Movie Review: Porco Rosso (1992)

Movie Review: Porco Rosso (1992)
February 25, 2005

Whenever I want to show a Hayao Miyazaki movie to someone who has never heard of Studio Ghibli, I'll almost always go for Porco Rosso. Of all their great movies, it's this one that best embodies all the great traits and characterists of the great film studio. It has adventure, imagination, and great humor; but it's also quiet and often reflective, a nostalgic romanticism.

Porco Rosso is a story set in the Adriatic in 1929, during the early days of the Great Depression and the rise of Italian fascism. The main character is a pilot named Marco, who was a legendary fighter pilot in the Great War and now works as a bounty hunter and lives alone on an island. Marco also happens to be a pig.

By that, I mean he's crude and lazy. He's put on pounds in middle-age. He can be rather blunt and he carries some sexist attitudes towards women. In other words, he's a damned pig.

You can always tell you're dealing with an unimaginative soul when he or she can't figure out, good glavin, why does this guy look like a pig? It's as if they never discovered the novel concept of the metaphor. The icon, as Scott McCloud calls it. As his great polemic Understanding Comics puts it, all visual art is abstract and symbolic. Icons are merely the symbols, the language, that we have commonly agreed upon. This is not an airplane. This is not a pig.

One of the great joys of watching a Miyazaki film is seeing how he brings a painter's instinct to movies. If Porco Rosso were a live-action movie, Marco would be played by some middle-aged actor channelling Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. But animation doesn't deal in reality; it deals in abstraction and symbolism. Marco as a pig is a great touch of cariciture.

In a Disney picture, this point would be literalised and drowned in cliches like magic spells and fairy godmothers. Miyazaki wisely prefers to play it straight; the director depends on his emotional honesty. This also has the benefit of setting up the best line in the picture: "Id rather be a pig than a fascist."

This isn't a movie about Italian airplanes and firefights, but about people and relationships. Its focus on Marco as disillusioned and cynical is a personal self-portrait by Miyazaki. Of all the characters he has created over the years, it's Marco that he most closely identifies with. As My Neighbor Totoro was a personal film about his childhood, Porco Rosso is Miyazaki's self-portrait of midlife.

Those of us in the West, when discovering Miyazaki, draw upon his sweeping romanticism and sense of kindness. But if you invest enough time with his work, particularly his Nausicaa graphic novel, you discover an artist always in conflict. On one side, we have his love of nature, his idealism. On the other side, we see the doubt and cynicism, his world-weariness and realism.

Very often, these traits are embodied in the two female leads, what I'd call Miyazaki's "two sisters." The younger "sister" is the idealist, the older "sister" the realist. There are minor variations from film to film, but the same pattern is always present.

I think this is why girls and women are so strongly developed in his movies, so fully portrayed and emotionally honest. In Porco Rosso, the "older sister" is a woman named Gina who owns a restaurant and has known Marco since childhood. She's a wonderfully self-assured, independant person, but also wise to the ways of the world, and maybe a little sad.

The "younger sister" is a 17-year-old redhead named Fio, the granddaughter of a mechanic Marco turns to when his plane is damaged in an ambush. True to form, she is a firebrand, and also a skilled mechanic who rebuilds the plane while withstanding Marco's wisecracks. Eventually, she leaves with Marco, and the two develop a special bond together.

I think the greatest strength of Porco Rosso lies in how gradually, how casually, the extent of Gina and Marco's relationship is revealed. Most people will say the picture's best scene is Marco's story of what happened to him in the war (revealing, in a sense, why he lost faith in humanity), which is taken from a Roald Dahl short story called They Shall Not Grow Old. It's a great moment, there's a better scene.

In this scene, Gina is sitting in her garden, weathering marriage proposals from Donald Curtis, a bumbling Errol Flynn-ish rival to Marco. She's discreetly cutting him off at the knees, in that way old Hollywood starlets could do. She reveals, in so many words, that she's in love with the fat pig, and is waiting for him to show up and do something about it. At that moment, she hears a sound, and rushes out to see Marco in his familiar red plane. As he performs a series of loops, Gina suddenly recalls an old memory from childhood: the first time she flew in a plane with Marco.

It's all so wonderful, one of the great romantic moments in the movies. If you're not moved to tears, then you should probably go to a doctor. There's something seriously wrong with you.

I don't think Porco Rosso could be made in America. The temptation would be too strong to merely pile on one chase scene after another, at the expense of the characters; we see the wreckage at the multiplexes nearly every week. Miyazaki certainly is a master of action comparable to Eisenstein, Ford, and Kurosawa, but he also has little patience for simple melodrama and often depicts boys' violence as childish and silly. The odd collection of air pirates are more rivals than villans, and their screwball antics are played for comedy.

The reason the climactic air duel between Marco and Curtis is so good is because it's the only major action set-piece in the entire movie. The whole story is building up to this moment, and it's a terrific payoff. Then Miyazaki does something no American director would dare: he takes all the air out of the tires and turns the whole thing into a farce. These two pilots are reduced to hurling wrenches in mid-air and throwing punches.

The movie's final exclamation mark is another touching moment of affection, this time between Marco and Fio. It's a farewell romantic gesture for a passing era, of a world sliding towards fascism and the hell it will unleash. The world as we know it may be ending, but at least we have one another. It's the grand theme of one of cinema's great masters.


greentea said...

I bought the DVD, and have watched it twice. To be honest I was disappointed.. though I feel almost impressed that they resisted an obvious gag about 'when pigs fly'.

The story was just very straightforward and bland to me, airplanes and people talking. There was a little too much pushy feminism, especially with Fio, who was too MUCH of a Miyazaki heroine, a 'Mary Sue' as some call it. I think it's really apparent when the bad guys got intimidated and charmed by her after she scolded them, that did it for me.

And yeah.. I would have liked a reason why Marco was turned to a pig. Maybe just showing how much Marco changed from his younger self, because the movie didn't get into that enough. I would've liked more peeks into the whole backstory of him and his pilot friends and Gina.

To me, Porco Rosso is something that has some merits, the whole iconic pig-man-in-a-suit image, the old-fashioned time it takes place, the old machinery, Fio's grampa; but it could have been much better than it was. It wastes a lot of time on plane chases and cliche characters. I think it feels like a sequel to another movie that had Marco and Gina's pasts take place. To me, it just lacked in storytelling.

..Yeah, I should probably just write my own blog, shouldn't I?

Anonymous said...

greentea, watch the French dub before you make up your mind.

Unknown said...

I agree that Porco as a pig is a great example of animated, imaginative storytelling. But your review seems under the impression that it is merely a caricature (you say he would have been played by a normal actor in a live film). This is incorrect. Porco is a pig, people refer to him as a pig, his pictures show him as a pig, Gina wishes he wasn't a pig, Miyazaki confirms he is a pig. Porco being a pig is a fundamental part of the story. It isn't a metaphor. Porco is a pig. His self-loathing turned him into a pig.

WillSmith said...

I love Hayao Miyazaki's films, but his male characters can be annoying "Mary Sue's" sometimes, but then again thats a part of the style.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Great comments by everybody. My thinking on Porco Rosso is influenced heavily by Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, and his theories on The Icon. I'm also an abstract artist, and that's the lens I digest these movie through.

I think the beauty of animation is that an icon can have several meanings at once. If Porco Rosso were a live-action film, the idea of Marco as a Pig would be treated literally, and nothing more. As an animation, we can see its many faces emerge. We can accept that he is a pig, as all the characters in the film do, and we can also accept that "pig" is a symbol of a man's alienation, loathing and despair.

We don't have to choose one or the other. We can choose both. That's the idea behind my writings on this film, and I hope I've communicated it effectively.

Porco Rosso certainly isn't the most accessible of Miyazaki's films. It is a bit abstract. And Greentea is right - you do feel that there's a whole other movie that you missed out. But, then again, that's how I remember the original Star Wars when I was a kid back in 1980.

I always kind of like that there's unseen art beyond the boundaries of the canvas. The painting should never show the complete work, but focus on a significant part. The viewer should feel free to aid in the creation of that world beyond the canvas. Again, that's probably another influence of the original Star Wars, long before George Lucas went back and explained everything.

Not everything needs to be explained. Sometimes the questions are better than the answers. That's a truism of life, I believe. It's also a truism of Miyazaki movies like Porco Rosso.

greentea said...

Miyazaki's developing a sequel for Porco Rosso?! Aparently...

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@greentea: Yes, I did see this yesterday, but I wanted to read it more thoroughly before posting comments on the Ghibli Blog. I'm not sure that Miyazaki is expressly saying that he is making another Porco Rosso, or a movie that is similar in tone and theme. I suspect there may be something lost in translation, and the internet can spin these things out of control very easily.

For now, I advise patience. We'll see what Miyazaki's next movie project will be soon enough, certainly around the time Ghibli's next feature film (also to be directed by a rookie).

Unknown said...

It is official, Miyazaki is planning to DIRECT a Porco Rosso SEQUEL
there's little info but IMDB usually don't lie, unless the proyect is cancelled later

Njord said...

Having watched the English dub recently (obtained through perfectly legal means, of course... ahem) it felt like it was hinted that Marco's transformation occurred after he witnessed the ascension of the downed pilots, and the intense guilt he felt afterwards.

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