Porco Rosso is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s lesser known titles, especially when you put it side by side with other greats like Castle In The Sky, Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. Truth be told, when I first learned about this film I wasn’t sure what to expect out of it. Only one thought was going through my mind as I came across this film: “How exactly is Hayao Miyazaki going to impress us this time around?” Considering how he has managed to transform movies with seemingly ordinary plots to an impressively imaginative rollercoaster ride about adventure and self-reflection, I expected about as much from this film. Truth be told, after watching this film, I could see why this one isn’t remembered as much as some of Studio Ghibli‘s other pieces.
PORCO ROSSO (KURENAI NO BUTA)
Known in Japan simply as Kurenai No Buta, or Crimson Pig, this 1992 flick is actually based on a short manga developed by Miyazaki himself, Hikotei Jidai (The Age Of The Flying Boat). The title is quite fitting, especially considering the aviation-themed story and elements that were shortlisted into it. Throughout the production of the film, much effort was placed into clearly defining the conditions of the tumultuous era post-WWI Europe; things like fashions, music, and the aircraft equipment were all modeled to meet what would have transpired during that era. Even some of characters were reportedly based on actual historical figures in aviation from that time period – a testament to Miyazaki’s strong interest in such a field, one that would eventually be repeated 21 years later in another film of his, The Wind Rises.
Unfortunately, unlike the case with Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, both of which won various film awards ranging from local Japanese animation awards all the way to the Oscars, this film would not live up to the same international recognition as such; it grossed $44 million at the box office, which slightly more than Totoro at the time but was only a tenth of how much Spirited Away would go on to produce from theatre sales alone; and critical reviews of this film were modest at best. Plans for a sequel to this film, set in pre-Francoist Spain, titled Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie, were reportedly in the works; but needless to say, the project has since been dropped due to lack of interest.
The movie takes place in Italy, during the early years of Benito Mussolini’s leadership, and when Pope Pius XI ruled the Church from not afar in Vatican City. Our lead protagonist, an anthropomorphic pig known as Marco Pagot, is a freelance fighter pilot who makes a living capturing oversea pirates from the Mamma, Aiuto (Mommy, Help Us) gang, and lives alone on a secluded island in the middle of the Adriatic sea. He also holds a case of mild PTSD stemming from a traumatic event near the end of WWI, where he emerged as the only survivor of a piloting mission, which caused him to lose hope in humanity, transforming him into his current porky form. Nevertheless, his only link to human connection is Gina, the owner of a massively successful hotel. One day, while touring the sky, he comes face-to-face with Donald Curtis, a fame-hungry American pilot from Dixieland, who shoots him down, hoping to put his name into history as being remembered for that incident.
Fortunately, Marco survives the incident with not much scraps, and makes his way to his friend Piccolo in Milan to get his plane repaired. There, he is introduced to the latter’s daughter, Fio, who leads the charge towards fixing his plane and making further enhancements to it, much to Marco’s reluctance. Within a matter of days, his plane is repaired, and along with Fio, he escapes from Italian police who have a warrant for his head, and retreats back to his private island only to be ambushed by the same gang of pirates from before, and later Donald who, much to his shock, discovers Marco alive and well despite their previous encounter. In a twist, he negotiates the pirates to leave Marco alone, and personally challenges him to a rematch of their earlier bout: but with a catch to it. Should he emerge the winner, he would marry Fio; but in the event that Marco comes out victor, he would pay off his remaining debt and forget this incident ever happened. Out of options, Marco reluctantly agrees to satisfy the American’s high energy and ego.
The night before Marco’s bout, Fio stumbles upon what appears to be our lead protagonist, not as a pig, but as a human. The sight of this dazzles Fio, who proceeds to inquire about it. Marco recounts to her his experience during WWI, and how the sight of his fallen comrades as well as his own near-death experience led him to become the person he is today, lulling her to sleep.
The following day arrives, and Marco and Donald emerge neck-and-neck in their aerial dogfight; but thanks to a weapon failure on both planes, it devolves into a boxing match, complete with a crowd, ring and even a referee; both competitors exchange words and fists with each other, and the ensuing fight ends up in both of them knocked out simultaneously. The match is partially interrupted just as Gina arrives at the scene, and thanks to some of her words of encouragement, Marco emerges victorious, rising just as the final count strikes. After one last exchange with Fio and Donald, the latter of which he sets aside all grudges, he flies off in his red biplane seeking his newest adventure, while an astonished Donald chases after him, having just seen his true human form as well.
The film concludes approximately two decades and one new Pope (Pius XII) later: Fio has become president of her grandfather’s aviation company, Donald succeeds in becoming a famous Hollywood actor (but not President of the United States, as he boastfully remarked to Gina earlier) but is wistful about his time in Italy, the pirates live a comfy life of retirement at Gina’s hotel, and Gina continues to wait for Marco’s return. In the last scene, a familiar red biplane flying across the sky, though whether or not it is Marco piloting it, still remains a mystery that is debated to this day.
WHAT I LIKED
- The movie’s final fight between Marco and Donald was pretty hilarious. It had the setup of something straight out of the Rocky movies: an Italian guy with an animalistic association fighting a cocky American hotshot with aspirations of becoming a legend, a title on the line, and even a countdown with both competitors seemingly out of contention (do I hear you Rocky II?). When Marco emerged as the winner I had “The Final Bell” from Rocky blaring in my head as opposed to the default movie track.
- There was something really ethereal about when Fio learns about our lead protagonist’s old past life as a human, and the scene where the latter anguishes at seeing his fallen comrades descend to what he believes is the afterlife for them. Doesn’t help that the background music is an angelic choir heralding the various aerial casualties of WWI ascending to divine judgment. Speaking of Christian undertones, there’s a scene where the crew working at Piccolo’s workshop are seen praying before diving into a spaghetti dinner. Also cool to see a glimpse of what life in pre-Vatican II Catholic Italy was like, even if animated and fictional.
- I got to admit also, Miyazaki’s team did a good job at matching the aerial and landscape elements of Porco Rosso to their historical time period. Everything from there seemed to match exactly the time period from which this movie was set in.
WHAT I DISLIKED
- The plot was considerably weak, and that’s kind of a big deal considering the fact that this is a Ghibli film, which are supposed to be all great. But honestly, it was kind of hard to discern what exactly the story is supposed to be. Apart from the fact that we know who the main character is, and what his profession is, everything else revolving around him seems to have been hacked together – his out of nowhere rivalry with Donald, for example. How did he go from “cordial and friendly” at Gina’s hotel to “bloodthirsty and vengeful” within a matter of minutes (days in the film’s timeline), and with no clear motive for such a change of heart? Or the fact that Marco is apparently a criminal in Italy and the Air Force is out to get him, despite us barely getting a mention of the background of such and a poor context surrounding it?
There’s a wide range of characters to go through in this film, and it’s no way different from what previous Miyazaki works have done. However, unlike other Ghibli films where many of the characters are imaginary, such as the Almighty CatBus™, No Face or the cats from The Cat Returns, this time the anthropomorphic pig Marco is the lone standout among a purely human cast. Other than him, there’s Gina, Marco’s primary love interest, American ace pilot Donald Curtis, Fio the tomboyish plane mechanic, and the various pirate members of the Mamma, Aiuto gang, sharing features resembling those from Castle In The Sky. (Yeah, I’ve been pretty furious-paced with my intake of Miyazaki’s films recently if you haven’t noticed XD). Each character was represented by their own unique personality style, and if there’s anything good to say about them it’s that they’re likable and quite enjoyable to see go about their own ways. Even the pirates, who for the most part remain nameless, weren’t all the tough villains we’d expect, but rather just a bunch of good friends who want to have fun and troll people, and near the end, we even see that they’ve matured and basically live a nice, luxurious life in retirement.
The film incorporates a jazz style of accompaniment, reminiscent of the popular kind of music that swayed most circles during the late 1920s when this film was set; nevertheless it manages to have its own charm, thanks to Joe Hishashi’s involvement with the score. It’s no masterpiece compared to the other Ghibli films I’ve seen before, but it’s nothing too bad either.
Toki Ni Wa from the ending credits is definitely worth a listen though, especially in these times when the COVID farce is the only thing anyone’s thikning about, and moreso with winter, my least favorite season of the year, on the horizon. The lyrics themselves spoke volumes to me – one talking about reliving the best memories and highlights of our lives – and was fitting considering each characters’ dispositions at the end of the movie. I’m that kind of person, and in addition I couldn’t help but think of Jay Gatsby and his iconic line as a perfect way to summarize this song: “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!”. But perhaps the feature that surprised me the most coming from this movie was the inclusion of a French song, Les Temps Des Cerises (Cherry Times), complete with an Edith Piaf-style singer (actually, its Tokiko Kato, who nevertheless nailed it with her vocals), which serves as Gina’s entrance song at the start.
Favorite character: I’ve always had a soft spot for tomboys especially since my first crush from middle school was one of those types, and Fio definitely fits that characteristic. She’s headstrong, confident and is very talented at her profession, not to mention she also has a very amicable personality with everyone around her, even with the rough-nosed Marco who initially balks at her role. If it weren’t for her probably Donald Curtis, with his go-hard-or-go-home attitude, would have taken that spot as my favorite character from this film.
Favorite scene: My pick for this section goes to the one where a human Marco witnesses what I personally believe to be Purgatory. It’s one of the most chilling, if not depressing scenes from a Ghibli film I’ve seen so far, and as a traditionalist Catholic it was a scene that is firm with the theme that sooner or later, we’ll see God and have to account for all the actions in our lives. Even Fio believes this when she responds to Marco’s story with a simple line: “Maybe God’s telling you it’s not your time yet.”
Favorite quote: While most people seem to remember Marco’s iconic “Better a pig than a fascist” line, I thought Donald’s attempt to win Gina with his ambitious plans to become President of the United States was just over-the-top, but rather sentimental considering how he gets halfway to his goal at the film’s end. It’s something like my mother once told me: “Shoot for the stars, you might just hit the moon”.
Gina, come with me to Hollywood. Being a hired gun for air pirates is just the first step to fame and fortune. Next is Hollywood star… then President!Donald Curtis announces his intent to run for the next U.S Presidential Race
I think this is a film where I can confidently say, you make of it what you will. For some it’s an underrated classic that deserves more public recognition, while for others it’s just average at best; this is where I’m at. I can’t and won’t say that it’s a bad film, but at the same time, it pales in comparison to the others I’ve seen prior to it. The characters and visuals were pretty fun to watch, and it did have its fun and energetic moments, but the story could have been formulated better. If you like anime but also enjoy airplane flicks like Top Gun, Iron Eagle or find the Wright Brothers’ history interesting, you’ll probably find this something worth watching just for the various in-flight sequences. If not, then feel free to either dive into this out of your own curiosity, or give it a pass.