(1992) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Happenstances being what they are, I’d never gotten around to seeing Porco Rosso, the 1992 film by one of my favorite filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki, the only of his feature films that I’d never seen before. And credit is definitely due to Pixar and John Lasseter there who have helped get the Disney corporation to import and dub these films for feature releases and DVD distribution. I recall at one point toying with renting this film from a Japantown video store to watch untranslated just to see it.
I pooled the kids for this one. We’re all quite into Miyazaki films. We all enjoyed his most recent (and hopefully not his last directorial feature) Ponyo (2008). It’s funny, but within 15 years or so, maybe longer, Miyazaki has gone from an obscure figure in American culturual knowledge to a much more known and recognized filmmaker, appreciated by many many more people than I would have ever hoped for at any time. Again, I think this has a lot to the broad distribution and quality voice-acting hired to dub these films for the American market.
Porco Rosso is set in a typically Miyazaki world, a place somewhere between WWI and WWII but one which is in stark contrast to purified reality. Technologies are as magical and pseudo-technological, retro, but retro in a way that nothing ever really existed. And the world is a largely European fantasy of the gorgeous Mediterranean yet not by any means utterly particular to reality, though this film does spend some time in Milan (how accurately depicted, I have no clue).
But it’s a quasi-fantasy, a mixture of retro-and-just-never-was. Porco Rosso, “the crimson pig”, was a bi-plane fighter in (probably) WWI for Italy, but when after a crazy dogfight in which he lost his battalion, he survived, suffering a “curse” or some other twist of fate, turning from striking handsome man into a pig. And he takes his pig presentation as an excuse of sorts for his other types of piggishness, his selfishness, his wanton lifestyle, his lack of integrity. He’s a bounty hunter, rescuing treasures and children from a myriad of marauding pirates. But for money, supposedly looking out only for himself.
The opening of the film is one of its best sequences. A group of children are abducted from a ship along with the ship’s treasure. The gaggle of little girls are more than the pirates can handle and run amok on their plane, giving them a hard time about not being able to get Porco Rosso. Porco Rosso zooms in for a dramatic rescue. The bi-plane-style dogfights are exciting and lovingly rendered. Miyazaki has a particular love of flying machines and features a broad spectrum of strange aircraft in almost all of his films. And this seems to be the focal point of the aesthetic and setting of Porco Rosso.
But interestingly, it’s also a bit of a tip of the hat to films like Casablanca (1942), with its restaurant/bar and its singing hostess, the beautiful Jina, who has a pseudo-love relationship with Porco, the thrice widowed would-be bride of many a aeronaut shot down. And there is the semi-villainous American (eventual movie star) as well.
But despite the guns and bullets, nobody really gets killed. Nobody really gets shot. And though Porco and the American end up in a battle and a fairly brutal fist fight, this film has less aligned with Miyazaki’s more serious and more socially critical works like Princess Mononoke (1997) or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984). It’s adventure but quite light-hearted, quite fun. And also, most notably, less exemplary of his fanatsy elements and whimsical character designs of strange elements. Rather it’s a relatively human world in which Porco is the only real fantasy figure.
The kids liked it. Perhaps my kids liked it the most. The girls from upstairs were down for it and seemed to like parts of it. Felix had a friend over from school for a sleep-over and while he eventually seemed to get into it, it was clearly not his first kind of choice for a movie night thing. Hey, Miyazaki is not going to be for everybody, but for those who are open to or just plain into his wonderful storytelling, imagination, design, and artistry, well, there is no comparison. There is no one like him that I’ve seen. We can only hope he keeps making films as long as he wants to.