The (not) in the title of this post indicates an order of operations, as in mathematics. Pretty much, it’s to call attention to the way in which Mako Mori is not your “strong feminist heroine,” according to some, and why this is a problem with the way we think and speak about “strong feminist heroines.”
Several of the feminist critiques of Mako Mori have expressed the opinion that Mako is somehow less of a character due to the fat that she has fewer lines compared to her male co-stars. The argument appears to run that, despite being front and center for the entirety of the movie, in order for Mako to be considered a “strong feminist heroine,” she needed to be talking as much as Stacker, Raleigh, Chuck, and Herc in addition to the way in which she is established as a character in her own right.
This strikes me as odd: Mako Mori, who ostensibly embodies a kind of warrior archetype that is less common in western media; who demonstrates martial and technical skill exceeding, or on par with, her male counterparts; who helps provide the emotional ground for the whole narrative; and who demonstrates a strength that, in my opinion, is exceeded only by Stacker Pentecost, is not a “strong feminist heroine” because she doesn’t have many lines? I am not sure that this is a critique that we can carry to it’s logical conclusion.
One of the primary problems that I see with this critique is that it assumes a certain kind of strength is necessary for the presentation of a “strong feminist heroine,” and the expression of that strength is not only through the actions that the character takes within the narrative, but how vocal the character is within the narrative. To this end, these critiques seem to make the argument that the actions Mako takes during the narrative of Pacific Rim (piloting a Jaeger, accepting the loss of her family, accepting the loss of stacker) are somehow diminished because she didn’t contribute to the dialogue.
Against this, I offer that Mako’s very silence is what defines her strength. Too often we assume that strength is assertive, it is something that pushes out into the world. In the case of the “strong feminist heroine” articulated by critiques of Mako, she lacked the strength (some might even say agency) to project her voice out into a narrative dominated by men. However, this ignores the possibility of an internal, non-assertive strength, the kind possessed by Mako and made manifest in several scenes throughout Pacific Rim.
As I, and others, have pointed out, her statement to Raleigh, “It’s not obedience, it’s respect,” indicates a kind of inner strength to set aside ones desires for the sake of the group. Students of Japanese culture will note, generally, that this is the kind of internal fortitude that makes up some of the best Japanese characters, and I would count Mako Mori among them. As an example from Japanese literature, I would point to Tomoe Goezen (one of the more notable onna-bugeisha) in the Heikei Monogatari. At the defeat of her commander’s army, she was willing to lay down her life so that she could die honorably with her commander. In turn, her commander orders her to depart the field against her wishes. Granted, in the context of the Heike Monogatari, the order was given because the commander did not wish to be responsible for her death, however, the implication was that her life (as a warrior) was too valuable to waste in seppuku at that battle.
Out of respect, and against her wishes, Goezen flees the battle. This is the kind of strength that Mako Mori possesses, and it is a characteristic of all good Samurai and all good deshi to their Sensei. We can see this kind of strength emerge again when Stacker is preparing for his final ride, just before declaring that they are “cancelling the apocalypse.” When Stacker asserts that he will be piloting the mission, despite it leading to his death, Mako accepts his decision without question, and further assents to defend him (to the death is implied) while he completes the mission. To knowingly allow your commander, your Sensei, and your father to walk to his own death and simply accept his decision requires a kind of strength that cannot be articulated in mere dialogue, it must be demonstrated through action.
This strength through respect is further demonstrated by the way in which she accepts, rather than protests, Stacker’s decision to ground her following the near disaster in the synchronization test with G*psy Danger. We, as American viewers, are used to our “hero” characters fighting for their chance to prove their value, to prove that they are right. Raleigh embodies this kind of mentality when he argues for Mako (actually, we might read Raleigh’s staunch defense of Mako as recognizing that she possesses the kind of strength needed to do what is necessary) to be his co-pilot, throwing everything he has against Stacker. We’re used to seeing this assertive strength as “true strength” as opposed to Mako’s more internal, composed strength.
To belabor the point, Mako further possesses enough mental strength to suck Raleigh into her own memory. There are some who might deride an “in universe” plot exposition point as a example of a female character’s strength, with something like, “oh, we needed that scene to explain Stacker’s relationship with Mako.” However, the dialogue in the sequence clearly indicates that Mako’s connection to G*psy was too strong for them to disconnect. Let me put it another way, Raleigh is the more experienced pilot, and has “flown” G*psy before so it would be logical to assume that his connection would be stronger than Mako’s. In fact, it appears the reverse is the case: Mako, on her first connection with G*psy, manages to overpower Raleigh’s own connection and draw him into the memory.
Now, again, since Raleigh fell out of synch with G*psy and Mako first, it would be logical to assume that Mako (as the inexperienced pilot) would be pulled into Raleigh’s memories. Instead, Mako’s falling out of synch pulls Raleigh into her own memories, despite the fact that he had regained his connection with G*psy Danger and was aware of what was going on. I may be overly charitable to the film, but all in universe evidence points to Mako being a stronger and more capable pilot than Raleigh himself: “51 drops, 51 kills” in the simulator. I’m willing to hazard that Mako’s lack of dialogue as a factor which denies her the status of “strong feminist heorine,” is on shaky legs.
The deathblow to this critique of Mako Mori does not come from within the narrative, but is aimed at our presuppositions about strength. Again, in our Western framework, we assume strength must always equate to assertion, a kind of aggressive devil may care attitude that is embodied by characters like Raleigh and Chuck Hanson. In contrast, Mako Mori provides us with a kind of inner cultivated strength that stands out in stark relief to our cowboy hero archetype. For me, this points to the insufficiency of the characterization of strength always pushing outwards against the world, seeking to enforce its will upon the world. Strength, of character, of will, can be internal: a control over oneself and one’s emotions despite the turmoil that one finds themselves embroiled in.
This is the kind of strength that we see in Mako. Even at her most “emotional” during the compatibility dialogue, a point that Stacker notes, she is still in control over her body, her feelings, and the fight itself. We might further see this internal strength resulting in the focusing of her desire for revenge, her emotional trauma, into the deathblow that takes down otachi: when Raleigh seems all but willing to give up as G*psy is dragged into the air, it is Mako who finds the way, and Mako who delivers the deathblow as the articulation of her emotions into a single focused strike: “watashi no kazoku no tame ni,” indeed.
I make a point of the single strike for a good reason: typically, when one exacts revenge for the death of one’s family, we see it as “the beatdown.” The character in question vents their trauma in a rain of blows that often continues after the object of their vengeance is dead. We see this in movies all the time: the hero empties an entire magazine into a fallen foe or continues to pummel the enemy long after they are unconscious. For Mako, it is a single, focused strike that ends the battle: she has the strength of character not to waste energy venting her rage on Otachi, she gets the job done, and has her satisfaction.
For all of the above reasons Mako Mori is (not) your “strong feminist heroine,” and it is not out of any deficiency in her characterization, but an inability of the concept of “strength” to recognize the kind of strength that Mako embodies. In short, Mako Mori demonstrates the degree to which our notion of a “strong feminist heroine” is insufficient and needs to be adjusted.