Porco Rosso (1992)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Shūichirō Moriyama, Akio Ōtsuka, Tokiko Kato, Tsunehiko Kamijō, Sanshi Katsura, Akemi Okamura
Porco Rosso is a really strange beast, but even so it is rather wonderful. Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki asks; what if the inter-war Mediterranean was dominated by pirates, privateers and mercenaries all flying Wacky Races-style colourful aircraft? What kind of people would live out their days in that world, and what would their dreams and desires be?
Miyazaki adapts his own manga to tell the story of Marco Pagot AKA Porco Rosso (Shūichirō Moriyama), “the Red Pig” who is the best pilot around and a literal pig-faced scoundrel, a lover and fighter of legendary reputation. Pagot, in taking any dirty job if the money is right, has made himself enemies over the years, and on the day that he finds himself bested in the air and without his trusty aircraft, he has to gather his few allies and get up into the skies once more to reclaim his reputation.
This is easily Miyazaki’s wittiest yarn, full of great one-liners and with a clear social conscience always on display. On those who would sell weapons vs those who would use them in peacetime, Miyazaki ponders that “War profiteers are villains. Bounty hunters are just stupid”. To an extent, the film skips past the cruel realities of war but it doesn’t let those who would perpetuate it off the hook either.
“Better a pig than a fascist”. Germany tends to be the primary antagonistic force in films about war. It’s refreshing to see Italy criticised for its own political leanings in the inter-war period. As a rarity among Miyazaki’s work, this story is taking place in at least a version of our world in which the same history has left its mark. World War I happened. The rise of fascism across Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s is happening. World War II and countless other conflicts of the future will still happen.
The pristine presentation and vivid, children’s storybook colour palette belies some pretty dark and thoughtful subtext on conflict, greed and pride. When a war isn’t on, those who would be fighting will find someone in need of their skills, and they’ll rarely be for any standup ideals. They’ll ether be in it for the money or their egos, or more likely, both. When all is said and done, this story all comes down to two insecure men trying to out-man each other. Porco is a bit of, well, a pig, and his arch-nemesis, ace American pilot Donald Curtis, is even worse, and their ever-escalating and increasingly petty rivalry really grates after a while. It’s one of the most perceptive films about the truth of war to not take place in an actual war.
As Porco knowingly comments, “A pig’s gotta fly”. Few animated films capture the dreamlike liberation of being able to fly as this. The How to Train Your Dragon series does this too, but that’s with the latest in state-of-the-art CG animation. That the Studio Ghibli animators manage to reproduce that feeling so smoothly and seamlessly with hand-drawn lines is a towering achievement.
Alright, let’s confront the pig in the room – the film’s sexual politics are problematic, especially for a kid’s film. While it’s great to see an all-female team of aeronautical engineers, Miyazaki makes a rare misstep where his lead female character is concerned. The seventeen year-old Fio (Akemi Okamura) fawns over the middle-aged pig man she is traveling with. The same seventeen year-old is drooled over by a group of comic, but potentially sexually aggressive air pirates. She’s then offered up as the grand prize in a competition. Even for an old-fashioned swashbuckling tale of derring-do, this is a bit dodgy.
Iffy handling of a key character aside, and others who need to take a look in the mirror even if they don’t have snouts, Porco Rosso is a mad, gorgeous and rip-roaring adventure with a surprising amount going on behind the flying goggles. Expect all of Miyazaki’s usual heart and an unexpectedly satirical edge to this one.