Part of what makes/made Hayao Miyazaki so fantastic is that he’d generally work in whatever storytelling medium was available to him. Often, he’d adapt his own manga into one of his films, as he had done with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. After his two coming-of-age films, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, gave him huge success, both in his native Japan and on the international market, Miyazaki adapted another of his graphic works for his sixth feature film as director. While it would have been easy or more commercially safe to keep going in the same vein as his most famous works, Miyazaki instead adapted his three-volume watercolor album about a WWI Italian fighter pilot who is cursed to look like a pig and spends his time as an aerial bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea. If it were in anyone else’s hands, that premise could be too weird to be good, but the master managed to turn Porco Rosso into his most surprisingly heartfelt and exciting, and also sadly one of his most underrated, works.
Released in 1992, Porco Rosso is the Miyazaki movie that for whatever reason seemed the least culturally pervasive here in the United States. In truth, I’d heard or seen almost nothing about it prior to my diving into the director whole-hog (pun intended) in the recent past. It seemed to have all the hallmarks of Miyazaki’s visual style, plus the obvious focus on aeronautics and the beauty of flight, but when someone tells you a movie’s going to be about a guy who’s a pig flying around in a 1920’s prop airplane, you start to wonder what kind of thing you’re in for. But, I’m here to tell you, it’s a shame this one doesn’t get more talk.
In the interwar years in the Adriatic Sea, a former WWI ace fighter pilot, who is now an anthropomorphic pig after being cursed, nicknamed Porco Rosso (The Red Pig), lives on a beach in Croatia and takes jobs fighting off air pirates for money. When the film opens, Porco defeats a group of pirates led by Mamma Aiuto and then heads to the Hotel Adriano, which is owned by his friend Gina, a woman with whom he once had a romance, but that has fallen away since his cursing. She still has affection for him, of course, pig person or not. The bar in the hotel is a watering hole for a number of pilots in the area, and generally hostilities in the air are left outside. However, a new pilot, an American named Curtis, arrives and decides he wants himself a piece of Gina, but is dismayed to learn that she is acquainted with the great and notorious Porco Rosso.
Curtis takes a pirating job and decides he’s going to make a name for himself by shooting down Porco, who is discreetly on his way to Milan to get his plane fixed. After a daring air battle, Curtis does indeed shoot down Porco’s plane and it’s destroyed entirely, save for the fuselage. Curtis believes he has killed Porco, but the gruff hero has managed to escape with his life and make it back to Gina’s to recuperate. He still wants to get to Milan, now more than ever, but Gina attempts to dissuade him because he’s wanted for desertion in Italy. Still, he has to go and does so, to meet his old friend Piccolo and his mechanic sons. However, the sons have all moved away and most of the mechanic duties are handled by Piccolo’s young granddaughter, Fio. She’s very excited and wants to get started right away, but Porco is skeptical of her abilities. Fio eventually, through sheer ingenuity, convinces Porco of her skill as both engineer and mechanic and the two begin a partnership, after which she wants to return with him to the Adriatic.
On the way back, they learn that the Fascist government of Italy has started hiring pirates as their own personal enforcers, putting Porco effectively out of business. The pirates still want to get Porco, and so does Curtis now that he sees he didn’t actually succeed in murdering him. They set up a dogfight to finally see who the better pilot is. Fio interjects that if Porco wins, Curtis must pay off the debt Piccolo owes the bank, and if Curtis wins, he gets to marry her. Which is a bit weird given she’s probably 16 but this is Italy in the ’20s. Porco and Curtis then engage in the dogfight and eventually it just becomes the two of them in the sea punching each other until Gina arrives and warns everyone that the Italian Air Force is on their way. Reluctantly, Curtis and Porco, both bruised and battered, decide to fight off the air force and put their differences aside to save their little community.
I love many things about Porco Rosso and one of them is that, while Curtis and the pirates are certainly rivals and adversaries of Porco, by the end of the movie, they’re more or less allied and no one is “evil” in the traditional sense. This is very emblematic of Miyazaki’s work, especially after his initial three films. No one is wholly bad, they just oppose the hero. You can argue that this softens his films’ narrative impact, but I’d counter that it adds layers and shades of gray to a genre that could very easily just be white hats and black hats. Porco himself is a very gruff and abrasive figure and isn’t always particularly nice, though always good. He’s troubled and his past haunts him daily, and flying missions is the only thing he can do to feel at peace.
Another aspect I love, and this speaks again to Miyazaki’s tendencies, is the character of Fio. She’s not only smart and capable, she’s a certified genius, a savvy negotiator and go-getter, but also young and fun and thoroughly feminine. It’s so nice to see what would typically be a “tomboy” not be and instead just be great at a traditionally male profession. Miyazaki loves characters like this and, even though she’s not the central figure or even in the movie until about halfway, Fio immediately establishes herself as the heart of the story and Porco’s re-attachment to the human world.
And finally, all of the glorious scenes of flight and air battles. Miyazaki really loves and understands the world of airplanes and there’s always so much weight and physics in these scenes. He makes them at once adventurous and dangerous and beautiful and dreamlike. Plus, again, he’s able to design planes and airships that are sleek and cool but also appear functional, at least within that world.
After two very childlike films, he returned to an out-and-out action film and yet maintained a lot of the humanity and emotion of the earlier two. Porco Rosso is a movie that more people need to know about because it might well be one of Hayao Miyazaki’s top three as far as enjoyment and overall melding of story and animation. Next week, we’ll look at what is easily the director’s darkest and angriest movie, a condemnation of destroying the environment and a plea for the spirits of the forest to be left to themselves. It’s his most violent movie also, and the first of his films I’d ever seen. It’s somehow more impactful today. 1997’s Princess Mononoke is next week.