Guillermo del Toro’s action flick Pacific Rim pleases on a lot of levels, but it earns the most kudos in its portrayal of Mako Mori, a Japanese pilot eager to use her skills to save the world. She partners with cocky American pilot Raliegh to operate mache robots called Jaegers to fight kaiju, monsters from beneath the ocean that are destroying life on Earth. Mako’s character has a full range of emotion and skill while showing a bare minimum of skin. That alone makes the film worth seeing. But does it make her character a feminist hero?
I put my East Asian Studies degree to use and kept on the lookout for misogynistic tropes and Asian stereotypes. 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.
Mako does not dangle on the periphery of the plot. She is not there to fulfill a sexual fantasy or to overcompensate to fit in with the guys. She moves the plot of the film forward by asserting her wishes and taking her life in her own hands. She peeks through a peephole to get a glimpse of Raliegh’s ripped body (a good decision, if you ask me). She makes a mistake in a Jaeger with Raleigh that nearly gets everyone killed. She makes up for it later on by shanking the shit out of a flying kaiju. To make sure my bases were covered, I spoke to two Asian American women after the movie. They pointed out that while Mako did possess some stereotypically Asian qualities, especially in the flashback sequence of Mako as a little girl, they did not detract from the film.
If one chooses to define feminism as the radical belief that women are people, then Mako Mori is indeed a feminist action hero. But that is not all who she is. She is a talented pilot, a skilled fighter, and a woman with a troubled past. Her greatest quality is her ability to rise above her vulnerabilities to defeat the kaiju and save humanity. And that is neither misogynistic nor stereotypical. That is plain old ass-kicking awesome.