Pacific Rim: An Ode to Mako Mori

Her expression screams VENGEANCE

Copyright: Warner Bros

Originally, I had just wanted to write a review of Pacific Rim (I’d give it a solid 4/5 stars if you were wondering), since I really enjoyed it and I feel like a lot of negative reviews didn’t really “get” the movie; if you’re criticizing a movie whose tagline is “Go Big or Go Extinct” for lacking subtlety, I think the problem is with you, not the movie. That’s not to say that the movie is perfect; Raleigh Becket is one of the least charismatic and interesting leading men in my recent memory, and women should have been more prominent (Aleksis Kaidonovsky should have had more lines and one or both of the scientists should have been ladies). Even so, I applaud the film for its portrayal of Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi), who is oft criticized for reasons I don’t understand. If you want a proper review of the movie, I’m sure a quick Google search can help you out, but this is going to be a defense of Mako Mori.

First of all, I’d like to congratulate this film for not reducing her to a romantic interest for the Blonde All-American Hero. Some viewers interpret a romantic relationship between the two leads, and you’re welcome to do that, but the film doesn’t expressly spell it out. Yes, Mako watches Raleigh traipsing about shirtless, but who wouldn’t? I mean did you see his abs? Finding him physically attractive doesn’t automatically mean that Mako is interested in Raleigh as anything beyond a friend or co-pilot. Besides, he represents for her a life-long dream; she has been studying him (“even Alaska”), and seeing him in person challenges her expectations of him. On top of that, when Raleigh steps into his brother’s place in Gipsy Danger, Mako takes his place as the younger sibling, and in a movie where nearly every important relationship is familial, the pilots felt more to me like siblings than lovers.

The plot often focuses on Raleigh, so Mako does sometimes feel secondary; once they get in the Jaeger, Raleigh does all the talking, and he gets the final heroic moment at the end. I wish Mako had more dialogue, especially when she was piloting, but she isn’t a very talkative character and still feels like a more real and developed character than Raleigh. We know he has some man angst because of his brother’s death, but what else do we know? We have much more information about Mako’s life and motivations. By action movie convention, Raleigh is the experienced veteran and Mako the hotheaded rookie, and like most action films, the vet supports the rookie’s development. Mako has grown up with one goal, and we learn more about her history and motivations than any other character. Despite the script jamming her into a secondary role, the narrative suggest that this is her story. She is confident, stubborn, not afraid to speak her mind, and she can kick your ass. Raleigh can see her strengths and her potential, and he knows not only that she can pilot, but that he would be a better pilot with her supporting him. When he ejects her from the Breach, he says “anyone can fall.” This final task is simple, but potentially deadly, and everyone feels protective of Mako as the rookie, so he lets her live when only one of them needs to stay. Besides, he has more experience inside Gipsy Danger, and can likely set up her self-destruct more efficiently than Mako could.

With Mako’s traumatic history comes a degree of vulnerability, or weakness if you prefer the term. But this doesn’t make her a weak character or even a weak person. Dealing with your family’s violent death at age 11 followed by a horrifying encounter with an enormous monster would leave some emotional scars. Moreover, this film is populated with characters whose emotions cloud their judgment, from the brothers’ cockiness that gets Yancy killed to Newt Drifting with the Kaiju brain despite express prohibitive orders. The Drift itself relies on people who are caring and empathetic, not physically strong or intimidating. So when Mako “chases the rabbit” and puts the Shatterdome in danger, she isn’t showing any more weakness or irrationality than anyone else. The fact that she is able to activate the cannon through the strength of her memory is testament to how badly she wants to fight these monsters – her desire to obliterate the Kaiju is strong enough to arm a weapon. More importantly, it’s Raleigh who goes out of sync first, as he clearly states afterward. First Drifts are tough (if they cause ruptured blood vessels, they can’t be pleasant) and it was Raleigh’s error – the experienced pilot’s error – that throws inexperienced Mako off. Even from a storytelling perspective, it makes sense to have a mistake early on to add tension to the narrative, and the scene functions as a good way to introduce Mako’s history.

I’ve also seen Mako criticized for her apparent subservience to Pentecost, but as she says herself, her deference for him is not obedience, but respect. This is a man who lived her dream of becoming a Jaeger pilot, who saved her life in her darkest moment, who raised her and trained her.  Minding his orders, as her superior and her father figure, doesn’t make her weak. Stacker worries for her emotional state, but more than that, he’s being a protective Daddy – prohibiting her from piloting had nothing to do with doubting her abilities. In fact, no one doubts her abilities, and I found it refreshing that Mako is essentially incidentally a woman (which added to my disappointment that there weren’t more women in the film). She doesn’t have to overcome sexist odds or prove that she can fight with the boys, it’s just assumed that she can. When Chuck Hansen makes rude remarks, it has more to do with his problems with Raleigh, and the ensuing fight is the boys working out their issues – and nothing to do with Mako failing to fight for herself. She’s also an adult who doesn’t hit people when she’s upset.

Overall, this is a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters, which means that the character development sometimes takes a backseat to the action and plot. Even so, Mako manages to shine in the scenes she is given. She is strong and feminine, cute and tough, headstrong while deferential, intelligent, practical,  and sometimes brutally honest. Yes, she is flawed, but that makes her human. As I’ve said, I wish she wasn’t the only woman in the movie with more than a handful of lines, and I’m bummed that she didn’t get more dialogue (especially in the Jaeger) or and relationships with other women, but these issues with the film are not issues with the character. And despite these narrative problems, Mako is Japanese without being fetishized, sexualized, or exoticized for it. She is shown to be capable and deserving of respect without having to fight for it. Mako should have been the primary protagonist of Pacific Rim, and we need more heroes like her.