1929 - civil unrest looks set to inflame the Balkans. Fascists are on the rise in Italy. It’s a languid, hot summer along the Adriatic Sea. Daredevil flyers, survivors of the Great War, work for hire defending transports from marauding air-pirates. Greatest hero of them all is Marco Pagott, a.k.a. Porco Rosso, the crimson pig. Once a handsome pilot, Marco’s looks faded with his youthful ideals, transforming him into a talking pig. Away from his aerial exploits he leads a simple life on his little island, dozing on the beach with his newspaper and radio. He keeps regular meetings with his childhood friend, the beautiful, thrice widowed, Gina who serenades smitten airmen at her idyllic café. They’ve been in love forever, but Marco is too full of self-disgust to make a move.
Brash, motor mouth, American pilot Donald Curtis arrives to make a name for himself by shooting down Porco Rosso. On the run from angry pilots and fascist secret police, Marco flies his rocket-red, super-plane to Milan where he meets the effervescent Fio. Just seventeen and hotter than July, Fio is also aircraft-engineering genius. Having fallen in love with Marco, she makes peace with the pirates and arranges a final duel between Curtis and Marco. If Marco shoots Curtis down, he wins the costs of his repairs. If Curtis triumphs, Fio nervously promises her hand in marriage. Spurred on by her self-sacrifice, Porco Rosso gives his all, in a bravura display of aerial acrobatics. Meanwhile, Gina and Fio learn the Italian air force are poised to attack…
If proof were needed that Hayao Miyazaki is one of the great, iconoclastic auteurs of modern cinema, ask yourself this. Who else would make a romantic comedy/anti-fascist/allegorical fantasy, set in the 1920s featuring a flying pig? Porco Rosso is one of his grandest achievements, a multilayered delight from start to finish. Achingly lovely visuals capture the glorious Mediterranean summer and aviation buff Miyazaki ensures the flying sequences pack plenty of razzle-dazzle. Watching Marco’s crimson biplane skim candyfloss clouds and soar towards a golden sun is pure anime poetry.
Porco Rosso started out as Buta no Sensha (“Pig’s Tank”), a story conceived to tickle Miyazaki’s silly side, about a pig who builds a tank and sets off for adventure and glory. The short film (which was never made) would include a sub-plot where the pig woos a young girl. As the film entered development and expanded to feature length, Miyazaki’s own thoughts about war (the Yugoslavian conflict had just begun), manhood, and middle age transformed the project into something far more ambitious. His disparate influences encompass literature (Roald Dahl’s story, “They Shall Not Grow Old”), engineering (Miyazaki’s love of aircraft design - most of the flying machines here are his own inventions) and animation (the air pirates resemble Popeye’s hulking arch-enemy, Bluto and the sight of a dozen schoolgirls swarming over Marco’s plane is very Max Fleischer).
The story harks back to Hollywood’s golden age, to the romantic melodramas and comedies of George Cukor and the great Howard Hawks. Hawks’ magnificent aviation drama, Only Angels Have Wings (1939) seems a likely influence, but Porco Rosso also displays the fast-talking dialogue, zany comic invention and well-written, firecracker heroines common to his screwball comedies. This is a world where friendship, chivalry, idealism and love are more than just words. These things are the stuff of life. Love makes the world go round, and the film delivers two, great romantic heroines; two aspects of Miyazaki’s feminine ideal - graceful, tragic, strong-willed Gina and bright, passionate, life-loving innocent Fio. Gina has suffered too much to lose sight of what is important in life. Her café is a haven for old world values and she leads by example, fusing inner-strength with outer femininity. Fio is a teenage beauty in her first flush of womanhood. Everyone falls in love with her at first sight, but it’s less about lust than recognising something pure, unsullied and life-affirming in an uncertain world. Clever, capable, Fio’s self-belief is never mocked but an inspiration to others, especially Marco.
As usual with Miyazaki, the women seemed more clued up about life. The men are lovable, overgrown boys who need a nudge in the right direction. Whereas My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) were hymns to youth, Porco Rosso is a paean to middle-age. What do you do when your youthful dreams fade and die? Miyazaki argues Marco has abdicated responsibility, living in self-imposed exile emotionally and physically. The evils of fascism take root because the older generation buries its head in the sand. It takes the light of youth to rekindle Marco’s fire, and the film takes on a mythic resonance. This is the last, great romantic adventure in the last, golden summer.
Porco Rosso struck a chord with audiences across Japan and became the nation’s highest grossing film ever; a position held for five years until the arrival of Princess Mononoke. Its reception in the West was more muted, at a time when anime was still regarded as reprehensible trash. Variety’s Japan correspondent Mark Schilling praised the animation, but decried the story as “sub-Hemingway silly… ’30s B-picture schlocky”, while a major British anime distributor recoiled at the lack of sex and violence. Schilling is a fine writer and an expert on Japanese film, but has admitted he prefers his cartoons in the Warner Bros. style. He is wrong with regards to Porco Rosso, which offers subtext more ambitious than many a live action movie but is poetic and profound in an understated, purely cinematic way. As for cyberpunks/tentacle porn die-hards; what this movie lacks in sex and violence it more than makes up for in high-flying action and romance.
Such criticisms hampered its chance for a Western release (although early English dubs were available in Asia during the mid-nineties), which eventually arrived some fifteen years later. Disney’s dub features a capable cast led by Michael Keaton as Marco, but anime purists will want to hear it in Japanese first. That said, anyone curious should check out the fantastic French dub, headlined by Jean Reno!
One can’t help but sound like a broken record, heaping constant praise on Hayao Miyazaki, but the man really is that good and Porco Rosso is one of his most audacious, important, and thrilling animations.