Brow Beat

Pacific Rim Inspired the “Mako Mori Test.” Uprising Gives the Character a Far Less Inspiring Arc.

The sequel might meet the standard named after the franchise’s most beloved character, but it falls victim to an older cliché.

Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. Mako wears a fitted, futuristic black suit in anticipation of boarding her jaeger.
Yes, Pacific Rim gave her boob armor. But still. Warner Bros. Pictures

When Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim debuted in 2013, fans who valued its Kaiju-conquering, Charlie Hunnam-clobbering, and ultimately world-saving Japanese female hero as much as its monster-on-robot action were surprised to discover that it didn’t pass that old standby, the Bechdel test. So they proposed an alternate standard: the Mako Mori test, inspired by Rinko Kikuchi’s character in the film. Apparently coined by a Tumblr user named Chaila (the post has been since deleted) “to live alongside the Bechdel Test,” it uses the following criteria:

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.

While that might seem like a low bar, this was partially by design. Chaila proposed the test in response to an impassioned post from user Spider-xan, who argued:

It’s really easy to throw away a film because of [the Bechdel] test … if you’re a white woman and can easily find other films with white women who look like you and represent you … If Pacific Rim does nothing for you, there are plenty of other films that will generally do quite well for white women.

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.

So you’ll understand why I can’t throw her and the entire film away as meaning nothing in terms of representation—because she’s all I really have right now …

Though the Bechdel test was never conceived as the final word on whether a film was feminist, the Mako Mori test nonetheless provided a useful complement. Moreover, its own conception was a testament to the love many fans had for her character, who subverted tropes about submissive Asian women as much as audience expectations about female characters.

All of which meant that there was always going to be a lot of interest in what the movie’s sequel did with Mako. Unfortunately, after seeing Pacific Rim: Uprising, I can report that even Mako Mori’s own arc fails the Mako Mori test in spectacular fashion. (Spoilers ahead.)

The sequel follows Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of the first film’s exquisitely named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). Mako, meanwhile, is now a top military official and serves as a welcome foil to the boyish Jake. The movie, like its predecessor, is a delightfully dumb tangle of plotlines, but the gist is this: Delinquent Jake has been brought back onto the Jaeger (read: giant robot) Initiative, which, though running on fumes, is still active in the event that the once-canceled apocalypse gets a surprise order for renewal. Sure enough, an unmanned jaeger attacks Sydney, and things quickly go south. The rogue jaeger takes out a government helicopter carrying Mako onboard, and our heroine is lost in the burning wreckage.

While it’s painful to see the franchise’s flagship symbol of female empowerment literally go down in flames, it’s not just the fact of her demise that’s disappointing. Nor is it just that her death is so unceremonious and comes so early in the film. It’s how she’s sacrificed to power the male hero’s redemption.

This kind of treatment of female characters is all too familiar, to the extent that there’s an established term for it that’s almost as old as the Bechdel test. The phrase “women in refrigerators” was coined in 1999 when a group of feminist comic book fans led by Gail Simone noticed that female characters were often murdered to heighten the male protagonist’s dramatic stakes. (The name comes from a Green Lantern comic wherein our hero finds his girlfriend’s body literally stuffed into his refrigerator.) In Uprising, Mako’s death lights the fire in layabout Jake to finally take his Jaeger Initiative responsibilities seriously. Within minutes, he’s finally stepped into the drivesuit boots he was always meant to fill. By the movie’s end, Mako exists only as the subject of Jake’s rallying cry for heading once more unto the breach.

Uprising does introduce a few new characters who keep the sequel as a whole from flunking the test the original film inspired. Mogul Liwen Shao is a notably fierce businesswoman and combatant, if one who lacks any backstory, while jaeger whiz Amara gets a solid arc, even if it is largely as Jake’s teenage sidekick. But regardless of what happens with these new characters, in this film or in any sequels to come, it will be hard not to feel that Mako herself deserved better.