Porco Rosso was originally intended to be a short movie for Japan airlines, based on Miyazaki’s own manga, Hikōtei Jidai, but it grew into a project for a feature-length film, and was released in 1992. If I were to wager what Miyazaki’s favourite film out of his career was, I would assume it was Porco Rosso. It contains a great deal of elements that characterize his work: strong, confident female characters, planes and flight, European-influenced (well, in this case, just European) settings, and also something of a self-portrait in the cynical, pessimistic, pig-faced main character (Miyazaki often draws himself in self-portrait as a pig). It is admittedly the oddball film among Miyazaki’s complete works, but I mean that in the best possible way. While the film is light-hearted for much of its relatively short length, there are some very warm character moments as well as a strong pacifistic message. According to Miyazaki, the film had originally been intended as a simple, enjoyable story for tired businessmen on airline flights, but due to the influence that news of the civil war in Yugoslavia had on him, the final film ended up more serious than he had envisioned.
Diverging from most of Miyazaki’s work, the setting of Porco Rosso is well-defined and historical – Italy before World War 2. Porco is a seaplane pilot who works as a bounty hunter in the Mediterranean Sea. He sits in his hideout, taking refuge from the rest of the world, occasionally taking a break to chase air pirates and rescue hostages. Porco is also a pig, but there is no evil witch which cast a spell on him as the typical children’s flick would go. No, the story goes that Porco, who was once named Marco, after watching his friends perish in the first war, left his country before the rise of fascism, overcome with survivor’s guilt and so disillusioned with humanity and himself that he became a pig. His old comrades in the Italian army want him to renounce his desertion of them and rejoin. “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist,” replies Porco. And that’s that. It’s a wonderful use of caricature that wouldn’t work outside of animation – and the film doesn’t overanalyze or linger on this aspect of his character. It is what it is.
The story begins with a group of angry pirates hiring an American ace pilot to take down Porco once and for all. Porco is taken down once because of engine troubles, and makes a getaway for Milan to get his plane fixed. There, he meets Fio, a young, bold, female mechanic. At first, Porco brushes her off for being inexperienced (and a girl) but grudgingly accepts her after seeing her plans for his plane. She forces him to accept her as a partner and they return to the seas to confront the American pilot. The other significant character is Gina, the widow of one of Porco’s old friends from his army days who harbors feelings for the old pig.
On the surface, the film is filled with the kind of heroic escapades and adventurous scenes of flight and battle that might remind you of something like Herge’s Tintin comics. There is also a very comedic and light approach to many parts of the story. There are villains, but they are fluffy, chivalrous villains with hearts of gold, posing no real mortal threat to our characters, and are played for laughs more than danger. Fans of aerial adventures will certainly love the dogfights and plane chases that pop up throughout. As entertaining as this aspect of the film is, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly inventive, as this kind of humorous tone has accompanied many of these sort of “swashbuckling” adventure tales.
Underneath the surface, though, as typical of Miyazaki, lie some deeper ideas which, though only subtly hinted at for most of the film, are probably the most memorable aspect of it. Ask anyone to name their favourite scene, and I believe that most will point to a quiet night before the final showdown, where Porco recounts to Fio a story from his war days, piloting a plane and watching his comrades fall one by one. Clinging to life, he briefly awoke above the clouds, where a strange procession of pilots, friends and enemies, rose together around him, ascending together towards heaven in their final flight. It is an image apparently inspired by a story by Roald Dahl, and it is haunting and beautiful.
The animation is, as expected, vibrant and beautiful, and Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack blends into the film well with an appropriate amount of European influence. There is a great nostalgic jazz-influenced theme which appears in various sequences, but its overall usage in the score is perhaps a tad too low. Overall, the score fills its job well, but isn’t a standout of Hisaishi’s Ghibli career.
Some sentimentality regarding the film affects my rating, I confess. As I’ve mentioned, the film isn’t always complex or deep with its story, but that light-hearted approach Miyazaki takes here partly gives the film its charm, particularly amongst the heavier tone of some of Miyazaki’s other works. I recall reading someone characterize it in another review as “Miyazaki having fun”, and I think that’s a great way to put it. But it would be wrong to forget that the movie has real heart underneath it all, a subtle sadness and nostalgia. I admit that in the hands of another director, Porco may not have worked so well, because it teeters right at the edge of being conventional with a lot of its action or comedic sequences, but it’s really Miyazaki’s wry, cynical touch and occasional sensitivity which makes it all work above that level. Porco Rosso is an ode to life and adventure told in a gentle, good-natured fashion with likable, memorable characters. And heck, Porco himself, one of Miyazaki’s greatest characters, is enough to warrant a recommendation.
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