Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 8, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1992)

6. Porco Rosso
Kurenai no buta / The Crimson Pig

“Porco Rosso” probably has the oddest origin of any of the Studio Ghibli films. It began life as a short manga, painted in watercolor by Miyazaki, that was basically an excuse for the artist to indulge his love of old airplanes. (To the point that it was even printed, not in a manga anthology, but in a magazine devoted to model building.) Apparently impressed with the source material, a Japanese airline company commissioned Ghibli to turn the manga into a short in-flight film. Being the kind of director that he is, Miyazaki quickly saw the project bloom into a 90-minute feature. Despite this, the movie still wound up appearing in airplanes before theaters. Studio Ghibli being a hugely trusted brand by this point, it also became the highest grossing film of the year in Japan.

Set in the late 1920s in the Adriatic Sea, the film follows Porco Rosso, a World War I veteran and fighter pilot that has, through unknown means, transformed into a pig. Flying around in a bright red bi-plane, he hunts pirates and occasionally wins races. After pissing off one group of aero-pirates one time too many, they hire a hotshot American pilot to take the pig down. He survives but remains on the run, from his rivals and the increasingly fascist government in Italy. While on this latest adventures, he befriends the granddaughter of his mechanic and reflects on his life.

“Porco Rosso” is the first time in a while Miyazaki made a film revolving around an adult male character. Porco is introduced sitting on a beach, reclining in a chair with a magazine over his face. He comes off as aloof and seems to intentionally distance himself from those around him. Gina owns a hotel and serenades the infatuated men there with beautiful Italian songs. In time, we discover that Gina is the widow of Porco’s best friend and has lost two other husbands since then. Upon news of her previous husband’s death, she says she’s “out of tears.” She is also, obviously, in love with Porco. After his latest brush with death, she calls him and begs him to give up flying. His retort, “A pig’s gotta fly,” says so much about his character. Over the course of the film, the young Fio comes awfully close to breaking through his shell. The older man clearly comes to care about her and she for him. However, he keeps his distance from her too. Solely through implication, the film makes it clear that Porco never recovered from the war. He’s afraid to get close to others because he knows death could come for him at any minute. Porco is fascinating and his silence speaks to a quiet depth.

Miyazaki started out making pure fantasy but, over the course of “Totoro” and “Kiki,” move more into the realm of magic realism. “Porco Rosso” moves even further in this direction, as the title character’s transformation into a pig-man is the only fantastical touch in the film. “Porco Rosso” is also set in a very clear time and place, the Mediterranean during the interwar period, while most of the director’s films have more vague settings. Despite this, “Porco Rosso” still winds up feeling like a fantasy. It is set in the magical world of airplanes. The planes are brightly colored, ranging from purple to polka-dotted and camouflaged. The air-pirates, roving bands of goofball thieves that fly around in massive planes, are another touch of pure fantasy. They even seem to have unions they belong to, big organization of air-pirates. Planes communicate through blinking lights, sending Morse code, while the entire world of the Adriatic seems to revolve around air travel. “Porco Rosso” is a plane lover’s vision of the universe.

Even though its lead is a man, “Porco Rosso” is not short on strong female characters. If any thing, it seems more concerned with women’s role in the world than any of his other films. Gina carves out a living for herself as the owner of a hotel and her beauty and singing seems to instill peace among her rowdy boarders. Fio, meanwhile, has to prove herself to Porco because of her young age and, pointedly, her gender. She winds up being an innovative mechanic and an important companion. Interestingly, the only people who work in Piccolo’s repair shop are women. The husbands have left for better jobs elsewhere, leaving the wives and grandmothers to tend the local businesses. Porco is surprised by this at first but quickly accepts it. The film shows women accepting non-traditional roles in order to survive in a quickly changing world.

The world is changing for good reason too. And not necessarily for the better. “Porco Rosso” is set in Europe wedged between two world wars. Economically, the country has yet to recover and the money is, literally, not worth the paper its printed on. This is clear when Porco pays for his plane repairs with piles of bills. While in Milan, Porco and Fio are stalked by government agents, spies for the emerging Fascist government. He’s being pursued not because he’s a bounty hunter but because he’s against the change of policy. The characters’ personalities are informed by World War I. The film, meanwhile, is haunted by the looming spectre of the next great, terrible war. Patrons in a shop make references to the government “changing again” while most of the characters around Porco tell him that the air fighting he knows will be a thing of the past soon. The audience’s knowledge of what’s to come bring darker resonance to the scenes on-screen.

“Porco Rosso” is one of Miyazaki’s most dynamically directed films. The mastery of speed and motion the director showed on “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is built upon here. When Porco and Fio are making their last minute escape from Milan, the plane rushes through the canal, having near misses with the arches of a bridge and a boat. In a first person perspective, the walls of the canal whiz pass the viewer. An earlier chase scene with the secret police has Porco turning a tractor and trailer around quickly, spinning around in the center of the street and forcing his pursuer to crash into a shop-front. It’s a brief moment but masterfully animated and quickly conveys movement, with debris flying through the air and the audience feeling the clanging of the vehicles.

The film also contains some superb action sequences. The movie opens with one, in fact. When the air-pirates have kidnapped a ship full of school girl, Porco flies around them, disabling their engines and slowly chipping away at the plane. The moment establishes both Porco’s speed and ability while also giving us an idea of his personality. It’s also a lot of fun to watch. The climax of the movie is the big showdown between Porco and Curtiss. As the dog fight begins, the camera swirling around with the characters, the viewer’s heart really starts to pump.

However, “Porco Rosso” could probably be primarily classified as a comedy. As exciting as the beginning of the duel between Porco and Curtiss is, it quickly degrades into madcap comedy. Both of their guns jam causing them to toss stuff at each other. Soon, the two dock their planes and go at each other in an extended fist fight. The sequence goes on for a while, the two beating each other black and blue. It goes on long enough that the fight goes back around from tedious to amusing. There’s funny stuff throughout the film. In its opening moments, the aero-pirates quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the little girls on their plane. The girls' giggly reaction undercuts any of the serious of the situation, making the blustery pirates look like goofballs. Later on, the pirates are mocked again when seventeen-year-old Fio talks them out of murdering Porco on his beach hideout. The tough-guy leader of the pirates takes a liking to the girl and the way the tough men fawn over the girl is quite charming.

For its action and humor, the film makes time for quiet moments too. There are three that spring to mind immediately. The first comes when Porco flies over Gina’s garden, the two catching sight of each other. Without explanation, we flash back to an earlier time in both of their lives, when the two were younger. We see Marco, as he was known at the time, piloting a plane with Gina behind him, both clearly experiencing flight for the first time. Powered by Joe Hisaishi’s score, the scene gets across so much emotion with only the characters’ faces. Another brief moment comes when Porco stops by a small town, Fio in town. The two mingle briefly with the townsfolk, Porco buying the girl a soda in the shop while she rebuffs the romantic advances of a young boy in the boat. It’s a tiny, brief moment but one that’s quiet enough that I can’t imagine an American animated film making time for it.

Probably the best moment in “Porco Rosso” is another quiet, character-oriented moment. While staying on his beach, preparing for bed, Fio asks Porco for a bedtime story. He tells her of how he became a pig. Not long after being the best man at his closest friend’s wedding, Marco and his gang are forced back into combat. Their planes come upon an enemy fleet and a fire fight ensues. Marco is the only one left alive and experiences either a dream or a vision. Still in his plane, the motor idling, he floats above a sea of white clouds, a clear blue sky above. From below the clouds, the planes of his comrades fly up towards a stream of stars above. Marco wants to join them but can’t, only being able to watch his friends disappear into the sky. It might be the most lyrical moment in Miyazaki’s entire library and is stunningly beautiful and touching. It, in no concrete way, explains how Marco became Porco. However, the sequence is dripping with symbolic weight, bringing to mind issues of survivor’s guilt and an inability to move on.

As always, “Porco Rosso” is packed full of incredibly detailed animation and designs. The planes are ridiculously detailed, with much attention paid to the wooden interior of the planes, the intricacies of the motors and guns, the shining quality of the paint, and much more. The character’s clothing, their homes and buildings, are pulled from genuine historical documents. An interesting difference between this one and some of the director’s previous films is that the character designs are frequently more cartoonish and exaggerated than normal. Piccolo’s big head, constant whiskers, and round glasses almost makes him look like an unflattering caricature of Japanese men. (Which is odd, considering the character is Italian.) The Mamma Aiuto Gang is characterized by bristly, obscuring facial hair, oblong heads, and noticeable scars. Even Porco himself is somewhat exaggerated, when you consider that he doesn’t look that different as a person than he does as a pig.

“Porco Rosso” ends on a funny but longingly sweet note. As she is flown away on Gina’s plane, Fio reaches out and kisses Porco on the cheek. Without revealing his face to the audience, he rushes back to his plane, leaving it up to the viewer if his curse has been lifted or not. Considering Miyazaki has talked about making a sequel from time to time, perhaps it hadn’t. Reportedly, the film is a favorite of its director. While not miles-above better than his few preceding films, “Porco Rosso” is another strong contender from Miyazaki’s low-key period. [Grade: A-]

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