By Noel Vera
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
HAYAO MIYAZAKI’S Porco Rosso started out as a manga for a modeling magazine, was turned into a short for Japan Airlines, and grew from there into his 6th animated feature — easily his oddest and arguably 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 fashionable faintly dangerous tourist attractions than security threats; the Mediterranean land-and-sea-scape is gorgeous, lit and drawn and detailed like a series of J.M.W. Turner paintings (unlike in American animation, background art seems to be a major undertaking in Japan), the waters impossibly pure (you stare at the screen and wonder if the seaplane floats or is levitating in air — possibly Miyazaki’s way of reminding us how beautiful unpolluted water 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). The guns are strictly realistic, from the Smith and Wesson revolvers to Porco’s customized Maxim gun (with wickedly pointed Mauser cartridges) to the gigantic anti-tank gun one pirate lugs in his arms early in the film. Which makes for an interesting unemphasized statement — the planes are centaur-like 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 reality (and 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 long conversations about angles of incidence and fine-tuned engines, not to mention the filmmaker’s unparalleled ability to dream up fantastic mythological creatures. Because these are mythological creatures, beings of wood frame and sheet metal, with whirling prop engines that sputter and cough, with boatlike bellies that skim waves and heave clumsily into the air, to glide and flutter and leave vapor trails in the sky.
The dogfights are, I submit, a major reason the director wanted to do this film (and why I suspect Japan Airlines was so willing to sponsor the project): soaring aerial encounters with scarved and goggled knights on brilliantly painted steeds spiraling past each other in an attempt to attain the higher position, the adversary’s rear (Homoerotic much? Check out the camaraderie between the fliers). If anything can still justify hand-drawn animation — animation where human hands are still intimately involved — it’s this film, one of the last of its kind (in a few years Pixar would release Toy Story and change the entire landscape).
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 the flimsiest of excuses to bring together some of the subtlest most delicately sketched characters in all of Miyazaki.
Central to the film is Porco himself, 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 quietly romantic flier in Only Angels Have Wings (“A pig’s gotta fly”), and Miyazaki himself (a fascination with pigs and an incurable love for planes).
Unanswered throughout: Why a pig? Oh, 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 was taught how 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 his life [eating, drinking, smoking, flying]) and idealized figure (Often described as a womanizer but women chase him; is a passive pacifist [refuses to join the Fascist but that’s about it with his pacifism]). His passivity is what links him most 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 to the film is a dream — or is it a dream? — Porco tells Fio (Skip the rest of the paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!), about a vicious dogfight during World War 1 where all his comrades are killed and he blacks out. He wakes to a white world (actually [he suspects] he must have flown into a cloud) with a band stretching across the sky; the band is made up of dead fliers and everyone who fought in the recent battle except himself is rising up to join the silent journey 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 else 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 and failing miserably. Fio the prodigy — who also happens to be young and beautiful (Ah male filmmakers!) and, though no one really comes out and says it (which is appreciated), 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 listen in to the Italian Air Force’s radio signals), and pulls off the 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 that they have never — the unspoken tragedy of the film — ever really tapped.
Is the film Miyazaki’s best? Have my own choice, but this picture’s lightness and sophistication, its understated melancholy tone (save once or twice when the poignancy slides home like a stiletto), its urbane sense of humanity that you don’t really see in Miyazaki’s other works (or, for that matter, most any other film animated or otherwise), makes me think it’s one of his best, easily most underrated. Think Jacques Demy with planes (Joe Hisaishi’s melodic score is one of his most swooningly romantic) or Ozu with wings and you get the idea.