Friday, November 21, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Mako Mori (Pacific Rim)

I freaking love Mako Mori, okay guys? I just feel like I should get that out there. I am not now, nor have I ever been, even close to being objective on the subject of Pacific Rim. I've written about how the movie just makes me happy on a simple and pleasing entertainment level, how it works as a denunciation of capitalism, and why Raleigh Becket is the movie girlfriend I always wanted. But up until now I've never talked directly about Mako Mori and why she is the heroine I've been waiting for, and how much I stinking love her.

Well, clearly that ends today.

For those of you who haven't bothered to click those links up there, and who didn't see any of my previous raving on the topic, Pacific Rim is an action movie that came out in 2013 and just so happens to be one of my all time favorite films. It's set in the not particularly distant future, when giant aliens from another dimension or galaxy or something, called Kaiju, have started to spill out of the Pacific Ocean and are attacking cities.

Because this is a great movie, the human race's first response is to band together and build gigantic, city-sized robots, called Jaegers, to fight the Kaiju. The Jaegers require two pilots, because they're so big, and these pilots are neurally linked to the Jaeger and each other in a process called "the Drift". The pilots use the Jaeger to kill the Kaiju, and everyone stays safe.

Except our story takes place about fifteen years into the war, where the Kaiju are coming through faster than ever, and the governments of the world have lost confidence in the Jaeger program. They're defunding it, just in time for the world to be destroyed. So Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who is in charge of the Jaeger program and one of its most decorated veterans, comes up with a brilliant and suicidal plan. Why not just wait for the breach - the opening between our world and the Kaiju's - to open, and then have a Jaeger jump through carrying a giant nuclear bomb to destroy their home world.

It's insane and terrifying and a little stupid, and it's the plot of the movie. Now, at the beginning of the film it looks for a hot minute like the main character is going to be Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), an all-American boy who used to be the poster-child for the Jaeger program, until an accident in a fight lost him his brother and his sense of confidence. Pentecost digs him up five years later and convinces him to be their newest Jaeger pilot, and to help with his crazy plan.

But Raleigh isn't really the main character. He's the central character, definitely, and we see the film through his eyes, but he is not the hero. The hero of the movie turns out to be Raleigh's new co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Mako is not only the hero of the story, but the one with the tragic backstory that must be emotionally healed, the compelling take on the situation, and the one who has the most to lose in this fight. 

Now, it's revolutionary in and of itself for a movie like Pacific Rim to make a woman its central hero, let alone for her to be a non-sexualized woman of color. The film takes great pains even to show that Mako is a full and developed character, and goes to a lot of effort to make sure she's never shown in less clothing than any of the male characters, or subjected to the male gaze.* Moreover, Mako is the one who bears the brunt of emotional arc in the film. She is the one who must exorcise her internal demons by fighting very literal ones.

Her backstory is distinctive only in the fact that she is the hero. It's a pretty standard background for a character in this type of movie, and the sort of thing you can totally imagine the writers giving to Raleigh or even some side love interest character. She was a happy child growing up in Japan when the Kaiju came and attacked her city. Her family was killed and she was injured, but she managed to get away. The Kaiju was incredibly close to killing her when there was a big explosion, and as the dust settled, baby Mako could see that her savior was none other than Stacker Pentecost, Jaeger pilot. In that moment she vowed to become a Jaeger pilot herself and destroy the Kaiju to get vengeance for her family.

She was literally raised in the Jaeger program, adopted by Pentecost and trained to be a Jaeger pilot. She also gained degrees in engineering and was head of the team that restored their remaining Jaegers. In other words, Mako is a high ranking officer, brilliant, a technical genius, and one of the best potential Jaeger pilots in the world. Her one weakness is her anger, her rage at what happened to her family. Because of this, and because he can't bear the thought of losing her, Pentecost refuses for a lot of the film to let Mako go out and fight.

That's a lot of backstory I just dumped on you there, but I want you to take a minute and sift through it, then tell me if that sounds like the backstory of the hero. It does, right? But we're so not used to the hero being a woman of color, and we're really not used to the hero being non-American. It's great. Honestly, it's just plain great. Mako Mori is everything we're taught not to expect from a central hero, and she's pretty much perfect.

Because not only is her emotional arc indisputably the center of the film, the story also validates her choices. She wants to be a pilot because she knows she can do it. And she's right. She's the best dang pilot anyone has ever seen. She wants to be the one to go fight this Kaiju? Turns out that, yeah, she's the only one that can kill it. Mako is pretty much always right, and she's not afraid to make herself known. She's not afraid to call it like she sees it, all while being incredibly kind and respectful.

Heck, the movie makes it very clear that Mako and Pentecost have a relationship that is built not on obedience but trust and respect. Even when she considers going against his wishes, Mako understands and honors what Pentecost has done for her. She completely subverts the expectation that the emotionally damaged hero in an action movie has to be a loud, abrasive, rule-breaking white guy. She's none of those things, and she's still damn heroic.

Now, the movie does get a little bit of flack sometimes for having Mako not be the one in the end to pull the trigger. Instead, Mako's oxygen is damaged and she's jettisoned to the surface while Raleigh detonates the bomb and barely survives. They say that this indicates that Raleigh was the hero of the film all along. But I disagree with that. I think that while what Raleigh does is heroic, it doesn't negate Mako's heroism earlier. And I think that there's something very powerful and important in the fact that the movie establishes Mako as the character who is definitely going to survive. Because Mako has to survive. She's the hero, and she's the one who's going to rebuild the world.

Raleigh even acknowledges it himself, by saying, "All I have to do is fall. Anyone can fall." He knows that the hard part is over, and all that's left is to literally fall - the Jaeger has a failsafe program where if he slumps back in his harness it will jettison him in an escape pod. So when he says all he has to do is fall, he's right.

In this story, Mako is the one who sacrifices, changes, fights, and ultimately gets her emotional resolution. She's the dang hero, and it's so refreshing.

It's even more refreshing that the film adamantly refuses to include a love story. Or, well, that's not right. It does include a love story, several of them, but none that are unambiguously romantic. The story between Mako and Pentecost is clearly a love story, and it's one of deep familial love and respect. The story between Mako and Raleigh is a love story, and it's one of friendship and kinship and possibly romance, but never explicitly. I like that. How often can you say that? How often do you get to see a movie where the man and woman don't kiss at the end?

I guess, if I had to sum it up, the core of why I love Mako so much is because she's an embodiment of everything we're told not to think of as heroic. She's a physically small, soft-spoken, Asian woman. And yet, she's the one who saves us all. She sends the message that it doesn't matter what you look like or what demographic you fit, you are capable of great and mighty things. She also sends the message that people will pay a lot of money to go see a movie with a predominantly non-white cast where the main character is a woman of color. 

I just can't get past that. I don't want to. I want to savor it.

*Interestingly, this film is one of the few really solid examples of the female gaze. There's a scene where Raleigh, who gets a lot more naked in this movie than Mako does, is changing shirts while Mako watches him through a pinhole in her door. Mako, meanwhile, is only ever shown in clothes that fit her position and situation, with the skimpiest outfit she ever wears being a properly fitting tank top in the dojo.


  1. I'm not ashamed to admit I have a massive lady-crush on Mako Moro. Raleigh too - I was bracing for him to be a massive jock but that guy never even appears - but Mako in particular.
    She's an Asian woman. And when we see her walk out to meet the helicopter she has her own theme! And she's in a leadership position! And she's wearing combat boots because she's in the frickin' military and who wears high heels in an action movie? Come ON!
    And then they have the training session and she's sure of her expertise! And she doesn't even try to block Raleigh! And then she beats him flat out! And he's okay with that because she's so clearly his co-pilot! And they don't sexually objectify her once! NOT EVEN ONCE! And her Jaeger outfit is just a smaller version of the male one because practicality over sex appeal! And even when Raleigh punches Chuck, if you look in the background you'll see Mako with her fists up. She's got too much self-control to start the fight, but if Raleigh gets in trouble she's ready to jump right in there!
    And the fact that any romance is implied I LOVE. And HOW does their relationship develop? Do they hate each other on sight, or engage in spurious flirting? Nope, they have lunch together and talk about their feelings! (Damnit, Raleigh's response to all problems is "Can we TALK about this?" He is, as you said, an actual Disney prince)
    The combination of Mako and Raleigh works so well. Mako gives Raleigh someone to connect with and root for, who is honest with him and values him, and that brings him back out of his shell and restores his confidence. His softer approach tempers her frustrations and his support helps focus her drive and passion.

    1. Air high five for having a lady crush on Mako Mori! There is no shame in this!

      And yeah, it's weird because it seems so natural and normal that Mako is treated as just another human being in this story (because it IS natural and normal), that it's easy to forget how incredibly not the case that is in pretty much everything else.

  2. This makes me want to rent this and watch it again. I admit, my first crush will always be on Idris Elba's face, but there is a lot to crush on in this flick.

    1. So much to love. I just really appreciate how every time I watch it I find something new to obsess over. That's a good sign.