The hype train for Pacific Rim 2 has begun, so it was well past time for me to check out the original film. I knew a lot about it thanks to Tumblr and my sister's detailed summarization, but it still managed some surprises when it came to what the characterization offered: specifically in its female lead, Mako Mori.
Having recently watched the original Terminator movies a couple of weeks ago, I have to say that Mako only narrowly beat out Sarah Connor for March's Woman of the Month. One could argue that Sarah has had a greater cultural impact in regards to how women are depicted in action movies, but Mako has also inspired the Mako Mori Test, a way of gauging how any given female character operates in a film's narrative. In this case, it requires a film to include:
a) at least one female character;
b) who gets her own narrative arc;
c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.
If Pacific Rim failed the Bechdel Test, you can't deny that it passed (as well as giving birth to) the Mako Mori Test. Mako is introduced as one of Marshal Stacker Pentecost's best students, in training to co-pilot one of the giant Jaeger mechas used to combat the ever-growing number of Kaijus emerging from the ocean. It's almost immediately clear that she's "drift compatible" with the film's male lead when it comes to piloting one of the few remaining Jaegers, but there are more than a few stumbling blocks to surmount before she and Raleigh can head out into the field.
In flashback we learn that as a child Mako only barely survived a Kaiju attack, and was subsequently raised by Stacker Pentecost. Unfortunately, her desire to avenge her family is at odds with his instinct to protect her, doubts that seem justified when she gets caught in a memory overload caused by the "neural handshake" between Jaeger pilots.
Yet with Raleigh's support, Mako overcomes – even as she skirts close to what's known as Trinity Syndrome. This test is made up of two parts: first that a female character is more qualified than the male lead to be a film's protagonist, but secondly that she's inevitably shunted to the side so that he can complete the world-saving mission by himself.
Mako fulfils the latter requirement but not the former: though Raleigh does remove her from Jaeger while she's unconscious so he can make the final self-sacrificial act, it's been established right from the start that she's a rookie, thereby endowing his decision with a degree of justification (and given the film's ongoing theme of equality and respect, it's important to note that in this moment Raleigh has judged her life more important than his own).
The discussion continues when we consider that Mako isn't ogled by the camera, nor pushed into the role of Raleigh's love interest (the closest they get to kissing is an affectionate head butt). She neatly sidesteps all the offensive stereotypes that are usually affixed to Asian women in film: she's not emotionless, submissive or sexualised*, and when Raleigh tries to call her out on folding to Pentecost's orders, she replies with what is perhaps her best line: "It's not obedience, it's respect."
* I watched Ex Machina a couple of days after Pacific Rim and it's clear these traits are still very much in effect when it comes to portraying Asian woman on-screen.
Basically, Mako Mori defies tropes even as she's built from them, resulting in a character that subverts expectations at every turn, often in surprisingly subtle ways. As Tumblr user spider-xan said:
It’s really easy to throw away a film because of that [Bechdel] test (which is flawed and used incorrectly in a lot of ways) if you’re a white woman and can easily find other films with white women who look like you and represent you... But as an East Asian woman, someone like Mako — a well-written Japanese woman who is informed by her culture without being solely defined by it, without being a racial stereotype, and gets to carry the film and have character development — almost NEVER comes along in mainstream Western media. And honestly — someone like her will probably not appear again for a very long time.
Mako created a flurry of speculation, discussion, critique and praise from the moment she lifted that umbrella, all of which helped edge out Sarah Connor for this month's post.