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“Porco Rosso” Goes Ham: An Optimistic Reading of a Favorite Film

Out of animator and director Hayao Miyazaki’s many beloved films,, “Porco Rosso” manages to soar above the rest for me. It’s a comforting movie; every time I turn it on, Porco, that hard-to-like but difficult-not-to-love scoundrel, pulls up a chair and pours me a glass of wine. The film throws you into the clouds, promising high romance, adventure and a few simple lessons about life along the way. Perhaps I’m just susceptible to its nods to the classics, noir especially. Or, maybe, that’s just the power of the movies, that indescribable quality that can slip past the critical eye and get you to just exist in the film for a while, embracing all its beauty and flaws. Whatever it is, “Porco Rosso” has it, at least to me.  

It’s one of Miyazaki’s boldest stories by virtue of its comparative simplicity. Porco (Shūichirō Moriyama) is a sea-plane flying bounty hunter who is cursed to have the head of a pig. He must work with Fio (Akemi Okamura), his mechanic’s fiery granddaughter, to redesign his plane for an upcoming dogfight with Curtis (Akio Otsuka), an American pilot. Meanwhile, Gina (Tokiko Kato), a nightclub singer and a friend of Porco’s, the last person who remembers what he looked like as a human, waits patiently for him to come to his senses and requite her love for him. This is easily Miyazaki at his most restrained in the character animation department, since the story becomes so dialogue-driven. And yet, its more realistic animation draws greater attention to how character is shown through movement. Porco tries his hardest to avoid betraying signs of emotion, properly “noir,” which makes the moments in which the animators allow a huge, wide-grinned laugh to light up his face all the more memorable.

I say all of this without first commenting on the film’s claim to fame: the airplane sequences. You look at “Top Gun,” which is beloved by dads everywhere for its high-octane action, and yet, when you watch it, you find that most, if not all, of the actual aerial dogfights are incomprehensibly shot. “Porco Rosso” gives us action, but its hand-rendering grants each sequence a sense of fluidity and elegance  — and power, as the planes’ weight and the rotational force of their propellers take center stage. Not to mention, it brings us some of the best backgrounds in an animated movie; there are many sequences of Marco’s red plane simply floating amidst a gorgeously painted sea of clouds. 

It’s almost no wonder that the men never want to leave their planes. The men of “Porco Rosso,” Porco and Curtis especially, define their masculinity by their control and mastery of the air. So, too, is it put to the test in the aerial conflicts themselves, both in the “fantasy world” of this post-war period and during The Great War itself. In the former, having your plane shot down often leads to humiliation at the hands of another man, as Porco swiftly takes out the Mamma Aiuto gang’s plane with great comic flair in the opening scene; in the latter, having your plane shot down means death. When Porco and Curtis leave their planes and try duking it out, fist-to-fist, the truly ridiculous nature of the conflicts between men is shown, as each wallops the face of the other into a cartoonish, black-and-blue pulp. 

“Porco Rosso” also simultaneously explores and resists the separate sphere that women occupied during the film’s period. Porco is undeniably sexist, as many noir protagonists tend to be; his comments, jokes and voiced doubts about Fio’s capabilities can make “Porco Rosso” an uncomfortable watch for some today. At the same time, while the sons of Porco’s engineer attempt to find work in the post-war depression, his female engineer relatives — and, of course, Fio — are left to work on the updated plane. There’s an excellent montage of the women working on the plane, while we cut to Porco, who is left to rock a baby in a cradle. The masculine is still dominant at this moment in history, but the film presents seeds of change being sown. Fio herself is an embodiment of a new generation of working women that Porco struggles to make sense of. Their developing mutual respect and friendship implies a new era of redefined roles. The world as Porco has known it is one of masculine violence, and his guilt in perpetuating it by participating in the war is what has cursed him to be a pig. But Fio opens his eyes to new possibilities, to a new world, and above that, sees the good that remains in him, the good that Gina sees.

The tragic gap that the film never fills is that Italy must bear witness to another World War after this summer in The Adriatic. We see the rise of Italian fascism within it, and, despite Porco laughing above its evil fog (“Better a pig than a fascist”), we know where the story is going. And yet, what’s most admirable about “Porco Rosso” is that it pushes forward joy and hope. Toxic masculinity, war, and dictatorship: these things are in the future for these characters, but the film shows us that positive change is, too, possible. A boorish man’s war-hardened heart can be softened, and through his friendship with Fio, can not only rethink his own worldview, but can be reminded that he remains worthy of love in spite of his sins. Perhaps this is giving “Porco Rosso” too much benefit of the doubt given its age, but it also illuminates what makes it a favorite for me and why I turn to it for comfort in spite of these heavier themes. The joy “Porco Rosso” instills, its humor and its exhilaration move my heart to flight.

Rating: 5/5 

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    Staff Sgt. Max FightmasterNov 25, 2023 at 7:22 pm

    Smh, so you liked it cuz you thought it was woke nonsense propaganda lambasting “toxic masculinity”. Got it.