An Animated Dissection: Thoughts on “Porco Rosso,” 25 years later
In my Animated Dissection columns, I often strive to remember or make note of several films, that I often feel are worth discussing. Some can be well-known films, and some are those that have fallen by the wayside in favor of more popular pieces of work. There will also be some animated films that I just can’t stand…but fortunately, this one isn’t one of them!
Director Hayao Miyazaki may be known for some of his more popular films like My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, but I have found that one of his more ‘subdued’ films, is one I have often found myself thinking about on several occasions.
In the years following World War I, pilot Marco Pagot shied away from humanity, and became an anthropomorphic pig, assuming the moniker of Porco Rosso (aka “The Crimson Pig”).
Since then, he has used his piloting skills to become a freelance bounty hunter, flying across the Adriatic Sea, often encountering a number of colorful air pirates.
When not bounty hunting, Porco usually heads off to partake in fine wine and good women. Sometimes, he can also be found at the Hotel Adriano, owned by his childhood friend Gina, one of the last connections he has to ‘the old days.’
Things change for Porco, when his plane is badly shot-up by an American pilot named Donald Curtis. With the last of his funds, Porco heads to Milan, and makes contact with a mechanic he knows named Piccolo. For rebuilding the plane, Piccolo assigns his granddaughter Fio to the duties.
Porco is at first against this, but with all the men Piccolo employs away, he is out of options. Porco gives in, with the hopes that the young girl’s work can help him best Curtis, when they meet again.
Hayao Adapts Himself
Sometimes, some of Studio Ghibli’s films directed by Miyazaki, tend to be ‘happy accidents.’ That was the case with Porco.
Originally meant to be a 45-minute feature that would run on Japanese Airlines flights, it was to be an adaptation of Miyazaki’s 15-page watercolor manga, titled The Age of the Flying Boat.
The story is pretty simple, and one can see why it’s 3-part structure, may have been considered an easy piece to become a short feature for an in-flight movie.
Flying Boat serves as the underlying skeleton of the film, though one can definitely see differences in the pieces.
Notable is in the opening fight Porco has against some air pirates. In the manga, they kidnap a young woman, whereas in the film, the pirates kidnap a group of young schoolgirls, leading to a crazy romp as the pirates try to battle Porco in the air, and keep the rambunctious toddlers under control.
There also is the absence of Porco having a storied past, and Donald Curtis is known as Donald Chuck.
The end dogfight between Porco and Donald, also had to adhere to the limits of the printed page. Regarding the big battle, Miyazaki wrote: “If this were animation, I might be able to convey the grandeur of this life-or-death battle. But this is a comic. I have no choice but to rely on the imagination of you, good readers.”
It is notable that when pitching the film to the airlines, they were worried the aerial dogfights might get their proposal denied, but were surprised when the company said had no problems saying ‘yes’ to the material!
As production carried on, the animation and costs proved to be a bit more cumbersome than originally thought. That was when producer Toshio Suzuki, felt they should actually turn Porco into a theatrically released film.
Even though the deal for the film had been changed from it’s original intent, the airline still would be named as an investor in the film, and would still get to run Porco on their flights. Word is, the deal is the reason for the film’s unusual opening, where a number of little green pig-creatures (a design created by Hayao himself!), ‘type’ out a summary of the film, in several different languages.
One could also assume that Miyazaki made up Porco’s human identity, but the name Marco Pagot is actually an homage to a real person Hayao knows (see picture on right)!
The two crossed paths when working on the anime series, Sherlock Hound, of which Pagot (an Italian animator) wrote a number of the episode’s scripts, and Miyazaki directed several of the episodes. Word is that Marco’s wife Gi, may have also inspired the naming of Porco’s friend, Gina.
A Different Kind of Anime
Compared to the other films Miyazaki has directed, Porco is the only film of his where it’s lead is not a young individual. Instead, Porco is a person who was once an optimist, until war and the world disillusioned him, turning him into the ‘creature’ we see.
Some could almost see the film as being in the same vein as Herge’s Tintin comics, or even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Raiders of the Lost Ark, in how it intermingles action, drama, and at times, comedy.
Porco at times, sounds a bit like how George Lucas originally envisioned Indiana Jones, where the professor of archaeology would be a dashing playboy when he wasn’t off searching for lost relics. Though much like how we saw Indy portrayed in his series of films, we are never privy to Porco’s ‘flings,’ and simply follow him through his sea-based adventures.
Though Porco makes an okay living, it should be noted that a number of air pirates we see, are just as hard-up for funds as he is. When the Mamma Aiuto gang loses the tail on their plane due to a dogfight with Porco, their finances are only able to get them a replacement tail (see picture on right), but not enough money to even paint it, making it’s silvery form stick out like a sore thumb.
Porco himself is also one of the quieter leads that Miyazaki had written up to that point. Often observant and contemplative, he probably speaks the least of all the main characters the director has had. However, it is rather interesting to see how much expression Miyazaki’s animators get out of the minimal movements he has. Plus, for the majority of the film, his eyes are hidden behind the dark shades of his glasses.
Much like how real-world events shaped the work being done on Howl’s Moving Castle’ almost a decade later, events in the area during the 90’s, where the film was taking place, influenced it’s storyline.
When Yugoslavia broke up in the early 90’s, this added an extra tinge of ‘reality’ to the film. Whereas the rise of fascism across the Adriatic in Flying Boat was only hinted at in the adapted manga, we get a small taste of what’s going on in the film, when Porco comes ashore to Dubrovnik.
Paying off the loan on his plane, the bank employee tries to get him to purchase war bonds, but he simply responds that that is something the “humans” can do.
After this, he visits a small shop to pick up some more weaponry and ammunition. Word of a governmental change is on the mouths of several of the shop’s workers, but Porco claims he has no intention to fight in another war.
Also of great interest, is the ‘curse’ surrounding his transformation into a pig-headed man. After all these years, Miyazaki has never given an explanation for the ‘curse,’ often leaving the mystery to the audience, to unravel in their own minds.
Even the face of Porco with his dark glasses, is an image that Miyazaki likes to ‘doodle,’ just as much as his imagery of Totoro. Porco even shows up at the Ghibli Museum’s cafe in Mitaka, Japan. Known as the Straw Hat Cafe, Porco’s head appears over the cafe’s chalkboard menu, but instead of his aviation goggles, he wears a straw hat.
Women in Control
With his previous features, Miyazaki largely focused on female leads. From Nausicaa to Kiki, his girls and women often found their optimism tested in the face of adversity, or events that were oftentimes foreign to them.
Though Porco is our lead for this film, Miyazaki makes sure that the girls and women that we see around him, are often some of the more level-headed characters.
Of those we see, the characters of Gina and Fio act as a sort of yin-yang
Gina was a former childhood friend of Porco’s, and was married to one of their friends. However, when we see Gina, she is a widow, entertaining and running her hotel in the Adriatic Sea. She is self-sufficient, and though it seems she may pine for Porco at times, she is not one to just run off with any man.
This is notable when Donald Curtis finds her in her garden, and in a rather extravagant, “American” way, proposes to her…which leads to Gina laughing heartily, as she hears him claim that he intends to become President one day!
While Gina is the older woman who has lived life and matured, Fio is the young girl, the optimist with unending energy, that often overpowers some of Porco’s own misgivings.
Notable is when Piccolo declares that she will be doing the new design work on Porco’s plane. Porco is at first against this, but she manages to convince him with her enthusiasm, as well as her ‘plussing’ Porco’s plane. Much like the disconnect between some generations, Porco doesn’t wholly understand a lot of what Fio is doing to his plane, but he trusts her enough to figure that the alterations she pushes him to approve, are going to help him out in the long run.
Another notable scene comes later on, when Fio and Porco encounter the air pirates, who first intend to destroy Porco’s rebuilt plane, until Fio reminds them of the honor of being ‘flying boat pilots.’
Women also become the only workforce available to Porco and Piccolo, as a number of men have left Milan because of the Great Depression, leaving Piccolo’s relations to carry on the rebuilding effort.
Several of Miyazaki’s works reference Europe, and the locales of this film, play out in such a way, that a few of it’s panoramic landscapes may get stuck in your head.
Most notable to me, is one where Porco decides to head off to Milan. as a Mandolin strums a melody, we see the red plane, but far away, as an enormous mass of clouds seems to dwarf it!
The film at times seems to act as an eye-opening travelogue to the Adriatic, given all the scenery we visit. Even Porco’s island hideaway looks like the perfect place to get some peace and quiet.
One of the film’s more ethereal moments, comes when Porco tells of a near-death experience he had, near the end of the first World War.
Seeing a streak of white high in the air, it soon turned out that it was a ‘stream’ of planes, (thousands of them!), and of which Porco soon saw his comrades who had perished in a recent aerial battle, rise to become a part of!
The scene is one of those that seems to ‘haunt’ my memories. It is a vision I have never seen committed to film before: the sight of numerous vintage aircraft, flying in a neverending stream. Are they going somewhere? Are they cursed to forever circle above us, never to be seen? We’ll never know.
An Ode to older animation
While the Ghibli style is present in this film. it should be noted that it seems the animation stylings of the time, can be glimpsed in a few places.
Most noticeable is in a black-and-white cartoon Porco sees, under cover of talking with a former Italian Air Force comrade.
The short seems to combine a number of different animation stylings, with it’s characters first seen flying in planes, which may be a reference to the first Mickey Mouse short, Plane Crazy. It’s lead characters seem to be a sort of loose-limbed rabbit character, and a large pig who attempts to abduct the heroine. This could also be some form of homage to Mickey Mouse, and his first nemesis, Peg-Leg Pete.
The heroine of the short, appears to be an amalgamation of Fleischer Studios’ depictions of Olive Oyl from their Popeye shorts, as well as with her ‘glamorous’ facial features, a mix of Betty Boop.
The leader of the Mamma Aiuto gang also may be influenced by Popeye, with his buff physique and spiky beard, he bears a passing resemblance to Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto.
It could also be said that the final fight between Curtis and Porco, may also be a small homage to the rock-em/sock-em fights that took place between Popeye and Bluto.
Music of a Bygone Era
When it comes to music, Jo Hisaishi’s score for Porco, is one of the more journey-filled pieces he’s done for his friend’s films.
For the Mamma Aiuto gang and some of the other air pirates, Hisaishi breaks out the brass instruments, making it sound like most of what they are doing, is little more than an ‘aerial circus.’
When the action ramps up, so do the strings, and even at times, the woodwinds. A notable piece is when Porco and Fio escape Milan, as the Italian authorities attempt to apprehend him. It’s a tense scene of escaping through the city’s waterways, with a Shostakovich-like piano melody that plays over the scene.
Throughout the film, a mixture of piano and strings often punctuates Porco’s quieter moments, a trace of wistful melancholy flowing through some scenes. A piece dealing with Porco and Gina sharing time at her hotel, also has the faintest hints of the song “As Time Goes By” to it, as if the composer tried to throw in a little homage to Casablanca.
Fio also gets a theme, with woodwinds being the major motif. Her piece is a bit more ‘playful,’ and often enhances a number of scenes where the focus shifts to her.
Notable to me, is the closing song for the film, titled Once in Awhile, Talk of the Old Days. The track has a wistful melody, starting and ending with piano, before eventually building to a plateau with a number of strings, sounding like wind skimming across the mists of time.
I recall going back to my hometown in Iowa 9 years ago for my high school reunion, and the song seemed to sum up my feelings, seeing people I last remembered as teenagers, back when the world seemed more optimistic. The track played in my ears, as the bus took me out of a place I could recall more wistfully from youth, but had changed over time.
That seems to largely be the theme of Hisaishi’s overall score: music that feels like you’re looking back on a time and place. The memories are there, but it’s all a bit hazy from the decades that have passed.
When one compares Porco Rosso to some of Miyazaki’s more ‘popular’ works, it often seems to easily get lost in the shuffle. Personally, I often feel that I and a select few people, are the only ones who have some love for the film.
One of the things that is most notable, is that it is one of Miyazaki’s shortest films, but the pacing of the film is so good, that it often feels like it is over too soon! I can’t recall ever being bored once during the entire film.
In researching this blog post, I was looking for further information in regards to Miyazaki’s remembrances, or comments following the release of the film.
Unlike some directors who seem to have fond memories of previous films, Miyazaki rarely seems to gush or hold any of his past works in high praise. This is notable in watching the documentary, In the Kingdoms of Dreams and Madness. One of the women in the documentary makes references to Kiki’s Delivery Service, as well as Porco Rosso. Porco is brought up, given that the film that was being worked on at the time (titled, The Wind Rises), also deals with flying machines.
However, when he remembers his older work, Miyazaki merely calls it “a foolish film.”
An interview for Animerica Magazine in 1993, also had him feeling that the film flew in the face of his feelings, that (in his own words), “animation is for children.”
It should be noted that a few years ago, rumor surfaced of a possible sequel to the film. Studio Ghibli is not a studio known for sequelizing, so this news was met with some caution.
A rumored title was Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie, and would have featured Porco taking to the air once again, this time as an aged pilot, during the Spanish Civil War.
No concept art or anything more was ever shown of this, and with the current status of Studio Ghibli seemingly closed off from doing anything other than an upcoming film project with Miyazaki, it is possible that The Last Sortie may join the ranks of many other projects the famed animation director considered, but never worked on.
Personally, I found the end of Porco Rosso had a decent closure to it’s story. Some loose ends were tied up, but other mysteries remained, for one of Hayao Miyazaki’s pieces, that feels like a good memory, I often enjoy coming back to.
Pretty good work for a film that was originally meant to play to weary businessmen.
“Porco Rosso is a product of the early ’90s, of my world views being challenged by real-world events. It’s also the product of my resolve to overcome the challenge and build a stronger way of life, a stronger way of looking at things.” – Hayao Miyazaki, from an interview conducted by Takashi Oshiguchi in 1993, for Animerica Magazine)