Today we board the plane to fly into Miyazaki territory yet unexplored by Studio Ghibli. Which is another way to say: Welcome to this instalment of Miyazaki March (other posts on Hayao Miyazaki films in the directory HERE), where I will take a closer look at Porco Rosso.
Released to Japanese theaters in 1992 Porco Rosso was very successful domestically, even though it is one of the lesser known Miyazaki/Ghibli features internationally. Interestingly enough there are rumours circulating that Miyazaki himself plans a sequel to Porco Rosso, entitled The Last Sortie, featuring an older Porco allegedly equivalent to Hayao Miyazaki’s own progressing age, but as of yet, there has been no official word on the matter. It is the 6th Miyazaki directed film for Studio Ghibli and one thing that I am always extremely delighted about when watching this movie is its soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. Granted, Miyazaki movies tend to have excellent soundtracks, but this one in particular is just so awesome that I had the track The Wind of Time in an organ version as my cell phone ringtone. Anime Geekdom, taken to new heights (and just for the record, I do not consider myself to be an anime geek).
So, Porco Rosso.
On the Me, All Over The Place Facebook Page (yep, shameless) I was specifically asked to review this one and I suspect that request was made for a reason. Reason being: Porco Rosso is one of Miyazaki’s finest. I know people who do definitely not think so, but I better say it now: I L.O.V.E. it. And I think it is one of Miyazaki’s finest, too. Deal with it. Or rather, let me tell you why.
I just have to direct you to THIS wonderful post talking about Porco Rosso, because it pretty much nails the feeling that I get from watching it (and judging by the comments, it nails what others feel as well). Porco Rosso is fun, it is surprising at times, it seems very old fashion at others and has a nice little plot going for itself. But what makes Porco Rosso such a standout for me is how all of that adds up to such a bitter-sweet glimpse on something wonderful bound to vanish it breaks my tiny little heart, because, awww. Porco Rosso’s fate is tragic, his friends died, his relationship to Gina is emotionally difficult and being against the forces of fascism in the 1920s is right and well, but sort of a lost cause for years to come. The movie feels like a momentary glimpse into lives and times that are joyous and happy, because these are happy events, but underneath it all there is grief and sadness and the notion that this is going to be over very soon. Carpe diem, y’all, and memento mori.
At first glance Porco Rosso seems to be somewhat of an oddity in the Miyazaki oeuvre. One reason is the male protagonist, although if you think about it, he is not alone as such, and he shares his screen time with strong female characters. The movie is furthermore explicitly political, which seems uncommon for animation in general but also for Miyazaki features. Again, this is, if you think about it, not true. Castle in the Sky is decidedly political in its advocacy for environmental awareness, although it is of course, just like the war in Howl’s Moving Castle, not linked to a concrete time-period or political system of our real-life history. But there is also Princess Mononoke where historical references are more explicit, so even on that account Porco Rosso is not alone. Heck, not even when it comes to characters central to the plot being pigs. Spirited Away, anyone? It is interesting though, that, at least to me, Porco Rosso seems much more unique and outstanding in all of these respects.
With every re-watch I am surprised anew now complex the exploration of various themes throughout the movie is.
There is an explicit anti-fascism and an implicit anti-war stance to the movie, but it does not go down the easy route. Porco Rosso was a soldier in the war, after all, and he is still friends with people working for the current political system. His job of the moment is a reminiscence of what he did before and as such it is certainly no less prone to violence and conflict. But the movie and Porco himself call this into question repeatedly. His past is only vaguely clear but what we get to learn is that besides losing his human appearance he has lost great friends. They were proud war pilots all of them, but he is the only one to survive and the memories of his friend are nagging at him, making his friendship with Gina – and his feelings for her – a complicated one. He loves being a pilot and he loves the thrill of fighting as a pilot, but he nonetheless wonder about the purpose of a soldier/pilot and realizes that what he does and loves is something that will ultimately mean his death. In a flashback to the story he tells to Fio we get to experience an amazing sequence of his near-death experience as a pilot on the verge of exhaustion. He ascends over the cloud to witness as seemingly neverending stream of aircrafts making their rounds. All those deceased war pilots, his colleagues at least in spirit. And he knows: this is what is waiting for him. And he has made peace with it. Awww. *insert heartbreak here*
Just like other Miyazaki features we get to get an unusual discussion of the role of women for animation standards, in this case even for Miyazaki standards as well. Because in Porco Rosso women are the objects of desire and admiration of men and Porco himself has trouble trusting Fio to be able to repair his aircraft. What on the surface seems to contradict Miyzaki’s usual stance towards female agency and strong female characters turns out to be a different approach to the same message. Women can be more than pretty and desireable, they can be technical experts, hard workers even in old age, headstrong, independent and most of all agents of their own fate. The real difference in Porco Rosso – and one that could be argued is substantially more feminist than his other narratives – is that Porco is the male protagonist but needs a female, Fio, to actually enable him to do what he needs to do (repairing his ship and facing his foe) and another female, Gina, to accept his fate and embrace happiness by telling him repeatedly that he might think it wrong, but she thinks they should totally hit it off together. And in the end she, or rather: both, get their wish. Implicitly, I know. (Still: Awwww!)
One of my often repeated mantras on this blog is that I think that there are a number of films that really benefit from not explaining stuff, because an explanation would probably just ruin it. It doesn’t always work, but here it does. We never really get to know why Marco became Porco Rosso, what sort of curse made the man a pig. But the mystery is ok, because what we learn is that it’s not what you look like, it’s who you are and what you do. And Porco may look like a pig, but he’s decent and awesome and that is why everyone loves him. And Fio might be a pretty young thing, but girl knows what she wants and girl knows how to build a fucking good aircraft. I find it to be remarkable how the movie succeeds in wandering the thin line of making clear that of course our outer surface matters, mostly to people who do not really know us, but that it is of course so much more important who we are underneath this surface and how we get to be these people. Because or despite of our appearance it is thanks to things we say and do that we should be judged and loved. And yes, you are probably already retching from all the cheese I am spreading here, but isn’t it just darlingly wonderful if a movie does not have to hammer this message home but provides it as a subtext to dialogue and plot that do not have to state what they believe in and want to share with us? Marvellous!
Remember how I raved about Lilo & Stitch being my favorite Disney movie? Probably not, but the fuck, Lilo & Stitch is my favorite Disney movies and one of my all-time-favs in general, one of the reasons probably being that there is no villain, as is the case in most Miyazaki movies, and as kind is the case here. We could rather say that there is no visible “villain”, since the once who are introduced as villains turn out to be no villains at all. Porco Rosso is a little peculiar in that it actually has a villain in the form of fascism and how it interferes with people’s life and happiness. But then again we could argue that the same holds true for war in Howl’s Moving Castle, technological progress in Mononoke, or atomic weapons in Nausicaä. We could read it as a statement against ideology and systems that disregard the human being as the individual that it is. Individuals are not villains in Miyazaki movies, they are just people who might make mistakes. But structures and systems that are kept alive and empowered by mistakes are villains that every being on his or her individual should fight against. With me still?
Last but not least I need to repeat how the animation is breathtakingly beautiful. You might say: it’s a Miyazaki movie, d’uh, though I feel that there are differences that some of the earlier ones suffer from a little. But my oh my, there is so much goodness, from the imaginative powers that were poured into all the aircrafts (which is allegedly a subject close to Miyazaki’s heart) to the amazing scenery of little islands in the Adriatic. Porco Rosso’s hideout is neat. But most beautiful IMHO is of course the small islet that Gina lives on, complete with a beautiful house and a gorgeously lush secret garden. And can’t you just see yourself sitting there with a good glass of wine after a nice dinner reading your favorite book while the sun sets in your back? Hell yes.