A Feminist Defense of Pacific Rim

[Pacific Rim synopsis: Besieged by skyscraper-sized alien creatures known as Kaiju, humanity comes together to pool resources and build giant robots called Jaegers to fight the monsters. Piloted by two humans, efficient operation of a Jaeger depends on mutual trust and cooperation, a major theme of the film. The movie takes place 12 years into the Kaiju War; with the Jaeger Program officially defunded by the world's governments but still slowly trudging on, only four Jaegers and their respective teams stand between humanity and the complete destruction of the planet.]

There's been something stuck in my craw ever since this was posted on the mainpage a few weeks ago. While the featured chart simply shows a correlation between box office revenue and movies that pass the Bechdel Test, there also seems to be the implication, as always with the BT, that a film isn't feminist if it doesn't pass the test. This hasn't sat well with me as one of the movies on the chart — and one of my favorite films from the past few years — Pacific Rim, clearly doesn't pass the test, although I would argue that the movie is still quite feminist in tone because of its protagonist Mako Mori.

Due to his role as the narrator of the film's prologue, at first Pacific Rim seems like it might be about blue-eyed and blond All-American Boy Raleigh Becket, a Jaeger pilot who loses his brother (and co-pilot) in a tragic accident, and his Quest to Live Again and Seek Redemption After Becoming Washed Up. How original. Well, the movie is about that, but Raleigh's story becomes secondary as soon as Mako shows up.

The first thing to know about Mako is that to me she represents the elements of the typical (male) hero's journey flipped on its head:* Miraculous birth? When she is a small child, Mako's parents are killed in a kaiju attack in Tokyo. (While not explained in the movie, the official novelization states that Mako and her family were just visiting Tokyo when the kaiju appeared.) Call to adventure? Raleigh's arrival to the Jaeger Program HQ is the catalyst to Mako challenging her adopted father — the commanding officer of the Jaeger Program — to let her become a Jaeger pilot. The Belly of the Whale? Having persuaded her father to let her try piloting, Mako's first test drive in a Jaeger doesn't go very well. Road of Trials? With her failed attempt at piloting a Jaeger, Mako's father is reluctant to send her out on a real mission. Fight Against the Big Bad? Let's just say Mako is very instrumental in bringing about the end of the Kaiju War.

Mako, who is Japanese, and is played by a Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) further subverts stereotypes because as a character she is effectively the opposite of several tropes related to Asian women. As PolicyMic's Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria puts it:

"Was Mako fetishized as the hot Asian chick? No. Was she portrayed as deferential and eager to please? No. She respects her adopted father and military leader Stacker Pentecost, but pleads that he changes his mind about letting her operate a Jaeger. She politely, but honestly conveys her doubts about Raleigh. At no point in the film are any decisions made based on Mako's appearance. These are all very good things for a film that is released from the Hollywood trick box. When the best audiences can hope for from a summer blockbuster is tired clichés slapped together with action sequences, this is a breath of fresh air."

That Mako is a strong, confident, kaiju-ass-kicking woman is no coincidence. In an interview the Toronto Star, the film's director, Guillermo del Toro, who happens to have two daughters, said,

"I was very careful how I built the movie. One of the other things I decided was that I wanted a female lead … who has the equal force as the male leads. She's not going to be a sex kitten, she's not going to come out in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and it's going to be a real earnestly drawn character."

A Feminist Defense of Pacific Rim

(GDT's concept sketch of Mako's first appearance in the film.)

A Feminist Defense of Pacific Rim

(Mako's first appearance in the film realized.)

With her stereotype subversion and general badassery, I think Mako Mori has the potential to become a new feminist movie icon. Others agree with me, even going so far as to call for The Mako Mori Test, as an alternative to the Bechdel Test i.e, "the [Mako Mori] test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man's story."

That last point is very important to Mako's narrative. Raleigh, our beleaguered All-American Boy, eventually becomes Mako's co-pilot. To pilot their Jaeger, Mako and Raleigh must learn to trust and care for each other; while almost any other director would have made their relationship a cliche love story, del Toro wanted the leave interpretation of it to the audience:

"I wanted to show that men and women can be friends without having a relationship. [Mako and Raleigh's] story [is] about partnership, equality and a strong bond between partners. It's important for little girls to know not every story has to be a love story and for boys to know that soldiers aren't the only ones to triumph in war."

If that was the mission of del Toro, then he certainly succeeded. While it's understandably easy to get lost in the visual spectacle of giant robots fighting giant monsters, the human element of the film, especially as far as Mako is concerned, is as impressive as the CGI Kaiju. Mako is a real feminist hero and Pacific Rim is woman-empowering, even if the Bechdel Test says otherwise.

*There are certainly more academic definitions of The Hero's Journey, but I find TVTropes.org's discussion of it to be the most accessible.

A Feminist Defense of Pacific Rim

(Mako being a BAMF in her pilot gear.)

Top "We Can Do It" image done by Jubop over at deviantART: http://www.jubop.deviantart.com/