Porco Rosso opens with a dogfight in the skies that is at once evocative of old war movies and yet seemingly from a completely different world altogether. This dogfight involves air pirates, a group of kidnapped kids, air fortresses, and a cacophony of slapstick action making the fact that our titular hero in this air rescue, a former World War I fighter and current mercenary, is a anthropomorphized pig only the third strangest thing we have encountered so far. And yet it is testament to Hayao Miyazaki’s economical storytelling that by the end of this breathless opening sequence we are fully entrenched in this strange and beautiful world.
As fantastical as Porco Rosso seemingly is at the offset, it is surprisingly a movie about dirt and grime. Each fantastical flying machine is also a hunk of junk that leaks oil, sputters and coughs, and requires constant upkeep so that they remain in the air. You can feel each airplane groan as it goes through each maneuver, making you silently curse every setback and cheer every soaring flight of fancy Porco pulls off. As is typical with most of Miyazaki’s work, so thorough is his attention to detail that I have to constantly remind myself that I am actually watching an animated movie.
While Porco Rosso is at its most liberating when it takes to the skies this is perhaps the first Miyazaki movie that explicitly confronts real-world realities as he uses his airborne plot to confront the grounded realities of fascism and nationalism. Porco Rosso also reckons with Miyazaki’s central tension; he is enamored with the technical marvels of his flying machines even as he is uncomfortable with its use as a tool for war. This enigma best explains Porco himself, as a pig haunted by World War I and the ways he contributed to its death toll, but still unable to find happiness in anything other than being in the skies.
Porco Rosso internal plight is far from ponderous because, like Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, the movie is much more interested in the swashbuckling-scoundrel swagger that comes with being a hotshot air pilot. The aggrieved pirates of the opening scene hire the braggadocious Curtis, an American pilot, to hunt Porco down and in so doing provide him with his foil and equal. Their rivalry is also the most hilarious part of this movie as it seems to bring out their most childish behaviors, each seeking to one-up the other throughout the movie until they finally lose all semblance of dignity in trying to be declared the victor.
Part of the reason for their childishness is that they share the same object of affection in Gina, the owner of a flying club in the middle of the Mediterranean who channels Humphrey Bogart’s energy from Casablanca – an aloof person who chooses to face the deaths of three husbands through war by being a competent businesswoman. As with all of Miyazaki’s movies, he seems refreshingly incapable of writing a one-dimensional female character even when she is at the centre of a love triangle.
The other woman who enters Porco Rosso’s life is Flo, a young, energetic, and self-assured mechanic who ends up, much to Porco’s chagrin, being the one charged with fixing his airplane when it is torn to bits in an early tussle with Curtis. Their back-and-forth proves to be the most fun part of this movie as Flo’s idealism and youth bristles at Porco’s jadedness and cynicism, causing him both great annoyance and providing him the impetus to jolt him out of his doldrums.
Gina and Flo also in some ways represents the dueling tones of the movie, with Gina’s world being obviously romantic and fantastic while Flo lives in a much more grounded reality, akin to Italian neorealism. Porco Rosso, as the character who perhaps most embodies Miyazaki himself, seems to find his motivation in trying to bridge these two worlds. On the one hands, he longs to escape and retreat into beauty, finding the most life in his swashbuckling air antics. But then it is seemingly his passion for that beauty that lands him back in the more grim reality of his pre-World War II circumstances, where he famously would “much rather be a pig than a fascist”. That he never fully manages to reconcile the two worlds is hardly a fault of this movie, rather the incomplete nature of Porco’s narrative arc just makes the movie more compelling.
All in all, not a bad effort for a movie that was originally just meant to be a frivolous short feature that was just supposed to play on Japan Airlines.
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