Edit: Due to my lack of free time, this has been sitting in my drafts for a rather long time. I’ve been slowly writing and editing it here and there, which is why this post is about a movie that is no longer airing in theatres. ^__^;; Also my usual spoiler warning!

Mecha feature prominently in promotional posters for Pacific Rim

Mecha feature prominently in promotional posters for Pacific Rim

This poor post has been sitting here forever, so I wanted to at least get it out into the wild now. It’s a bit different from what I usually write about (anime, manga, and games), but since it is a movie inspired by mecha anime in part, I thought it would be good to talk about it. I will start with saying that I went to see it in 3D and it was really gorgeous in 3D. I can’t imagine watching it in regular 2D now. Also yes, this will be a post that deals with my problems with the movie (since all I’ve seen is praise), but that is not to say I disliked the movie. On the contrary, I believe it was a pretty well thought out movie that suffers from the same kinds of problems I see constantly in Hollywood movies. Perhaps because everyone was praising it so much, I dared to hope it wouldn’t fall prey to the same sorts of problems I see in practically every blockbuster movie, but alas, I guess when you’re dealing with such a huge amount of money and already taking some risks, you fall back on the general Hollywood formula to be safe.

What I did like about Pacific Rim was that it dared to have the leading lady be a visible minority. It also gave the General (Stacker Pentecost) a more active role. He actually went out and did things. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’ve noticed this trend where black characters are given “important” roles, say commanding officers or coaches, etc. Which give the illusion that they are important, but usually they end up with very little screen time and it feels almost like they are there for the lip service. This wasn’t so with Pacific Rim. The General actually had a lot of plot significance (and screen time in turn), and he actually got to pilot a Jaeger and made the heroic sacrifice at the end.

However while Pacific Rim was much better about racial casting than the vast vast majority of Hollywood movies, it still painfully fell short when it came to gendered problems. It is especially saddening given that Pacific Rim was inspired by Kaiju live action shows and mecha anime and in turn was made to inspire others toward those genres. However, the very problems that plague these two genres and prevent them from becoming more mainstream are found in Pacific Rim as well. Namely, problems with good characterization and presence of female characters. I haven’t watched much Kaiju live action shows, but from the few I am familiar with, female characters are pretty rare and often act as token chicks. In mecha anime, it is pretty much the same deal. You get maybe 1-2 female characters that are important to the story and only in rare exceptions do the female characters even get to pilot a mecha. Even rarer is that they are competent pilots. In the few exceptions where the cast is predominantly female, the pandering and sexualization is usually very extreme. In short, it’s not very welcoming to female viewers and mecha anime has been, by and large, male dominated and a very exclusive club, which is why it is so saddening to see Pacific Rim fall into these very same traps!

Now Mako (the leading female character) could have been a good character if minor things were changed. What made it so painful was the movie kept adding scene after scene to make her appear infantile or helpless and all these little things taken with her backstory added up and created a very problematic characterization. First on the list of grievances is how the movie handled her sexuality. She was written as if she were a junior high girl and not a lady in her twenties. When she sees the shirtless Raleigh, she quickly closes her door in embarrassment and then like a little girl peeps through the peep hole to watch him. I’m sorry, but seeing a grown woman act like that is freaken ridiculous. This little scene was unnecessary and only there to instill a child-like sexuality in Mako.

Mako peeping at a shirtless Raleigh like a little girl.

Mako peeping at a shirtless Raleigh like a little girl.

Now normally her extreme deference to the General would be fine. I mean, he saved her life and raised her. It makes sense. But like I said before, it is these constant little things that create the whole problematic character. This and her backstory where she is saved by the General would have been fine if not for the fact that the movie goes out of it’s way to cast Mako as someone who cannot do things by herself. First we have the burst of uncontrollable emotion when she first drifts with Raleigh. Yes, it’s her first time and yes, the movie establishes afterwards that this is normal, but the movie also goes out of it’s way to make it a big deal of how traumatic it was for Raleigh to still be connected to his brother when he died and when he starts reliving that memory? Well it’s ok, he has it all under control. It’s only the poor wommin that can’t keep her emotions in check. OK ok, perhaps this was not Toro’s intention, but this is how it ends up coming across and only further infantalizes Mako. What makes it more insulting is that Mako’s failure is only there to build up how tough and awesome Raleigh is because he can keep himself in check compared to poor helpless Mako. And the fact that he beats up the other pilot for bad mouthing Mako afterwards, only makes it worse because the movie once again goes out of it’s way to give Raleigh all the agency and Mako none of it.

This trend continues with little bits of dialogue like Raleigh asking Mako if she is ok when they are fighting for the first time together. I found this especially jarring since he should know if she’s ok given they are connected and know exactly what the other one is thinking and feeling. This was established at the very beginning! It’s a core concept of the world of this story. So I thought this was really just ridiculous. Now, he could have said it out of concern if he felt she wasn’t ok, but that’s not how it comes across since Moko replies with “I’m fine” rather than with “I’ll be ok”, and there is no other indication that she isn’t fine. It’s dropped immediately afterward as well.

Mako and Raleigh are suppose to be equal partners but the movie never really allows them to be that.

Mako and Raleigh are suppose to be equal partners but the movie never really allows them to be that.

All this builds up to the grand finale where Mako and Raleigh are suppose to be “real partners” and are suppose to save the world together, except the movie can’t even give Mako that glory. It has her pass out right at the most crucial part and has Raleigh do all the saving by himself. For a premise where two fight as one, this was like a slap in the face and just further emphasized that Mako was really only in the movie to be Raleigh’s love interest with a sad tragic past. An object, not a character/person. If some of these things had been altered; say she didn’t peep at Raleigh like a young girl or helped save the world together with him in the grand finale, I could have seen at least an attempt to make her more than just the token chick and love interest. But as I mentioned above, it wasn’t one particular thing that broke the camel’s back, but all these things coming together. Such a consistent focus on making Mako so helpless and child-like betrays the fact that she was not conceived as a character independent of her role as a love interest to Raleigh. Now the fact that she is a love interest alone isn’t the problematic part; that just makes her stereotypical. What makes Mako a problematic character is they way she is portrayed as the love interest. She is constantly infantilized and denied agency. And given that this isn’t one or two isolated instances but the whole of her characterization, I cannot see it any other way. It is very disappointing. I had actually hoped that Pacific Rim could break the mold, but it looks to have toed the line. Still, if you like mecha or are interested in the genre, I do think it’s a good movie to see. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see how western and eastern pop culture collided here. Agree? Disagree?

–SW

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