The name Hayao Miyazaki conjures up a certain type of movie. Awe-inspiring fantasy against a backdrop of idyllic vistas, starring youthful main characters, with at least one mouth-watering scene of food too good to be true. Isao Takahata tends to be the Studio Ghibli director with a more subdued oeuvre, but Miyazaki strikes a balance in Porco Rosso, combining his love of aviation with a story seemingly built for adults as much as children. Set in a distinct historical period, in a distinct area of the world, with distinctly adult characters, Porco Rosso is easily one of the most underrated Miyazaki films, a film that should absolutely be revisited by anime fans that grew up with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
The film takes place over the Adriatic Sea, during a time in the 1930’s when fascism had taken hold in Italy. Marco, an Italian pilot-turned-bounty-hunter, is dubbed “Porco Rosso,” or “Crimson Pig”, because of his bright red seaplane and the fact his face is cursed to resemble a pig (perhaps the only real fantasy intertwined in the narrative, but more on that later). Despite his porcine features, he very much resembles the iconic hero-pilot of the World War I era, spending his post-war days hunting pirates, drinking wine like water, and putting on airs as a womanizer. The film opens with a daring rescue wherein he saves a band of schoolgirls from the cartoonish “Mama Aiuto Gang,” who end up hiring an equally-dashing (and legally distinct from Errol Flynn!) American pilot named Curtis to take our hero down. He nearly succeeds, and Marco takes his damaged plane to Milan for repairs, dodging the secret police and Italian Air Force as he returns to fight Curtis in a climactic take-all battle, the last gasp of his legacy as a soldier.
Porco Rosso was Miyazaki’s last director credit until Princess Mononoke five years later, and it certainly seems like the end of a particular chapter of his output. Whereas the following films were heavily-steeped in fantastical elements, Ghibli’s early output struck a balance between this fantasy and a realistic and historical grounding. This early era also seemed to be more comedic than Mononoke and its successors—I found myself comparing Porco Rosso with The Castle of Cagliostro more than once, with its free-wheeling action and characters that never let you forget you’re watching a cartoon. But despite this light-hearted comedy, the theme of Porco Rosso is more adult in nature. Marco is a soldier, he gave up his youth learning to pilot and saw many of his compatriots killed during battles. His literal pigheadedness is not just a visual curse here, but also acts a metaphor for his self-image. Throughout the film, he references himself as being distinct from other humans. He struggles with his self-worth and his responsibility to his friends both alive and dead. The fact that all of the cast, except for the engineer Fio, is made up of adults with complex histories that define their personality, is certainly not lost on me. Like Only Yesterday, this might be a film better enjoyed by a more mature audience for this fact alone.
“You’re a great kid, Fio. Seeing you makes me wish I hadn’t given up being human.”
Also on display here is Miyazaki’s trademark feminism, but in an unusual manner. Whereas he usually leaves the sexist dialogue to the villains, we do see it in Marco as well as Curtis here. He is kind to his friend Gina, but once he learns that Fio will be the one repairing his plane instead her male brothers and cousins, he almost storms off, claiming her lack of experience is the cause but obviously doubting her gender. Even after relenting, he treats her as burden throughout much of the film, only opening up to her after she puts her life on the line to save him from certain death from the pirate gangs. Would the phrase “chauvinist pig” be a little too on the metaphorical nose? The viewer can’t help but remember this film does take place during a very different time period than our own, a fact that admittedly does help ground the setting as something not unlike Casablanca. Luckily, we do see this change by the end of the film, with both Gina and Fio decidedly taking action and showing their ability despite the patriarchy around them, and Marco’s curse lifting as his bonds with them grow stronger.
The visual design is given special care in Porco Rosso—the director’s noted appreciation of vintage aircraft combined with funding from Japan Airlines creates a loving tribute to the planes of the era as well as the battles they fought in. The character designs are also reminiscent of the earlier Kiki’s Delivery Service: simple and uncluttered, yet full of charm. The English dub accentuates this charm perfectly. Micheal Keaton captures Marco’s tired yet resigned demeanor, and Cary Elwes (of The Princess Bride fame) works overtime to capture a pitch-perfect Southern twang for Curtis. The backgrounds are exactly what you would expect from Ghibli; from the gorgeous flyovers above the Adriatic islands, to the coziness of Gina’s bar and the ramshackle nature of Piccolo’s hangar, they all create the palette that the rest of the film springs from. The pinnacle of the film, however, happens right before the final duel: musing on his past, Marco tells Fio the story of the dogfight that took his friend Bellini’s life. Passing out mid-fight, Marco dreams of a seeing a band of white light in the sky. Bellini and the other fallen pilots fly wordlessly up to the band of light, revealed to be a procession packed with other silent planes. This entire segment, as a metaphor for the human cost of needless war and Marco giving up his association with what mankind is capable of, will stick in my mind for years to go, a poignant moment in a film sadly not given the same level of recognition of Miyazaki’s other films.
Those who have read and listened to my previous reviews will know that I tend to be harsh on Studio Ghibli in general and Hayao Miyazaki in specific. I, for one, am not as in love with his works as the rest of American fandom seems to be, but even I cannot doubt the quality of his stories and his animation. Porco Rosso is an excellent departure from his usual fare, with adult characters dealing with adult problems in what is the most real setting of any of his movies. These facts might be the reason it’s not as well-regarded as its brethren, but absolutely contribute to the reason every older fan should make sure they check this out.
Porco Rosso is available along with The Wind Rises, The Cat Returns, Castle in the Sky, and others. Get it as part of a new 6-film bundle on Apple TV and save $20!