An anti-fascist pig?
When pigs fly!
Ha! Where but in a Hayao Miyazaki film would those two counter-intuitive propositions converge, not only in the same tale, but in the same character?
Even by Miyazaki standards, Porco Rosso is something of an outlier. Loosely based on Miyazaki’s own manga (Japanese comic book), Porco Rosso combines the director’s love of early aviation and Golden Age Hollywood with anti-fascist sentiment and a quintessentially Old World send-up of American bumptiousness.
A rare Miyazaki with a definite sense of time and place, Porco Rosso is set in Depression-era Europe, in and around the Adriatic Sea. A former WWI ace in the Italian Air Force embittered by Italy’s turn toward Fascism, the protagonist has become a cynical, stubborn misanthrope and a self-described “known womanizer” — a pig, in other words. The film never explains the “curse” (in an otherwise comparatively down-to-earth tale) that turned Marco Rossellini into the anthropomorphic pig who calls himself “Porco Rosso” (“Red Pig”), but Porco’s remark that “all middle-aged men are pigs” suggests that his porcine exterior reflects his lost faith in humanity.
Now making his living as a mercenary protecting ships from seaplane pirates, Porco lives alone on a gorgeous island-enclosed lagoon that hides his plane from enemy eyes while keeping him close to his work. The pirates are established from the outset as comic, lightweight bad guys, without even the initial menace of the Dola gang from Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Even the tiny schoolgirls they kidnap for ransom in the first act seem to know it’s all a lark, and that before long the dashing Porco will be along to rescue them from the nice pirates. (Oddly, the main pirate crew is called the “Mamma Aiuto” gang (i.e., “Help Mama!”), though unlike the Dola gang there’s no actual mama around — and Dola alone was tougher than all these dopes, not to mention smarter.)
Seaplanes combine Miyazaki’s twin gravity-defying loves of water and sky, flying and floating, as well as his affinity for vintage technology — and the movie’s haphazard, kitchen-sink style suggests that the director just wanted to kick back and have fun with this one. There are aerial dogfights, star-crossed romance, gorgeous scenery, a hat tip Fleischer-style vintage animation, a rip-roaring escape sequence set in Milan, a nightclub where enemies sit at adjacent tables like Rick’s in Casablanca and the proprietress sings torch songs, and a showdown between the titular hero and an American antagonist that plays like the ultimate Humphrey Bogart / Errol Flynn smackdown that never was. (Virginia City, with Bogey miscast as a Mexican outlaw, doesn’t count.)
A male protagonist is rare in Miyazaki, and a middle-aged one is unheard of — but there’s also a typically spunky young heroine, Fio, the granddaughter of Porco’s longtime mechanic in Milan — and, it turns out, a brilliant budding engineer in her own right. Porco is forced to return to Milan to commission a new plane when his old one is shot down, though he has to watch his step since he’s wanted for desertion. (“I’d rather be a pig than a fascist,” he says gruffly. An anti-fascist pig! I can just keep saying it, it makes me laugh every time.)
An old-school chauvinist you-know-what, Porco doesn’t want a girl having anything to do with his new plane, but he doesn’t stand a chance against Fio (nor do the pirates, whom she wraps around her finger as easily as she does Porco.) What’s more, with Milan’s male population apparently abroad in search of work, Porco is forced to watch his plane being built by an army of his mechanic’s female relations. This is the setup for the mechanic’s hilarious grace before meals, which begins, “Heavenly Father, we give You thanks for putting bread on our table and for giving us work when we were on the brink of bankruptcy…” Then, in a quick, low mumble, “And please forgive us for building a fighter plane with the hands of women.”
Later is another moment, inspired by a Roald Dahl short story, that provides perhaps the only hint of an afterlife in any of Miyazaki’s films. In a flashback to Porco’s WWI dogfighting days, in pitched battle, Porco seems to hover on the threshold between this life and the next — and witnesses friends rising to join a vast throng who have gone before. To no avail, he offers to take the place of one departing buddy who has just been married, but God, Fio opines, decided that it wasn’t Porco’s time.
Like any Bogartesque cynic, of course, Porco is a romantic idealist at heart. (He’s voiced on the Disney dub by Michael Keaton, who’s excellent.) He still carries a torch for Gina, the chanteuse who runs the Hotel Adriano, which sits in splendid isolation in the midst of the sea. Somehow both Gina and Fio wind up between Porco and a brash American pilot whose Reaganesque aspirations of Hollywood and White House glory kid America’s cowboy image — a rivalry that comes down to an epic brawl belying the gracefulness and subtlety of the denouement. Porco Rosso may not be Studio Ghibli’s best film, but it’s one of the most fun.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.