The story of Porco Rosso begins when director Hayao Miyazaki was approached by Japan Airlines to produce a short 30-to-45 minute movie for the company to show during their flights. “A movie which tired businessmen on international flights can enjoy even with their minds dulled due to lack of oxygen” is a famously what Japan Airlines was looking for. By the time Miyazaki was done, Porco Rosso had not only morphed into a feature-length film, it had become the second flat-out masterpiece of the director’s career.
Along with My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso forms part of a trilogy of films that I like to refer to as Miyazaki’s “small child” trilogy. Why do I call them that? Well, first of all, they are three of Miyazaki’s most kid-friendly movies, and they were produced one after the other. There is relatively little violence and almost no scary parts in them. I wouldn’t hesitate in showing any of these movies to a small child. Not only would they be age-appropriate, but they feature the kind of innocent yet clever sense of humor that resonates with adults as much as it does with children.
Second, their plot revolves around smaller adventures, especially when compared to some of Miyazaki’s most famous movies. None of the characters in these movies “go on a mission” in the traditional narrative way. Sure, the characters go new places, meet new people, and have often changed in one way or another by the end of the movie, but there is always a certain casualness to the proceedings. Even in Porco Rosso, the most “adventurous” of the three, our characters seem to be involved in a relatively low-stakes situation.
Which is weird, because the movie’s plot focuses on Porco, a pilot and bounty-hunter of the Adriatic Sea, dealing with a bunch of air pirates, including him engaging in a potentially deadly duel with an arrogant American pilot named Donald Curtis. However, the details are in the presentation. These characters might be flying planes at full speed while shooting at each other, but the aforementioned innocent humor of the whole piece makes it impossible to think that someone could actually die while doing this. The thing about the “small child” movies is that not only are they made for them, but they also seem to operate by the logic of small children.
That’s what makes them good movies. What makes them great, however, is that this “kid logic” is met with the guiding hand of a very smart and sensitive adult. One that cherishes the magic of childhood play, and brings a bittersweet melancholy from which the movie derives its power. In Totoro, we have the omnipresence of our protagonists’ ailing mother, and in Kiki, we have the sadness of leaving one’s childhood behind in order to have a career.
In Porco Rosso, melancholy takes a couple of main forms. First is the fact that our main character is a flying pig. We learn that Porco’s real name is Marco, and that he used to be a fighter-pilot during World War I until he was cursed and transformed into a pig. After that, he quit the army, and turned himself into a bounty-hunter. The opening of the movie informs us that “(the movie) is set over the Mediterranean Sea in an age when seaplanes ruled the waves”. For a man as obsessed with flight as Miyazaki, there couldn’t be a more romantic period to set his movie. Porco is a tortured hero, a gentleman trapped in the body of pig.
And while he is having his adventure, the world around him seems to be coming to an end. The movie is set in the interwar period, and there is a lot of talk about rising fascism in Italy. As a matter of fact, part of the movie deals with the army going after Porco to keep him from flying. “Your either fly with the army, or you don’t fly at all” is the growing mentality that is sweeping the nation, and will most likely put an end to Porco’s world of fanciful flight and comedic adventure.
In that sense, the movie reminds me of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. They’re both about men who could only be described as gentlemen trying to hold on to a set of ideals that will soon vanish from the world they inhabit. Both movies focus on silly little adventures while having the much-too-real threat of World War II (and all the horrors that come with it) looming on the horizon. The knowledge that something bad is coming is what makes both movies so powerful…
…which is not to say that they’re depressing, because they’re not. I would describe them as unbearably beautiful. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, and that is luckily not something that these movies are perpetrating. What they’re doing is ringing the bell for playfulness and beauty. They’re screaming, from the top of their lungs, that such things matter, but they’re doing it so delicately that one doesn’t realize it at first, one only feels it.
That is why Porco Rosso is a great movie. A masterpiece that is too often forgotten when speaking about the works of such a masterful filmmaker as Miyazaki. Well, that, and the fact that it is so, so funny. I can’t believe I wrote this much without mentioning either Fio -Porco’s young mechanic friend, and one of Miyazaki’s most memorable plucky heroines- or the movie’s centerpiece fist-fight between Porco and Curtis, a moment that perfectly encapsulates the sense of humor that makes Porco Rosso so endearing.
Next Time: Some people are scandalized by the way Isao Takahata draws raccoons in Pom Poko.