Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta)
Japan (1992) Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Nope. I’m not going to do it. Yes, this film does involve a pilot who happens to be of the porcine persuasion, but making the obvious joke about it in reference to an old adynaton is far too easy. So it’s not happening, not even if pi…ooh, nearly.
A lesser known entry in the celebrated canon of Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki – lesser known compared to his bigger, widely regarded titles anyway – Porco Rosso is closer to Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises than his more fantastical works like Spirited Away or My Neighbour Totoro. It’s based on Miyazaki’s own watercolour manga Hikotei Jidai.
In the Adriatic Seas in the 1920’s, the most famous and feared pilot is Porco Rosso, formerly World War I veteran Marco Pagot, turned into an anthropomorphic pig by a curse. He spends his days as a bounty hunter defending cruise liners and ships from air pirates, earning hero status and criminal disdain in equal measure, spending his nights relaxing at the Hotel Adriano, run by his friend Gina.
At the hotel one night is arrogant American Donald Curtis, a skilled pilot brought in by the air pirates to combat Porco, given added incentive when he falls in love with Gina but is perturbed to see she only has eyes for Porco. When Porco needs to take his plane to Milan for a service, Curtis shoots him down believing he has killed Porco, but he didn’t. Now, Porco has to return to Gina but first has to avoid an arrest warrant in Italy.
Porco Rosso is Miyazaki’s first foray into historical based storytelling but unlike The Wind Rises, this is the whimsical Miyazaki most people are familiar with, not to mention the overt silliness of the final act, arguably his most comic outing to date. There are also valid comparisons to be made with Miyazaki’s take on the Lupin III, 1979’s The Castle Of Cagliostro, in part due to the shared European setting and frantic action scenes.
Of course there is still the, ahem, metaphorical elephant in the room regarding the main protagonist being a pig, the nature and history of which is never explained, only to end up being romanticised for an enigmatically ambiguous feel good ending. The closest we get to learning about the real Marco is a flashback to a mission during the war in which he was the only survivor of his squadron.
But, like most fantasy based tales, certain elements become the norm fairly quickly and Marco being a pig is no different, since it is ignored by everyone in the film anyway. Porco Rosso is Italian for “red pig” and becomes Marco’s nickname because of his red plane which is in dire need of a service. In Milan, he pays a visit to his old friend Piccolo (not that one), an elderly mechanic whose two sons have emigrated, leaving 17 year-old Fio behind to help out.
At first Porco is resistant to letting an inexperienced girl anywhere near his plane but Fio’s enthusiasm and proven skills change his mind – that and a reminder both Porco and Piccolo were also mastered their skills at a young age. Fio turns out to be a godsend, making the plane better than ever with some handy new adjustments and with the Secret Police after Porco, Fio returns home with him under the pretence of being his hostage.
Fio, as you might have already surmised, is this film’s “Ghibli Heroine” – strong-willed, forthright, younger than she ought to be for all the inappropriate male attention she receives, and most importantly, can stand up for herself. That she can face a group of burly, violent pirates and talk them down without flinching is a demonstration of Fio’s moxie as much as it is Miyazaki doing his bit for feminism.
However, Fio does become the prize in a dog fight between Porco and Curtis – should Curtis win he will marry Fio, if he loses he pays off Porco’s debts – which is a huge step backwards but it was Fio who accepted the challenge in the first place, more to do with her confidence in Porco and her adjustment to the plane. But where does this leave Gina, who Curtis was previously infatuated with?
This is a plot point which is sorely underdeveloped, suggesting maybe Miyazaki isn’t as good at romance as he is fantasy. We only get fragments of the past Gina and Marco shared together, enough to know Gina married someone else but not sufficient to explain if this was a mistake, or if Gina is clinging to her past via Porco for another reason. It might not be important for some viewers, but it is something that feels like it would have added another layer to the character of Porco/Marco.
Miyazaki’s interest in flight has manifest itself in many ways prior to this film – Laputa is his steampunk exploration, Kiki’s Delivery Service satiates his sense of childish wonder – but this is the first time he has stayed within the boundaries (as such) of reality. That said the designs of the planes aren’t standard for the period but close enough not to take us out of the moment.
Remembering this was made long before CGI become the norm, it is difficult not to be in awe of the cell drawn animation of the flight scenes, breathlessly frantic and intricate in their precision and as exciting as any live action dog fight. There is a chase sequence in Italy conducted half on water, half in the air that re-enforces the Cagliostro comparisons, as ever taking place before wonderfully rendered backgrounds.
I have to confess Porco Rosso was not what I expected given the fantastical scope of Miyazaki’s other works but I don’t feel disappointed by it either. Maybe not a top tier release from Ghibli, I can see why some might regard it as underrated and maybe it will reveal more of itself in future rewatches.