The Porc-y Dilemma

As you’re no doubt aware by now, I recently wrote a trilogy of articles on what I call “Miyazaki’s Action Trinity”. To say that I feel passionately about Hayao Miyazaki’s, and subsequently Studio Ghibli’s, work is an understatement, but despite tackling three of my four favourites from the man there was still a lingering anxiety. I was hoping someone else would notice, but given that no one has I’ll be the straw man this time: what about Porco Rosso? Isn't that an action movie too?

I have a confession to make: ignoring that the film wasn’t streamed during Toonami’s “A Month of Miyazaki”, Porco Rosso’s my least-favourite Miyazaki movie. I’m even, to be quite honest, a little cold on it. It’s not that it’s not a good movie, it is, but the typical feeling I get from the director’s other work is surprisingly absent. However, since stopping there won’t do my thoughts justice, I’ll do good on a long-awaited promise and explain why. Also, fair warning, spoilers.

Porco Rosso is about Marco Pagot, a WWI ace-turned-bounty-hunter cursed with a pig's head for abandoning the Italian air force. Porco spends his days tormenting the seaplane pirates of the Adriatic, and after his latest rescue pushes them to the edge they hire Donald Curtis, an American pilot with a headstrong personality and stellar reputation, to take him out. Fortunately, Porco survives their encounter, making his way to Milan to get his plane repaired and meeting the 17 year-old granddaughter of his prized engineer. The two challenge Curtis again, earn one-another’s respect, and maybe break Porco’s curse?

I’ll start with the positives before I address my critiques, as there’s a lot to like. For one, the movie is gorgeous. That goes without saying, it’s a Studio Ghibli film and a Miyazaki effort, but remember that there was a time early-on in Studio Ghibli’s existence where that couldn’t be taken for granted. So yeah, Porco Rosso still looks great 25 years later, a fact made better by its attention to detail in scenery and action. Everything from the way the planes move, to the damage they take during dogfights, to even the backdrops during the areal scenes are excellent considering that this was all drawn by hand. It’s also the last Miyazaki film to retain that 80’s-esque sheen before the digital age that was ushered in with Princess Mononoke.

The music is also excellent. This was Joe Hisaishi’s first Miyazaki score to fully-embrace an orchestra, and it shows. The movie also has a style reminiscent of jazz and lounge, no doubt a result of its smatterings of the piano and the occasional trumpet, making it unique amongst the Hisaishi/Miyazaki pantheon. My favourite piece is Path of Wind, which is used during the opening action sequence, although YouTube has taken down any videos containing it due to copyright issues. However, Madness/Flight, the tune used during Porco’s secret escape from Milan, is a close-second, and that track you can find here.

I like most of the characters in this movie, save Porco (we’ll cover him later). The Mama Aiuto Gang in particular steal the show as far as the pirates go, bearing the comical trademark of The Dola Gang from Castle in the Sky. Donald Curtis is a more competent Gaston, so he’s as loveable as he is brash and arrogant. And, of course, Piccolo, Porco’s engineer, is fun in an eccentric way (y’know, before eccentric became synonymous with excusing the awful behaviour of artists.) But I have to give it up to Fio and Gina, aka the film’s two starring women. Miyazaki’s no stranger to relatable and crafty female characters, and both exemplify that. I’d argue that they’re his best-written, which is saying a lot given that San and Chihiro exist.

Speaking of women, Porco Rosso, arguably, is Miyazaki’s most feminist-friendly film. It openly lampshades the sexism of 1930’s Europe by demonstrating how competent women really are. I think the best example is when Porco brings his damaged plane to Piccolo, only to reveal that all of Piccolo’s workers are his female relatives. He states that all the men are out looking for work, but that this is even discussed, let-alone resolved in a clever way, shows how forward-thinking Miyazaki was even in the 90’s.

Porco Rosso also has an excellent feel for comedy. I still maintain, to this day, that only three of the director’s films can pass off as legit comedies, and this is his funniest. My two favourite jokes are when a group of male sailors form an arrow to where The Mama Aiuto Gang had taken the kidnapped girls, and when the captain of a cruise-line casually announces that their ship is under attack by pirates. These are the kinds of witty jokes I wish I could write.

Finally, the movie’s themes about honour and self-worth are really strong. The comedic elements are fine, but they alone can’t make a movie good. Porco Rosso frequently touches on what defines honour, and nowhere is this more pressing than in Porco himself. On the surface, the idea of a man being cursed with a pig’s head isn’t a bad one. It allows for some interesting commentary on what makes a person human, and I think the visual image is neat. It’s too bad that it ends up being a moot point to Porco’s character, but, again, I’ll cover my issues with him shortly.

With all of these strengths, you’d think it’d be difficult to criticize this movie. Surely there’s some mistake, right? Well…not really.

Let’s get the biggest elephant in the room out of the way first: I don’t like Porco. I don’t hate him either, but I find him frustrating. While not oblivious to his curse, he seems to not really care that he’s become a pig. I remember Doug Walker taking issue with that, stating that it’s unexciting when no one questions something so noticeable, and I agree. The film feels muted over whether or not Porco having a pig’s head is an issue, and that’s off-putting.

Porco’s also a really cold character. The best example of this is when he brushes off Fio in the end, asking Gina to take her somewhere respectable and apologizing when Gina protests. Firstly, that apology should’ve been made to Fio. And secondly, the response he gives has never rubbed off well. I understand that Porco couldn’t be with Fio for a variety of reasons, like how Lupin blew off Lady Clarisse at the end of The Castle of Cagliostro, but it feels more like an example of Porco being a jerk than compassionate.

Also, Porco’s back-story, though tragic, isn’t too compelling. He’d abandoned his comrades after an intense dogfight that killed everyone else around him, and for that he was cursed to be a pig. It’s not an interesting, irrespective of whether or not it’s a “red herring”. That, when coupled with his coldness and apathy, makes feel cold when I watch the movie. It doesn’t feel Kosher.

Moving on, the dramatic moments don’t pack much of a punch, as they feel rushed for time. There’s a scene where Porco’s plane is shot down by Curtis and he goes into hiding, pretending he’s dead to inflate Curtis’s ego. He ends up calling a worried Gina from Milan, whereupon she yells at him and insists that he return home. When he refuses, she slams the phone and calls him a jerk. I think the movie should’ve shown Gina break down into tears, especially given what we know of her, but we’re never shown her reaction. It’s a missed opportunity for genuine emotion, a bathos moment, especially given Miyazaki’s penchant for tugging at the heartstrings.

Then there’s the final fight between Porco and Curtis. It starts out fine, with Curtis and Porco in areal pursuit, but then the two run out of bullets and land for a full-on boxing match. This’d be fine on its own too, but the match turns brutal and violent fast, with bruised faces and teeth flying out. In an older article, I’d asked if Miyazaki had lost a bet with someone when he directed this scene, and I still think that now. You could argue that this fight was foreshadowed in the movie Porco watched earlier on, but that doesn’t make it any less tedious.

I’m at a loss with Porco Rosso. Like Cowboy Bebop, I take issue with facets of its execution, including its emotional undercutting and frequent rushing of its dramatic moments. Unlike Cowboy Bebop, however, there isn't enough to compensate. It’s not as though the story is bad either, as it’s much better-constructed than Howl’s Moving Castle, and my complaints about that movie are far-more concise. But Porco Rosso really does leave me feeling a little cold. And that, I think, is its greatest problem.

Still, I have to admire its atmosphere. That alone makes it worth watching.


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