Men really are pigs in Hayao Miyazaki’s aviation adventure.
“Wherever you fly, you’re still a pig.”
It’s no secret that Hayao Miyazaki is somewhat obsessed with aviation, and seemingly has been his entire life. It’s a topic I’ll likely reflect on deeper whenever I get around to watching The Wind Rises, but you need only watch a handful of his films to know that he’s all about those old-school flying machines. From the world of Castle in the Sky to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, if there’s a reason to throw a rickety old aircraft in the scene, you bet your ass he will. And for a while, no film had more evidence of this love than 1992’s Porco Rosso.
Based on his own manga, the movie’s titular character is indeed a pig, although he was not always one. Porco (originally named Marco) is a former WW1 fighter pilot turned bounty hunter leaving a relatively peaceful life on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. He antagonises sky pirates that (mildly) terrorise locals, which causes them to band together and hire American ace pilot Donald Curtis to help them take the pig down. Curtis immediately falls in love with local hotel owner Gina, who only has eyes for Porco. After a quick tussle between the two pilots, Porco is left with a destroyed plane, and has to travel to Turin to get it fixed, and demand a rematch from Curtis.
Porco Rosso isn’t exactly the most complex movie from Studio Ghibli, but it is interesting for a number of different reasons. The first is that the movie is set in a very specific point geographically and historically (set during Mussolini’s transition to fascism) in a way many of the studio’s other movies at the time weren’t. This helps the movie find its voice pretty early, and gives us a backdrop which we understand without having to go too deep.
Secondly, unlike say Grave of the Fireflies, the war serves mostly as a plot point in the characters’ backstories and affects the way they act within the movie’s narrative. As a result of this, Porco Rosso isn’t a film restricted by its setting, but instead if bolstered by it and Miyazaki takes the opportunity to give us a movie that’s actually pretty laid back, all things considered. In many ways, this feels like a pleasant European holiday, even with all the pirates and the gunfire.
Despite the scars of the First World War showing, the ever-present depression and the looming threat of World War 2, Porco Rosso manages to avoid nosediving into miserable topics, and spends a lot of its time in beautiful locales, workshops or island hideouts. It uses this confused, unstable world as a backdrop for a much lower-stakes story about the pitfalls of masculine pride that could almost be seen as a metaphor for the war themselves – especially Porco and Curtis’ final race which reveals itself to be nothing more than a pointless dick-measuring contest (although our hero does find higher meaning to it as it goes on). There’s no real villain, and even the stuff about Porco’s arrest warrant are only lightly touched upon.
It seems almost like a highly deliberate choice to make what could have been a very serious, dramatic film a comedic adventure instead. The pirates are shown as barely a threat (to put it into context, the ones in Castle in the Sky seem more threatening), to the point where the little girls kidnapped in the opening barely seem to care about them. Everything is just so … pleasant. Mix that in with the picturesque, watercolour setting and it’s very clear that Ghibli and Miyazaki wanted to put out a picture that was more about the excitement and rush of flying than anything else.
That Porco is a pig seems almost inconsequential, as it serves absolutely no purpose to the plot. Barely anyone reacts to the fact that a man with a pig’s head is walking around, and he doesn’t seem bothered by it either. It’s a curious inclusion that doesn’t do a lot for the story but does reinforce ideas of Porco’s personality to the audience, through a very literal interpretation of his foibles and flaws. Additionally, it serves as a metaphor for the changes he needs to go through in order to move on with his life, something that is only hinted at during the end sequence. Porco isn’t a bad man: he’s willing to learn to accept the help of children and women and boy was it a good call. The scenes of Turin’s women all rolling up their sleeves to repair the plane are some of my favourites in the entire film.
This element also serves to keep things light-hearted and not entirely within the realm of reality. The man’s a pig! The pirates are sweethearts! Seeing Porco with his silly moustache flapping under his giant snout rescue school kids makes for a sillier intro, and puts us in the mood for what we’re about to watch without fear that it will turn too political or dark. It’s not that it never does – Porco’s jaded outlook on life is due to his experiences in war and the rise in fascism in his country – but it’s never really the focus; it’s light commentary from a studio known for sometimes being a bit ham-fisted with it. No pun intended.
Porco Rosso is easily the studio’s most effortlessly charming film but it’s so low-key that it’s sort of fallen under the radar. The blend between this postcard-perfect Europe setting, the breezy colour palette and the smooth score by Joe Hiashishi just makes the experience so fun. Combine it with some of the finest aerial animations of the time and extremely likeable characters and the movie feels like an easy, laid-back vacation. Ghibli shows us that it doesn’t have to be heavy with its message, and let the fun speak for itself – something I thought I’d only see when pigs fly.
Verdict: Too easily overlooked, Porco Rosso is one of Studio Ghibli’s finest mini-masterpieces.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Violence: 4/10 for slapstick gunfights
Magic: One out-of-nowhere witch’s curse
Eating before grace: We’ve all done it
Italian women: Easily the toughest individuals on the planet
And over in the Disney dub: Michael Keaton is so spot on in his performance it’s almost worth watching the English language version
Porco Rosso (1992)
Also known as: : 紅の豚, Kurenai no Buta (lit. Crimson Pig)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Shuichiro Moriyama – Porco Rosso
Akio Otsuka – Curtis
Tokiko Kato – Gina
Akemi Okamura – Fio
Tsunehiko Kamijo – Pirate Boss
Sanshi Katsura – Piccolo