Frequently cited as Hayao Miyazaki’s personal favourite of all his creations, Porco Rosso is a film that conjures up a feeling of old cinema, and in an effortless way manages to blend comedy, tragedy, romance and feelings of post-war atonement in a film that only Studio Ghibli could have made.
Porco Rosso (literally ‘The red pig’) is an Italian veteran World War I fighter turned freelance bounty hunter, who happens to have been cursed to have the appearance of a pig. He finds himself the target of a gang of air pirates, who recruit ace American pilot, Curtis to get rid of Porco for good.
Curtis has designs on the beautiful Gina, owner of the Hotel Adriano, who just so happens to have been Porco’s oldest friend and something of a childhood sweetheart when Porco was human. While Porco’s feelings towards Gina remain vague, Gina makes her feelings for Porco very clear to Curtis, revealing that she’s carried a torch for Porco for years. She laughs off Curtis’s attempts to woo her and rebuffs his proposal of marriage, enraging him further and pouring fuel upon his disdain for Porco, igniting a feud between the pair.
Gina and Porco’s relationship, and really the whole story of the movie, seems to me to be firmly rooted in Beauty and the Beast. Some of the original drawings for the story of Beauty and the Beast (such as the Illustration by Walter Crane for an 1874 edition of Beauty and the Beast below) picture the beast as a warthog or pig like figure. And just like the Beast, Porco has made an effort to scribble himself out of any photographs of his former human self.
But this film is a much more low-key affair. Porco’s transformation into a pig isn’t really a transformation at all, rather a grandiose metaphor for his own feelings towards himself. Indeed, most of Porco’s casual acquaintances don’t even acknowledge anything strange about his appearance at all.
One older relative whom he hadn’t seen in years refers to him having become ‘a fine young man’. It’s only people who come to know Porco well that refer to his pig curse, including his adversaries, who only see the worst in him, and launch into a series of porcine puns, such as pig-headedness or ‘you swine’.
This sums up the tone of the film, which is for the most part quite light-hearted with plenty of comedic beats that all land quite well, whichever language you’re watching in. This is certainly a multi-cultural film. At one point we have a scene in which Gina is speaking Japanese, singing in French, while we are all supposed to labour under the delusion that all the characters are speaking Italian (even though you may be watching the English dub). Phew.
The story is rooted in real world politics and conflict too. Events take place in 1929, at the time of the great depression. It’s in this context that Porco teams up with Fio, the 17-year-old aspiring plane designer, who is the only available engineer to fix his plane after Curtis blew Porco out of the sky.
The whole conflict is set in the Adriatic Sea, but the city Porco frequents is the fictional city of Fiume, after its annexation to what Porco would describe as fascist Italy. During an attempt made by an officer to recruit Porco back into the air force to fight for his country, he quips ‘better a pig than a fascist.’ Continuing the anti-war message Hayao Miyazaki puts into most of his films.
Another popular trope of Miyazaki’s features prominently here too - his love of aircraft. The sweeping shots and attention to detail with parts and sounds and so on (this being Ghibli we just know that they went out and got the exact plane to record the exact sounds). These shots (pushing the boundaries of animation at the time) are a joy to behold, and later explored in even greater detail, in his latest film to date The Wind Rises.
Curtis is certainly your ‘Gaston’ of the piece, even bearing a striking resemblance to the character design from 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s something of a fascinating coincidence that both these films were being made at exactly the same time. Porco Rosso was originally intended as an in-flight movie, but eventually became an international release, as the scale of the film grew. It was eventually given a theatrical release in 1992.
The best scene in the film, cuts to the heart of the matter and all the humour disappears for it. Fio asks Porco why he transformed into a pig. He refuses to say initially but then tells her another story - Two days after Gina's wedding to Porco’s best friend, Bellini, where Porco was the best man (then actually being a man by the name of Marco Paggot). Their squadron was attacked by Austro-Hungarian aircraft, and as a result the entire fleet perished with the exception of Marco.
Marco recalls the blood in the eyes of their onslaughting enemy, along with a feeling that he himself had perhaps passed on. His plane passed through a prairie cloud and he saw the ghostly visions of the deceased pilots and their planes with their motionless engines rising up to the heavens. A human Marco pleas to a motionless Bellini. ‘What about Gina? Let me go instead.’ It’s beautifully done.
Porco’s curse therefore seems to have been born out of the guilt of surviving his best friend, his beloved Gina’s husband, along with the overarching despair of the futility of war. It’s very subtly implied that Gina and Marco have always had a very close connection, his “pig headedness” to accept his true feelings for Gina accompany what he would see as a betrayal of his late best friend, this may be the most literal explanation for the curse. But it’s open to interpretation and that’s what’s clever about it.
There’s more than a whiff of Casablanca about this film with its signature tune, in this case sung by Gina ‘The time of cherries’; the club; The attitude of Porco; which almost exactly mirrors Rick’s pragmatic attitude in Casablanca. There’s even a sense of awareness that the low-scale spat facing the characters doesn’t amount to ‘a hill of beans’ compared to everything else going on in the world at that time, as perhaps Casablanca’s Rick would say.
However, the ending is far more-low key than Casablanca, or indeed Beauty and the Beast. Some viewers have been puzzled by the lack of conclusion. There are no grandiose reveals of a human Porco, although we do catch glimpses of him in human form.
The film plays up to this expectation of a fairy-tale-like ending with a running joke of Fio’s constant suggestions that she should try and kiss Porco, like in The Princess in the Frog. Their relationship is quite charming. Fio, with her engineering know-how, and fearless ambition is a great subversion of the typical female role that you’d expect a young girl to have in a film like this.
In the end, it’s up to the audience to decide whether Porco eventually “re-joined” the human race to be with Gina, who has spent all these years waiting for him to do so. Although, it is implied that he did by the final shot of Gina’s hotel with Porco’s plane docked in the port, It’s Curtis who in the end manages to get a look at Porco’s human face, as he turns and almost does a double take. ‘Hey, your face!’ he exclaims as he chases him around the beach to get a glimpse.
All things considered Porco Rosso is an intelligent and unique film. Watch in the original Japanese language if you can. But please, if you haven’t seen it before, don’t miss out on one of Ghibli’s underrated classics.