Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso started out as a manga for a modeling magazine turned into a short for Japan Airlines grew and grew and grew into his sixth animated feature--easily his oddest and most personal film.
What distinguishes the picture from his other works is its situation in an easily recognizable time and place: the Adriatic Sea, during the rise of Fascist Italy. Some stylized touches: sea pirates are treated more like tourist attractions than security threats; the surrounding Mediterranean seascape is lit and drawn like a series of J.M.W. Turner paintings (unlike in American animation background paintings seems like a major art form in Japan) the waters impossibly pure (you stare and wonder if the seaplane is floating in saline or levitating in air--possibly Miyazaki's way of reminding us how beautiful unpolluted ocean can be).
The planes are based on actual seaplanes--in this alternate reality they're all amphibious--tweaked and combined according to the director's fancy (Porco's racer turned fighter for example is called a Savoia S.21 but looks more like a Macchi M.33 with creative modifications). The guns are strictly realistic, from the Smith and Wesson revolvers to Porco's customized Maxim machine gun (with wickedly pointed Mauser cartridges) to the gigantic anti-tank rifle one burly pirate cradles in his arms early in the film--which makes for an interesting unemphasized statement: the planes are centaurlike beings tweaked to be just this side of fabulous (and painted accordingly, in brilliant colors) while the guns are grim reminders of the war about to wipe out a good portion of the world's population. You might say Miyazaki acknowledges the appeal of guns and has them drawn accurately but nothing more, while planes are creatures of engineering and imagination deserving of all the attention--the conversations about angles of incidence, the arguments on fine-tuning, the filmmaker's unmatched ability to dream up fantastical yet persuasively designed mythological creatures. Because these are mythological creatures, of wood frame and sheet metal and mounted engines that sputter and roar, their sleek bellies skimming water before heaving into the air,* gliding and fluttering and leaving vapor trails in the sky.
*(What makes Miyazaki's flying sequences so thrilling I submit isn't so much the sense of the planes' lightness but their solidity. The hulls grind against earth, shudder and crouch before attempting takeoff, like an athlete tensing before a leap. In the air they sag along their length, creak from inertia when turning--they retain mass and weight in flight, retain the sense of a complex mechanism plated with flimsy metal held together by a thousand bolts, each of which can fail at any point (in a lighting storm or under machine gun fire the odd plate will tear off, or perforate like tinfoil). Which adds to the sense of realism, not to mention danger.
Then there's Miyazaki's clouds and atmosphere, clouds being dark pools where fliers can dive and hide, atmosphere a crystalline fluid that wings can slice propeller blades bite--the alchemic medium through which Miyazaki works his gravity-defying magic)
The dogfights I submit are a major reason the director wanted to do this film (and why I suspect Japan Airlines was so willing to sponsor--who doesn't enjoy an exciting dogfight?): scarved and goggled knights on gaudily painted steeds spiraling past each other in an attempt to attain the higher position, the adversary's rear (Homoerotic much?). At one point Porco climbs into the wild blue and dives, his adversary following, only Porco does a quick loop and is suddenly on the other's tail ("That loop is what made the pig the Ace of the Adriatic," a pirate notes appreciatively)--the sequence done in long shot, no cuts, as elegantly staged as any Kurosawa action sequence. If one wishes to justify hand-drawn animation--animation where hands still draw on celluloid sheets--one can do worse than cite this film (in a few years Pixar will release Toy Story and the landscape will change).
But what truly sets the film apart from the director's other works (or just about any other animated feature I can think of) is the near-disposable plot, a cobbled-together hodgepodge of aerial dogfights and comic confrontations, actually a flimsy excuse to bring together some of the most delicately sketched characters in all of Miyazaki.
There's Porco, formerly Marco Pagot (Rossolini in the American dub)--a combination of Humphrey Bogart's cynical bar owner in Casablanca ("I don't fight for honor I fight for a paycheck") Cary Grant's idealist flier in Only Angels Have Wings ("A pig's gotta fly") and Miyazaki himself (a fixation on pigs an incurable love for planes).
Unanswered throughout: why a pig? O we get clues--it's a curse; a feigned misogynist attitude; a response to Italy's Fascism ("I'd rather be a pig than a Fascist"). I like to think Miyazaki's interest in the pudgy mammals comes from the fact that they look inherently funny (or he draws them so), are a reminder of our fleshy smelly greedy corporeal selves, and yet smarter than we assume (They can learn tricks, solve problems, and in one experiment is taught to move a cursor using a modified joystick). If Porco is an autobiographical cartoon of the filmmaker (a risky but always tempting thesis to make) he functions as both comic criticism (He's standoffish and boorish; hard on the people he loves; obsessed with few things in life (eating, drinking, smoking, flying)) and idealized role model (both womanizer (constantly chased by women) and pacifist (constantly getting into dogfights)). His passivity links him to the filmmaker, or at least what we know of the filmmaker, or at least what we know of the filmmaker's concept of himself.
And Porco suffers from survivor's guilt. Key sequence in the film is a dream--or is it a dream?--Porco tells (Skip the rest of the paragraph if you haven't seen the film!) about a vicious dogfight in World War 1 where his comrades are killed and he blacks out. He wakes to a pure white world (probably--he admits--flew into a cloud) with a band stretching across the sky; the band is made up of dead fliers and everyone friend or foe who fought in the recent battle except himself is rising up to join the silent migration to the next world. The sequence comes late in the story but gives the film a subdued plangent note, an emotional depth that adds bite to the comic bits, meaning to the action setpieces.
Everyone and everything revolves around Porco (another reason to suspect Porco's character to be autobiographical). Curtis--his frenemy and wannabe rival--acts as comic foil, sweating and straining to be as cool, failing miserably. Fio the prodigy who happens to be young and beautiful and tho no one really comes out and says it (which is appreciated) is in love with him--Fio represents the bright energy of youth that (cliche I know) helps revive Porco, goose him out of his middle-age melancholy funk. Gina as the only adult in the film (while everyone watches the duel with Curtis she's the only one who thinks to monitor the Italian Air Force's radio signals) pulls off maturity with understated yet sexy style, same time Miyazaki grants her the film's single most moving moment: a brief flashback where we see young Marco take Gina on her first flight, the excitement and affection they must have felt for each other a treasured memory they have never talked about since (I'm assuming), or taken further, or even tapped.
Is the film Miyazaki's best? Have my own canonical choice, but this picture's lighthearted sophistication (save once or twice when the poignancy slides home like a stiletto) its urbane sense of humanity (which you don't really see in Miyazaki's other works--or for that matter in most any other film) makes me suspect it's one of his best, easily his most underrated. Think Jacques Demy with planes (Joe Hisaishi's melodic score being one of his most swooningly romantic) or Ozu with wings and you get the idea.
First published in Businessworld 5.25.18