Japan Movie Reviews: Porco Rosso
by Hemanth Kissoon, August 2007
"Calm down, I know what I'm doing," Porco Rosso (Michael Keaton)
Studio Ghibli has done it again. Wow! Who would have thought that a movie about the adventures of an ace pig pilot in the lead up to the Second World War could be this good?
Released in 1992, under the auspices of director Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away), Porco Rosso opens with an epilogue that states the film is "set over the Mediterranean Sea in an age when sea planes ruled the waves. It tells the story of a valiant pig, who fought against flying pirates, for his pride, for his lover, and for his fortune. The name of the hero of our story is Crimson Pig." This introduction scrolls out like a military typewriter giving orders to far off battle groups, with apt sound effects. It is done in ten languages. What an original start to an animated feature.
We join Crimson Pig, i.e. Porco Rosso, snoozing in his secret island lair with the wireless playing music, a mostly drunk bottle of wine and his plane in the water. He is called on to protect a ship, containing gold and school children, from the Mamma Aiuto pirate gang. Porco is a bounty hunter on a contract, with a gravelly John Wayne-esque voice and a Han Solo-like character - rough diamond with heart, and reluctant hero. We see the skill of Porco using his beloved plane (a one off) to carry out his charge.
He rescues the children and regains the gold, but allows the gang to keep some gold to repair their plane. It is ambiguous as to why he does this, could be an act of mercy, or if he incapacitates/captures/kills his quarry then there will be less work for him. That level of character motivation is rarely seen in a family film, which demonstrates that Miyazaki is not only a hugely gifted storyteller but a great character creator. Let's not also forget he has a virtually unparalleled visual sensibility; his attention to detail is fantastic water lapping in Porco's island cove, the Italian newspaper the pirates are reading, and sailors using Morse code, semaphore and forming a human arrow to communicate to Porco where to go. I also love the fact that an ace pig pilot is interacting with humans without anyone batting an eyelid.
The pirates are cartoon pirates not too dastardly, with many that have a conscience, are kindly and thoughtful. See also the Dola Gang in Castle in the Sky, as well as space pirates in Disney's Treasure Planet, and Captain Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Being the top bounty hunter in the Adriatic is not even that simple. Complicating Porco's adventures are two people: Gina, potential love-interest and chanteuse at her Hotel Adriana, and Curtis (Cary Elwes in the English language version), a rival American pilot who is ungentlemanly and ambitious. Oh yeah, and Porco is a deserter from the Italian airforce, which badly wants him to rejoin them. Phew! Porco's life is complicated.
Great dialogue, story and characterisation are added to by the themes of war-mongering (also seen in Miyazaki's last film Howl's Moving Castle), violence, fascism, honour, gender politics, stoicism/emotional detachment, and the nature of heroism. Curtis calls Porco a "chicken", and unlike Marty McFly in Back to the Future does not rise to the bait. That is a good lesson.
There are some bold and brave choices made reasons for characters are tantalisingly explained leaving you wanting more, with further ambiguity at the denouement. A live action mainstream film would rarely aim this high. This is even more ambitious than Miyazaki's earlier work. Though not a comedy, more an action-romance, the visual and verbal gags, and banter, are fab. "Ghibli" is written on Porco's new engine, a reference to the Studio I've not seen elsewhere in their canon, and Porco is talking to friend Major Ferrari in a cinema during a silent film and breaks off to say, "Man, this movie sucks". When Ferrari asks Porco to come back to the airforce, his response is, "Thanks. I'd rather be a pig than a fascist".
Porco Rosso is one of the best cartoons ever made imaginative, spectacular, exciting, unpredictable and emotional.
Porco, "Farewell to freedom and wild abandon in the Adriatic."
Also by Hemanth Kissoon