“‘Is Porco Rosso dead or alive’? Good question.”
-Marco Pagot, “the Crimson Pig”
Now on to my favorite Studio Ghibli film! Porco Rosso is an action-comedy directed by Hayao Miyazaki. I’d consider it to be his funniest film with tons of characters riddled through with trademark charm, wit, and caricature. From the loudmouth pirate leader to the over-the-top tough guy protagonist, Porco Rosso is impossible to watch without grinning at least once. It easily climbed up to the top of my Ghibli list. It is one of the only Miyazaki movies I’d actually consider popularly underrated.Yet Porco Rosso’s humor is the animation equivalent Pagliacci. Beneath the laughs and the abrasiveness of Porco himself lies a sober perspective on war, the life of human life, and the trauma it causes. This only shines through strongest at a single point in the film when everything drops back and you see the naked truth about Porco’s condition. For all of the womanizing and the booze and the recklessness, he is still haunted by what he’s experienced. And once you see it, “the comedy is over”.
Porco Rosso is a step away from the previous works Miyazaki directed. Nausicaä was a sci-fi epic, Castle in the Sky was a fantasy adventure, both My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were told from the angle of kids and dealt with issues of childhood wonder and growing up. Porco Rosso is a straight up action flick, nigh a summer blockbuster, with a more straight forward plot structure than the episodic structures of Totoro and Kiki’s.
It is also a departure from the Miyazaki norm in that it is set in the real world outside of Japan, drawing from actual world history, with real geographical locations as its settings. The film has a classiness to it, like Casablanca, and in ways it seems to parody the nightlife, tough guy talk and romance of the first half of the 1900’s. It feels like a period piece in a way.
However, though conscious deliberation seems to have taken place to set apart Porco Rosso as its own entity, the film still carries Miyazaki’s favored feminist and flying themes. Heck, the whole movie is based around aircraft and a tenderness was put into the amazing animation of these old planes. It seems as if it’s a love letter to early aviation.
The film takes place at the late 1920’s/early 1930’s, after World War I and at the start of the Great Depression, in the Mediterranean Adriatic Sea and nearby Italy. It begins idly enough on a secluded beach in a secret cove where a man lay stretched out under an umbrella, reclining on a chair, listening to the radio. Half an apple and a drained glass of wine sit next to him. Suddenly, the man responds to a call he receives about an ocean liner under attack by air pirates. Turns out he’s a freelance bounty hunter. He sits up, the magazine slides off his face to reveal that he’s an anthropomorphic pig.
Under the title of Porco Rosso, “the Crimson Pig”, the bounty hunter skillfully flies his bright red plane to save some schoolgirls that were kidnapped by the inept pirates. Porco makes short work of them and even lets them escape with a bit of cash so they can repair their ship while he takes the schoolgirls back to safety.
That evening, Porco flies to the Hotel Adriano and listens to the beautiful Gina sing in the nightclub. The pirate captains are skulking in the corner, eyeballing him over their drinks and plotting how to take their skilled predator down. They’ve hired a hotshot American fly-boy named Donald Curtis to help them carry out their attacks. As it turns out, Gina and Porco have a history together. She knew him when he was yet human, before he was “cursed” to turn into a pig. He used to be Marco, a World War I vet and a talented pilot who stepped away from his duties to his country and from human society to become a loner and a pig who lives by his own laws.
The big question is “how the purgatory did Marco become Porco and turn into a pig in the first place?” Of course we’re going to examine that closely under the Themes category below. All I want to say here is that Porco’s piggyness defines his personality and appears (at first) to be accepted entirely by him if not an active, conscious choice. He revels in being labeled a womanizer, without shame, and he is constantly smoking, eating, drinking, displaying even cowardice and not caring in the least. Other characters dismiss him as stubborn and pig-headed. He lives without honor or morality, as he pleases.
The American Donald Curtis falls in love with Gina (since “love happens to [Americans] all the time”) which eventually leads to a rivalry with Porco and the two become enemies. Porco now has an American ace on his tail, the Italian secret police in hot pursuit, and the pirates to worry about, all while having to fix up his plane in Milan where he meets Piccolo the repairman and his granddaughter the engineer Fio who challenges Porco’s perception of women. What’s a pig-man (man-pig?) to do?
Even from that base outline, you can see how the story pans out with a more traditional action-movie structure, an antagonist/rival, and an ultimate climax. As with most Miyazaki villains, though, Donald Curtis and the pirates aren’t irredeemably evil. They’re not pure evil. The American is just vainglorious, irredeemably arrogant, and the pirates are practically comedic relief.
I just love how Disney voiced the pirates of the Mamma Aiuto gang. Mamma Aiuto is a colloquialism for “Help, Mama!” in Italian. They probably got the name because that’s what they say when they see Porco’s red plane on the horizon. Seriously, these guys are wussies and it’s hilarious watching them try to kidnap fifteen schoolgirls and fail miserably at the start of the film.
Porco Rosso was originally meant to be a much shorter movie. It was planned to be an in-flight movie for Japan Airlines with a run-time of about 30 minutes. When Miyazaki’s imagination took off, so did the high-flying hijinks of the titular anti-hero. The movie exploded into a full-fledged adventure with a final showdown between the arrogant American and the pig-headed Italian. Miyazaki drew more material from the manga Hikoutei Jidai to adapt and gravity was lent to the film by real-world events in Yugoslavia.
Talking about Porco Rosso in the documentary The Kingdoms of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki called the project foolish and when asked why on Earth he would call it that, he replied that it was foolish to make an adult movie for children. That’s how this movie feels. It’s like a classy adult film, except it’s animated, funny, self-aware, and the main character is a fat man with a pig’s snout.
As ridiculous, humorous, endearing, slick and stylish as Porco Rosso is, nobody could have ever made a movie like it other than the legendary director himself.
The 8-bit Review
Over the years, we have seen quite a few flight sequences from the animators at Studio Ghibli but I hold that the flying depicted in Porco Rosso is their greatest work on the subject. Watch the movie and deny that the planes appear to have weight, appear to be affected by updrafts, gusts, movements of wind past their shimmering, shaking wings and ailerons. The flexion of struts, guttering engines, spattering oil, metal and wooden fuselages exploding into bouts of black smoke and fire and splintered bits and shrapnel, as beneath them the ocean rushes past, light catching on the dancing water, clouds billowing past as the pilots soar and wheel and somersault.
It is the most impressively animated aviation I have ever seen and the entire film is based around it. The very first action sequence with Porco swooping in to save the day is fast-paced and fantastic.
The film is strange in that there’s a noticeable (and deliberate) dip in the quality of character depiction as the tone changes. Take note that in the nightclub scenes and during serious conversation, the characters appear in human proportions, elegant, detailed, sinuous and graceful. Even Porco, rotund as ever, has a beautiful realism about him as he lights a cigarette and then flicks out the match with a twist of his wrist.
But then there are moments when the characters appear as if they’ve been lifted from “cheaper” anime. Big grinning mouths and super-deformity creeps in now and then, reminding us that this is an action-cartoon and not a black and white from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Piccolo is a prime example of this with his weaselly face and whiskers.
The visual differentiation is a neat way for the animation to take charge of the film’s varying tones, and I think it helps characterize this film in the Ghibli canon, since it’s not something they’ve used as often before or since.
A film’s backgrounds have never made me long for the ocean more. The Adriatic Sea is gorgeous in Porco Rosso. There’s a scene with Porco flying over the ocean, rays of light falling dappled on the surface of the water below him as Italian music plays. I let out a satisfied sigh every time I see that part. At Hotel Adriano, I can almost smell the fish Porco’s eating, or the flowers in Gina’s garden. I’m pretty sure I would never leave if I could live at Porco’s secret hideout in his cove.
I couldn’t find any videos for these songs as they appear on the soundtrack in the English language version, so these will have to suffice. They are orchestrated versions of the original tracks or in the case of “Le temps des Cerises”, a Japanese original version.
The music in Porco Rosso was composed by the incredibly versatile Joe Hisaishi. Can this guy ever fail? In Porco Rosso, he adapted his compositions to a distinct Italiano sound. The classiness abounds. “Let temps des Cerises” is sung by the character of Gina, during her first appearance, in the Hotel Adriano. The title is French for “The Time of Cherries”. It is famous in French-speaking countries as a song of revolution. Specifically, it is allegorical regarding social changes after revolution. Using the song in Porco Rosso speaks to the uncertain future in the surrounding countries and Italy, and to Porco and Gina’s own uncertain relationship.
Below is “The Bygone Days”, a perfect summary of the relationship between Gina and Porco. This song only plays in the background of the Hotel Adriano bar but it is very near and dear to me. It served as an important video during an anniversary. As a pianist and lover of jazz, I just love how swanky it is!
Live orchestra version. Saxophones are sexy.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
Porco lives comfortably taking money bounty hunting pirates, which seems to be a breeze. The pirates of the Adriatic Sea are pushovers. Therefore, the pirates hire Curtis to support their cause and they successfully attack a cruise liner as a group. Curtis wants to become even more famous by taking down the fighter ace Crimson Pig. They encounter each other in the air and Porco flees. Curtis says he’ll tell everyone Porco is chicken but Porco just replies “Chicken? Pig? What’s the difference?” Curtis successfully downs Porco when his engine dies in mid-flight. Thinking him dead, Curtis takes a piece of Porco’s broken plane as a trophy. Porco survives the attack and goes to Milan to have his ship repaired by Piccolo.
There, Porco learns that all the men have left Milan to look for work and his ship is to be redesigned and repaired by Piccolo’s granddaughter Fio and a large helping of Italian women. I love Piccolo’s hilarious prayer before sitting down to a meal of spaghetti: “And please forgive us for building a fighter plane with the hands of women. Amen.” Yet Porco and maybe even Piccolo are surprised by what Fio and the “Rosie the Riveter” women accomplish making his plane better than ever.
In Milan, Porco is pursued by members of the Italian secret police. Turns out he is wanted for deserting his country. Porco left the Italian Air Force after the war. His ship fixed, he flees by flying it into the air via a riverbank in the middle of the night. He escapes from Milan with the help of an old comrade from the Air Force. Fio comes with him to keep an eye on the plane she helped design, and as an excuse for her family she’ll claim to be a hostage of Porco held for the repair of his ship, provided he is captured.
On the way back to the Adriatic Sea, Porco learns that the new government in Italy is hiring seaplane pirates to swell their army. Porco is out of a job with no more pirates left to hunt.
Back in the Adriatic, Curtis had just made an attempt to propose to Gina in her garden but she turned him down, explaining that she was waiting for a certain pilot to visit her in her garden and that she would wed him, except that pilot only comes to her club at night. Just then, Porco flies overhead and Gina rushes out to see if he’ll land, which he doesn’t. Curtis is incensed that she’d choose Porco or him.
At Porco’s hideout, he and Fio are ambushed by the disgraced pirates who want to kill him and wreck his plane. Fio stands up for Porco and calls out the pirates for their nefarious plot, shaming them into submission. Then Curtis shows up and challenges Porco to a showdown. Fio strikes up a deal with him. If Porco wins, Curtis has to pay off the rest of the money Porco owes Piccolo for his plane. But if Curtis wins, Fio has to marry him. Of course, being American, Curtis instantly falls in love with her. Porco is furious but Fio insists.
The showdown between Porco and Curtis turns into a huge event with bets placed and an audience coming out in droves to watch the two expert pilots face off. An intense dogfight follows with Curtis trying every trick he can pull and Porco avoiding taking killing shots lest he actually kill Curtis. It eventually boils down into the two men having a brutal fist fight in the water below. When Gina appears to warn everyone that the IAF is on the way, calling out to Marco, Porco rises up and wins the match against Curtis, freeing Fio from marriage to a jerk.
Porco throws Fio on the plane with Gina and before it takes off, Fio leans out to kiss him as thanks. Porco and Curtis stand watching the planes take off as the Air Force approaches, but something is wrong with Porco’s face as Curtis thinks he sees something. We don’t get to see anything. If there was some physical transformation because of Porco’s selfless heroics, we don’t get to see it.
The story ends with Fio talking about how she became fast friends with Gina, how Porco escaped the Italians, and how the futures of the characters unfold. The end is purposefully vague. We get a final shot of the Hotel Adriano with Porco’s red plane docked there in daylight. Was his curse lifted and was he married to Gina at last?
Thematically, I want to talk about the nature and origin of Porco’s curse
It seems to be self-inflicted as a consequence of Marco’s experiences fighting for fascists, watching his friends perish in the war, and his self-exile from human society. His curse stems from a bleak outlook on war and loss. He felt the trauma of survivor’s guilt after being spared while his comrades died and he was unable to join them. He felt he fled from the battle and then he fled from the war. Becoming a pig is a physical transformation that echoed his internal choice to disregard meaning, morality and honor, a response of indifference to a world and a war that was so cruel.
“‘Is Porco Rosso dead or alive’? Good question.”
Marco has killed his own feelings. He lives life as if he had nothing to live for.
This is where the film gets serious about its subject matter. The night before the showdown with Curtis, Porco tells Fio a story from World War I. All of the members of his squadron were shot down in a horrible dogfight and Porco flies on in exhaustion into a bright light, into a cloud. He rises above the surface almost in a trance and sees a white line far above him. It’s a host of aircraft, both allies and enemies, flying on into the distance. Porco watches on in horror as his fallen comrades float up in their planes to join the procession. He calls out to them and demands that he go in their place, as one of his friends had just married Gina. Now he was dead. Porco blacks out and wakes up skimming over the sea in his plane, now turned into a pig. It’s really a sobering moment between all the action and comedy.
This scene is actually taken by inspiration from Roald Dahl’s short story They Shall Not Grow Old. In that story, a character observes the same phenomena of planes flying in a procession and explains “these were the pilots and air crews who had been killed in battle, who now, in their own aircraft were making their last flight, their last journey”.
In stark contrast to Porco is Donald Curtis. Villains often work well when they are opposites of the heroes. In this case, Curtis is actually a pig. He’s so arrogant that he quotes his own screenplays and thinks himself invincible. He imagines that he’s charismatic and handsome enough to win the heart of any girl he wants. He even believes he’ll be president someday. He acts like a real pig though on the outside he appears to be a well-built man with a manicured mustache.
Porco on the other hand actually looks like an anthropomorphic pig on the outside. He’s got a face maybe not even a mother could love. Early in the film he demonstrates total disregard for anyone but himself, and only comes to the rescue when money is involved. But as the story progresses we discover that the man Marco never really went away. The man who once loved his country and loved his comrades is still there, a selfless and sacrificial man who would go on to fight Curtis not to pay of his debt but to keep Fio out of Curtis’ grasp.
Fio of course plays a strong role in Porco’s redemptive transformation back into a human being. She redeems his perception of women and she is only the second woman he seems to come to respect, beyond Gina. He never objectifies her and turns away when she undresses to go for a swim. He hasn’t known her for long but he is already ready to risk his life for her, as she risked her life for his. Her femininity becomes less significant than her companionship as an ally.
A the climax, Curtis and Porco have this bare-fisted boxing match that mutilates their faces. Now they’re both ugly. On the outside, they’re equal. But now we know as the audience that only one of them is actually a pig: the American and not the Italian. Porco redeems himself there and shows that he is really a man again, and thus I believe the curse is lifted because 1) we see the reaction of Curtis to some change in his face, and 2) we see that Porco has rejoined human society with his plane docked at the hotel in midday.
So yes, I do believe that though the movie ends without an exact explanation that there is enough in the film to realize what happened to Porco. We know the nature of his curse, roughly, how to expressed what was inside of him and when he went deeper and showed that deep down he really is a selfless human being, the curse was lifted, only when he fought for someone else and not for himself.
Family Friendliness: 7/10
Characters are depicted consuming alcohol and smoking cigarettes. In the case of Porco, he smokes by the bucket load. You think there were tons of panty shots in Kiki’s Delivery Service? Someone should count how many times Porco lights up in this movie. Of course, he isn’t really a role model and he’s more of an anti-hero for most of the story. Then there’s all of his references to being a known womanizer and so on.
Contrariwise, though, there are no frightening moments in this mostly lighthearted movie. Even the scene where Marco sees the dead pilots in their procession isn’t so much scary as it is regretful and sad. This is a good action film for the family.
The violence is heavily cartoonish, as well.
Dude, Michael Keaton voices Porco Rosso. Batman ’89 voices a Miyazaki character! Whaaaat!? And he does a pretty great job performing the gruff, grouchy ex-fighter ace. Keaton delivers on the low muttering and even throws in a few chortles and snorts when Porco laughs, just for good measure. Porco is a rare male protagonist for Miyazaki films and I’m glad they got a high-caliber actor to voice him for the Disney dub. I think he’s an example of an improvement on the original Japanese, who just sounded like an angry, throaty plumber from the Bronx all the time.
This is actually a really great cast.
The late-great Cary Elwes (he’s not dead, he just hasn’t done anything great lately *badum tsss*) voices Donald Curtis. Not quite so enthusiastic in all of his “yahoos” and “wahoos” as a cowboy could be but he did a fine job on a funny stereotype of what an American sounds like. Considering the man’s British and all.
Susan Egan, a veteran voice actor, plays Gina with a lot of feeling, understanding, and sincerity in her voice. Plus she sang “Les temps des Cerises”. In French. Spot on.
Fio is voiced by Kimberly Williams-Paisley and she is great as the energetic young engineer. David Ogden Stiers plays Piccolo and I don’t know where they found this guy but his voice is super unique. Brad Garrett is one of the funniest voices in any animation ever as the booming Mamma Aiuto gang leader, supported by a bunch of stupid-sounding voices as his underlings. This is really such an enjoyable cast.
The premise is an ex-fighter pilot from World War I is cursed to turn into an anthropomorphic pig and he fights seaplane pirates. Only Miyazaki. This is one of the funniest animated movies I’ve ever seen. Remember this scene? Classic.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
I’ll say again that this is my favorite Studio Ghibli film. I never not enjoy it whenever I watch it and I’ve seen it over half a dozen times. I think it has a richness to it that it borrows from the real world yet it has enough of the fantastical in it to bear up that old Miyazaki charm for interesting and outlandish characters. I love what it has to say in its serious moments but I love how funny it is as well.
In my opinion, it’s the funniest Ghibli film. Porco Rosso is only sentimental when it needs to be, in sparse quantity to cut through the whimsy, and the result is a cold knife right in the heart in its most moving scenes. It’s an exercise in precise film making. It may not be remembered the most fondly or appreciated by all, but it will ever be the greatest to me. Don’t underestimate it.
Aggregated Score: 8.9