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.