(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. For the month of May, we’re taking a deep dive into the lively, humanist wonders of one of animation’s greatest voices, Hayao Miyazaki. Keep up with the rest of May’s Filmmaker of the Month coverage here.)
Aside from the literal pig-headedness of the titular character, there are little-to-no elements of magic to be found in Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. Some might see this as a vast departure from the usually mythical and dense fantasy elements of his other films, but to his credit, this provides Miyazaki the opportunity to find the magical in the otherwise mundane, and to highlight wonder in our own reality, treacherous and devious as it may be. It’s allegedly one of Miyazaki’s most personal films, the rare movie in his oeuvre that was made for adults first but made accessible to children.
Plus, it’s about seaplane pirates. Who doesn’t love seaplane pirates?
Set above the Mediterranean Seas post-World War One, Porco Rosso follows the exploits of the eponymous pork-headed hero himself (voiced by Michael Keaton in the English dub!), an ex-army pilot now positioned as the most ruthless bounty hunter in the land. The local sea pirates can’t stand his heroic exploits and hire Donald Curtiss (Cary Elwes), an American pilot with dreams of Hollywood stardom, to take Porco down. The rivalry between Curtiss and Porco provides the spine for a film that is otherwise populated with the signature Miyazaki touches of fanciful flight sequences and intimate human interaction.
With Porco Rosso, Miyazaki seizes upon the opportunity to master a balance of wacky physical comedy and introspective human drama. For a film about treacherous fighter pilots, everyone from the get-go seems to be having a jolly good time. The young schoolgirls kidnapped by the Mamma Aiuto gang in the film’s opening sequence finding nothing but joy and excitement from this predicament, and the gang members themselves finding idiotic frustration when being pursued by Porco. Even Curtiss mainly comes off as a dullard who wants to impress and woo more than anything else. There’s not much villainy on display, just general greed and idiocy, which provides a lighter journey than one might expect.
For a film about treacherous fighter pilots, everyone from the get-go seems to be having a jolly good time.
If the film truly does have a villain, it’s Porco’s own selfishness and crude attitude. Watching the film again after many years, it truly escaped my mind that Porco’s “spell” isn’t really given a detailed explanation, at least in the original Japanese version, and his boarish transformation seems to have almost been willed onto himself. Porco has never been able to forgive himself for his failure to save his fellow pilots in a vicious dogfight with enemy combatants, deciding to crudely take out his failures on the world around him. His face is merely a reflection of how he thinks the world must see him.
Porco, to his credit, certainly doesn’t make it easy for people to like him. He refuses to admit his feelings towards local hotel owner and cabaret singer Gina, although she isn’t too shy about her own stirrings towards the swine-head. He constantly throws sexist jabs towards his mechanic partner, Fio, even after she does a killer job on repairing his plane. Porco’s attitude towards women is, frankly, rather piggish throughout the film – it’s really only when he’s able to open himself up and allow kindness into his world that he starts to get a new outlook on the world around him. (The ambiguous ending also leads us to believe the world might have a new outlook on him too).
The film’s signature feature, of course, is its depiction of the sheer majesty of flight, with all the wonder we’ve come to associate with Miyazaki. Each plane is captured with such immaculate detail, they seem to take on a life of their own outside of their respective pilot. Porco’s signature red fighter plane almost exists as its own character — a signature entity we tie our hearts to amongst the manic chaos of the film’s final battle sequence.
Porco Rosso may not reach the mythic heights of Princess Mononoke nor the emotional depths of Spirited Away, but as with all Miyazaki films, it stands as a testament to how he has revolutionized the craft of animation through exquisite detail in design and character. You’d be a fool to tell Miyazaki that pigs can’t fly.