What’s an ex-fighter pilot ace to do once the war has ended? Set in the Adriatic Sea during the 1930s, Marco Pagot spends his time as a bounty hunter taking cash primarily to fight against sea plane pirates. His fame and distinctive red plane precede him, as does his piggish attitude. Speaking of which…
Studio Ghibli movies are varied but mostly renowned for being thematically and tonally rich. However, within the canon there is a good slice of movies that play much stronger to fun. Porco Rosso glides high over this category. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s love for flight – and classic planes in particular – is a common thread through most of his movies and Porco Rosso allowed him to revel in this delight to the fullest.
Straight from the beginning, the light-hearted tone is set. The seaplane pirates that populate portions of the movie are the lovable inept kind that frequent early Miyazaki movies. Their muscular big beard energy delivers tons of comedy, such as failing to kidnap a class of children due to the kids running riot over them. For the first and last acts of the movie you have plenty of action-adventure. Planes swoop, machine guns rat-a-tat, smoky bars clamour with admiration for sultry singers, and 1930s rose-tinted Europe fills the screen with warmth and character.
Of course, this being Miyazaki, there are extra elements that elevate the otherwise simple concept. Marco, prior to the events of the movie, has been cursed somehow to have the face of a pig. This is never gotten into which actually succeeds in having wonderful shorthand for a character rather than being a plot point in and of itself. Marco – dubbed ‘Porco’ – is an endlessly quotable character. Technically on the run from the Italian Air Force at a time when Mussolini was rising in power means Marco must constantly watch out for the secret police. “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist”, he says wryly.
Similarly, Miyazaki’s pacifist mentality is woven into the movie. The love for flight and instruments of battle is used for things such as duels with uppity American flying aces or daring escapes down Milan’s canals rather than actual battle. And just when you mentally catalogue the movie as an Indiana Jones action adventure, Porco Rosso drops in a tear-inducing piece of utter art. Marco recounts how during an air battle he, the lone survivor, witnessed a wordless stream of the recently destroyed planes climb into a deep blue sky to merge with an endless stream of flying, fallen, brethren. The scene choked me up the first time I saw it and never fails to do so with each rewatch.
Uncharacteristically for Miyazaki, the movie does border on the sexist side. When Marco visits Milan to have his shot up plane repaired he is incredulous at the job being given to Fio, the young niece of old tight-fisted engineer buddy Piccolo. Unlike the many other movies of his where a female lead carves her own identity, Fio’s sparkle-eyed optimism smacks more of cheerfully accepting the derision as fact. “I can’t help being born a girl!” she protests lightly, whilst going on to do a superb job and proving Marco wrong of course. Marco’s pig headed attitude is never indulged, but also is never challenged. Accurate for the 1930s, I’m sure, but behind the standard of most Miyazaki movies.
Through soaring, gorgeous visuals that delight in the rush of cloud and sea through to a bouncy score and smiles a-plenty, Porco Rosso is one of those movies that isn’t held in as high artistic regard as other Studio Ghibli movies but nonetheless is a reliably fun slice of good times that manages as most turns to be that little bit better than it ever needed to be. It’s the only Ghibli movie to end in rip-roaring fisticuffs and the promise of further airbound adventures to come, and in that respect it’s a movie that will be endlessly rewatchable.
Words by Michael Record