially between the opposite sexes. It was beautiful.
Mako Mori is flawed, she is talented, she is smart, she is emotional and not afraid to show it. She is a hero, both within the movie universe and to girls and pop culture enthusiasts everywhere. Pacific Rim has its flaws still, but within all its alien-clobbering fun it holds a powerful and well-rounded female protagonist and proof that yes, shock and horror, you can have one of those in an action movie and not scare away fans.
We need more Mako Moris on the screen: likeable, multi-dimensional ladies kicking ass for their own motivations, making friends with men and women based on compatible personalities and saving the day side by side with no one gawking at them for doing it while being a girl. Maybe one day soon we can have more than one in a movie, and they’ll save the world together or maybe just chat. Either way, it’s a start, and it’s a little beacon of hope that maybe an entire gender being doomed to two-dimensional sidekicks and love interests within the action/sci-fi genre is an apocalypse we can still cancel.
Written by Alex Henderson