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  • Ravi Swami

"Porco Rosso", Dir: Hayao Miyazaki, 1992

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

Although I've been aware of Hayao Miyazaki's 1992 film "Porco Rosso" (Trans: "The Crimson Pig") since the early 90's, I only recently watched it since it's included in amongst the directors' other films on Netflix and also prompted by a chapter covering its' production in "Miyazaki World - A Life in Art" (Susan Napier, Yale University Press) that reveals some interesting facts about the story, which is based on a Manga, or illustrated comic, drawn by Miyazaki himself.

I tend to ration my viewings of Hayao Miyazaki's films since they have been extensively reviewed and are the subject of a great deal of fan adulation that very often overlooks the complex and unusual - for animation - plots and themes in favour of the striking imagery, now much imitated in fan art.

In line with the directors' earlier films, "Porco Rosso" takes its' visual and narrative influences from Europe with a story set during WWI in Italy and builds on Miyazaki's fascination with aeronautics. The "Porco Rosso" of the title is both the name of a red seaplane and moniker for its' pig-faced pilot, Marco, retired from active service for reasons that are never made clear, as is the reason for his curious condition, and who occupies his time as a bounty hunter deterring aerial pirates who raid any passing ships for contraband from a hidden island cove.

This scenario provides the director with ample opportunity to include some terrific flying sequences, many animated by Miyazaki himself and apparently without the aid of computer graphics, since machines can be notoriously difficult to animate by animators more used to natural organic motion in drawn animation, though it is possible that models were used as reference.

In this respect it echoes the flying sequences in "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" and "Laputa - Castle in The Sky", and in fact such scenes feature in many of his films.

The plot could be described as echoing that of the Michael Curtiz classic "Casablanca" - Marco has a history and an unrequited love for a bar singer, Gina, owner of the Hotel Adriano and who fits the template of the "Miyazaki Woman", ie she is determinedly independant. A rival for her affections is "The American", Curtis (a possible reference to Curtiss-Wright), a rather obnoxious character who's goal is to challenge Marco to an aerial dog-fight to determine both the victor and the way to Gina's heart.

Against the backdrop of the imminent Fascist take-over of Italy and the threat of losing his livelihood as his plane may be commandeered by the new government, Marco faces a dual threat of sneak attacks from Curtis and from air pirates who have put a price on his head.

To complicate matters further, when his seaplane is shot down he takes it to Milan for repair where he meets Fio and her father, a mechanic. Fio, although a young woman, is also a gifted aeronautical engineer and she volunteers to repair Marco' seaplane with the help of a female workforce. Although considerably older than Fio, Marco develops an attraction to her but his condition and shady past, hinted at in a scene where he says Milan promises "white sheets and beautiful women", prevents him from being anything more than impressed by her intelligence and perhaps wistful over a youth lost to war and indulgences.

Fio develops a fondness for Marco and cheers him on at the climax when he confronts Curtis, first in the air and then during a bloody fist-fight staged in the waters around the Hotel Adriano after their planes crash-land, out of which Marco, now bruised and battered, emerges as the victor and with it the hope of finally winning Gina's heart.

It would be great to imagine that there is a happy ending but in spite of Gina's hope that a kiss will return him to being fully human, as in a fairy tale, there is no redemption on offer for Marco - Gina and Fio become best friends and Marco flies off into an azure sky full of cumulous clouds for more adventures. Fio grows up to runs her own flying business and Gina continues to run the Hotel Adriano, singing the haunting signature song "Les Temps Des Cerises" to her customers at the bar.

Curtis meanwhile heads to Hollywood after his ignominious thrashing by Marco and forges a new career as a dashing hero of movies, hinted at in a poster seen in the bar of the Hotel Adriano at the end of the film and shown above in the slideshow.

As suggested in Susan Napier's book, "Porco Rosso" is perhaps the most personal of Miyazaki's films since the theme of a pig-headed man, while it may be interpreted as being representative of Marco's passions, is possibly a reflection of the director's own wrestling with "survivor guilt" following earlier experiences during wartime in Japan and later disillusionment with his own Socialist ideals in the post-war period of reconstruction.

People were sent off to war like pigs to the slaughter and Marco's punishment after seeing his comrades lost to battle is to soldier on with a pigs' head.

The pervasive European influences in Miyazaki's work can be explained by the fact that before the American defeat of Japan in WWII, Japanese culture was very Europe-facing, with France at the centre, and America was viewed as having no comparable history of culture other than perhaps mass-consumerism and technology.

"Porco Rosso" is a highly enjoyable film with a unique plot and the other aspect to marvel at is the economy of line in the drawing, something lacking in a lot of contemporary animation where there is a kind of image fetishism at play, driven by rich illustration styles, whereas Miyazaki's drawing is always at a level - and an accomplished level at that where human characters are concerned - that serves the needs of the story.

You could argue that Miyazaki is also an illustrator but working to the requirements of Manga, demanding a high volume of work in narrow time frames and enforced economies of line that also inform and facilitate the translation to animation.

European illustration styles tend to favour rich detail in a single image and has a long tradition going back to works such as The Book of Kells and later illustrated storybooks - I'm not suggesting one is better than the other and it's more a case of personal preference in the medium of animation where a drawing style can help or hinder the clarity of visual narrative.

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