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Porco Rosso (1992)

What is a good Miyazaki-directed Ghibli film to watch if you're just not that into films directed by Miyazaki?  How about the one set in the real-world, between the two world wars with air combat, pirates, a daring duel and a flying pig?  Is that a good place to start?

I have said it before and I will say it again, I never really connected with Miyazaki's Ghibli films.  Perhaps it was the time of my life when I watched them (I've seen a few), the mood I was in, where I watched them, but I have always been non-plussed by them.  This is almost a crime in the mind of some people.  How could I not like such films as Castle in the SkyMy Neighbour TotoroPrincess Mononoke or Spirited Away?  Several years ago I listened to an ANNCast featuring the knowledgeable and delightful Helen McCarthy.  The way she spoke about Miyazaki's films, her enthusiasm (and did I mention knowledge?) caused me to question myself.  What was it that I just wasn't getting?  It had to be me, right?  To cut a long story short, I was given a recommendation to watch Porco Rosso as something that I might enjoy and connect with.  With a degree of skepticism, I put in the DVD and settled in to watch it...

Porco Rosso is a story written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.  It was based on a short series Miyazaki wrote for a magazine called Model Graphics.  The tale of Porco Rosso is set in the real-world and takes place primarily over the Adriatic seas at a time between the two World Wars as Fascism is on the ascent in Italy.  Porco (voiced in the English dub by Michael Keaton, yes he of Beetlejuice, Batman and Birdman) is a human originally called Marco who, by some unexplained phenomenon, after surviving numerous dog-fights during World War 1, the Great War, now has the face of a pig.

Porco/Marco lives on a deserted island with only his red custom-made sea plane and a radio for company.  He is a bounty-hunter over the skies above the Adriatic.  He generally cleans up the messes made by the various sea pirate gangs who all have their colourful and varied sea planes.  Although he affords the sea-pirates a level of respect, often allowing them to get away with modest takings from their exploits so they can survive, and never taking a human life, Porco is not good for pirate-business.  These sea pirates enlist the assistance of Curtis (voiced by Cary Ewles from the Princess Bride).  He's an American ace pilot, screenwriter and actor.

This sets the stage for a showdown between Porco and Curtis, but perhaps not only in the skies.  The sea pirates meet at Gina's hotel.  It's a place where they can just be themselves, provided they don't cause any trouble.  Gina and Marco/Porco grew up together and he has always looked out for her after her husbands all met tragic ends through war and flight.

After a run in with Curtis, Porco's plane is damaged beyond repair and he heads to Milan to get himself back in the skies.  This is a trip fraught with danger as based on his past actions, the government has a keen interest in him.  Going to see his usual engineer, Piccolo, he meets his grand-daughter, Fio, an excellent aero-engineer.  Will her design and passion give Porco the extra oomph to best Curtis?

I really enjoyed Porco Rosso.  It expertly and seamlessly blended action, romance, suspense, tragedy, guilt and a child-like innocence into an engrossing piece of entertainment.  The world presented is simple and uncomplicated.  The motivations of the characters are quite straightforward.  However, once they start to interact there are complications but it is still presented in a simple, easy to understand way.  There is a significant amount of suggestion and, something I like with the films I watch, "this is is what is happening and we're not telling you why...".  That mystery I find draws me in.  An early info-dump kind of spoils the storytelling.  Why is Marco now Porco, a human-like pig?  Will he ever return to his original self?  Will they show us what he looked like to show what kind of "fall" Marco has experienced?  It is very much a show, don't-tell feature and because of this nothing feels out of place.  You just accept that Marco is Porco like everyone else.  The films feels epic in its scale and has a glamour from the films of the 40s and 50s.  There is a lot in Porco Rosso that reminds me a lot of Casablanca (1942) a film I enjoyed very much.

Miyazaki's film really comes into its own when there is flying on the screen.  It seems to be the most comfortable there.  The scenes of aerial combat are breathtaking and they easily stand-up against modern features.  And of course Porco's red seaplane is gorgeous to look at and for me is an iconic piece of design work from all of the animation I have seen, painted bright red with smooth elegant body lines.  Within these scenes, with the sky and the sea, you get a sense of scale and can see these craft flying in their own 3D world.  There is a sense of speed based on how far things are away from an observer so when in town or anywhere else the screen seems to just come alive whenever flying is threatened.
Check out what is in the eyepiece!  Now that is a *detail*

It is also here where you can really see the detail that has gone into the film.  There is a quick shot of Porco piloting his place and within the eyepiece mounted on the plane body there is the view of what he would see from that position.  It would have been so easy to make this a single flat colour but the fact that it shows what you would see is wonderful and a real measure of craft.

Finally, the flying world of Porco and the pirates gives the sense that flying is a bit of fun, that they have not grown up, a return to that idea of childlike innocence.  Perhaps "civilisation" hasn't quite caught up with fly-boys just yet.  They certainly seem happier in their life choices.  In and around the skies in Milan you get the sense that it is controlled, there is danger and there are consequences which may reflect the build-up to forthcoming years of war.

Porco Rosso can be crudely broken into 3 key or main locations.  There is that where they fly, Milan and Gina's hotel.  Each location has its own feel and a wonderful level of detail.  When in the skies and over the sea you have clouds, islands, waves, boats and other planes that all inhabit the space.  Each of these is covered in just the right amount of detail to make is consistent and completely exist within that scene.  It is all blues and greens and greys, punctuated by the colours of the sea-planes.   In Milan it all feels a bit more threatening.  Who is in the shadows looking for Porco?  Here the colour palette is more muted.  We have beige and grey, straight edges and industry.  There is a kind of order imposed here and that red plane does not belong there.  Finally, at Gina's hotel, you get a sense of a lived-in, cosy, welcoming and safe home for the pirates and Porco.  The colours are more earthy and softer when inside, outside it is more country garden with flowers and pastel shades.  It feels that you could blink and it would be gone, that its existence is fleeting.

This is very much a film from the 90s with all that entails.  It was great to see a positive, strong and independent female character in Fio.  She was someone who's attitude and demeanour are at odds with her age.  She is in some ways the opposite to Gina who, perhaps more defined by her emotions, is a more romantic character.  I loved that the person to design Porco's new plane was a woman and that was that.  Porco could deal with it (recognising her skills and talents) or go somewhere else.  I only wish there could have been a bit more of her in the tale as she provided a suitable counter to Poroco's cynical ways.  Should she be someone you met in the real world her passion and spirit and enthusiasm would carry people with her.  However, it is a 90s film so the man is still the main focus.

Although this is obviously a film with impressive visual content the soundtrack by Joe Hisashi, a long time collaborator with Miyazaki and Ghibli  is exquisite.  There is a light breezy quality to the scenes in the air which really accentuated the concept of a freedom or release from the norm when flying.  When on the ground you got a real sense of location from the music in the background.  Milan definitely had its own sound compared to Gina's hotel where I got the sense of glamour and old-fashioned sophistication.  Perhaps the most unique piece in the film is where Porco is telling a story based on his experiences in the war.  The accompanying music has this quality that signposts where the tale is heading before the dialogue, but completely synchronised with the imagery.

Porco Rosso has not "turned me on" to Miyazaki-directed Ghibli films.  I'll always prefer those directed by Isao Takahata.  That said I have a greater appreciation for why Miyazaki is so revered as a director both within the Japanese animation community and the wider animation community across the world (for example, John Lasseter talk about Miyazaki and his work in the introduction to Starting Point 1979-1996).  I can definitely see that his work is important and from watching other works (Castle of Cagliostro) I can say I enjoy his more real-world, less fantastical works and would be inclined to watch more of those (perhaps The Wind Rises is his next one to watch?).  It is clear to see that he has had an impact and influence on more recent fare - I can see a touch of Porco Rosso in Redline!  For Miyazaki's place in animation history and because it is so enjoyable, it should be on a must-watch animation list.

After my initial scepticism, Porco Rosso utterly enthralled and charmed me in a way I did not expect. From its backgrounds in the Adriatic, skies and seas you could get lost in, cities that feel vibrant and live in, right through to the planes and character designs, there is always something to look and marvel at.  It has a beautiful, light and airy score that captures the spirit of the visuals.  All of this couples with a simple but touching tale of honour, loss, change, the advent of war, love and friendship to create a delightful film that you will return to again and again.

Porco Rosso is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as part of the Studio Ghibli Collection, through Studio Canal in the UK.  In the USA it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Disney.

P.S.  For those interested there are some really good articles on the works of Miyazaki and Porco Rosso in the Mechademia collections.