Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are so often timeless and allegorical, and seem to take place in such enchanted fairylands that Porco Rosso is a shock. It’s the early 1930s along the Adriatic Sea. The Depression has hit the Mediterranean hard. Fascism from Italy is beginning to spread. Another world war looms.
The movie’s grounded in our world. Well, not quite. Evidently, during these days, the skies are ruled by air pirates. All the pilots, pirate or not, fly seaplanes; everyone’s inextricably linked to both ocean and air. The filmmaker has grafted England’s 17th- and 18th-century pirate folktales and sea shanties into post-WWI Italy. The world is so well-rendered that you accept Porco Rosso is a construction of our actual past. In fact, it’s nostalgia for a world that almost existed.
The first shot shows us a beach hidden in the interior of an island, surrounded by sheer cliffside that encircles the little beach. A thin slit between the 30-foot-tall rock provides the only way in and out, short of dropping onto the beach by parachute. The radio plays. A sleek, gorgeous red seaplane floats on the shore. A man dozes in a chair, shaded by a weather-beaten umbrella, face covered by aforementioned magazine, feet resting on a table that holds a half-empty bottle of red wine.
Here’s our hero, Porco Rosso (Crimson Pig). He’s the Ace of the Adriatic, a decorated war hero of World War I who makes his living as a bounty hunter. He’s also literally a pig. At least, his face has a snout and his ears are pointy. When a phone ring rudely awakens him, he answers it with world-weary humor. Another day, another band of pirates to round up for hard cash. And we’re off.
Half of Porco Rosso is spent in the sky, and this bird’s-eye view of the Mediterranean boggles the mind. Sunlight glitters on the water. The hillsides are impossibly green, the water impossibly blue. The port towns and island villas are not cultural hodgepodges—a Roman arch here, Spanish terra cotta roofs there, signs in German and French—as they are in some of Miyazaki’s other European excursions. It looks like a tangible Italy, beautiful but dilapidated.
More than anything, Porco Rosso is an elegy. In a few years, seaplanes will no longer rule the skies (They never did, of course, but you’re convinced by Miyazaki that they did.), and much of the landscape will soon be pockmarked by bomb craters. The casual pace of life and easy camaraderie amongst citizens will be shattered by politics. Unlike in Howl’s Moving Castle, the cultural climate is defined clearly enough so that we know what’s coming and why and what will be lost. People gossip about the ever-changing Italian government. Porco is urged by a former friend to join the fascists or risk being branded a traitor. There’s no retreat into fantasy here. Our hero recalls one dreamlike sequence that happened to him in a WWI dogfight, but what he sees is less fantastical than a hard reminder of the human cost of war.
But the movie isn’t dreary, not by a long shot. In fact, Porco Rosso is one of Miyazaki’s few out-and-out comedies. The pirates are a bungling, forever-arguing group who’d fit in with the Keystone Kops. Porco is a fountain of dry one-liners. The conversations have an air of resigned wit—this world’s a mess, but let’s give it a go, anyway—that homicide detectives and combat surgeons share. It’s sometimes laughter to keep from crying, but it’s laughter nonetheless.
In journalistic profiles, Miyazaki comes across as an irascible pessimist who creates worlds of beauty so that we’ll have an archival record of what we’re so intent on destroying. He smokes constantly. He has strained relationships with his family. And yet his films are vibrant, so charmed by life. It’s telling that, when he sketches his self-portrait, Miyazaki often draws himself as a pig. It’s easy to see Miyazaki in Porco, down to the potbelly, mustache, and chain-smoking.
If this is indeed partly autobiographical, Miyazaki gives us a sly self-critique. Porco starts the picture in his womb-like Fortress of Solitude, but gets more complicated and less bitter as soon as he gets out into the world. He’s a dazzling flyer; even his enemies gasp in awe at the vapor trails he leaves in his wake. He’s kind and generous, even when he’d prefer that you didn’t know it. He’s a ladykiller; the snout doesn’t stop beautiful women from flirting with him.
Only one woman holds his love—Gina, the proprietor of the elegant Hotel Adriano. Their complex relationship, like those between all people in the movie, is conveyed with subtle, quick asides. Porco Rosso starts in media res with regard to all its characters—everyone has a lot of backstory. To the animator’s credit, he doesn’t waste time explaining how Porco became a pig. Gina’s reciprocated love for Porco is given in one crisp, majestic, wordless flashback. We know that only women work at a plane manufacturer because the men are either in search of jobs or joining the Italian Armed Forces, but this information is an aside, not the source of major exposition.
The women build Porco a new, better plane. They’re led by Grandpa Piccolo, head of the manufacturing plant, but the plane’s design is engineered solely by his 17-year-old niece Fio. She’s fiery, pretty, intelligent, and in love with Porco. Between the measured maturity of Gina and the ferocious enthusiasm of Fio, Porco finds his center. So, women rebuild Porco as much as they rebuild his plane. In a review of Howl’s Moving Castle, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, “A utopian feminist, Miyazaki believes women are a civilizing influence on men; that the closer men get to women, the more evolved and fulfilled they become.” The same holds true for Porco Rosso.
Men’s understanding of women here is more comic. The pirates, upon seeing Fio for the first time, fall head over heels. It’s clear they haven’t seen a pretty girl, or a girl at all, in a long while. (She asks them to take baths.) Macho challenger Donald Curtiss, an American (from Alabama), challenges Porco to a dogfight primarily to impress Gina. When she spurns him, Curtiss turns immediately to Fio, who’s also faintly repulsed by him. Even Porco can’t quite see the three-mile-high torch Gina holds for him. Interactions between men are dry-witted; interactions between men and women veer towards slapstick.
For all the broad comedy, though, Porco Rosso’s beauty is in the details. Miyazaki trusts us to pay attention to sly glances, the motion of a body as seen through moving water, Fio’s brazen winks at Porco, and the intricacies of airplane design. Miyazaki’s obsession with aviation technology, also seen in Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa, comes front and center. We believe how much these people’s identities are intertwined with their planes because we see in close-up how the machines operate.
The details are also essential because of another slight shock—Porco Rosso moves briskly. It’s not a movie of fast cuts, and its characters have a studied Mediterranean languor, but its narrative moves at breakneck speed. A lot of emotional ground, political history, and plot gets covered in 93 minutes. We fill in the backstory of most characters—blink or stop up your ears, and you’ll miss something significant—because the movie won’t stop for us.
Any jokes and beauty that are found, and there are lots of both, are caught on the sly. Like its hero, Porco Rosso wants to get on with it. Like its hero, Porco Rosso hides grace and wit behind a façade of world-weariness.