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Porco Rosso

As Porco Rosso debuts on Blu-ray, Andrew Osmond profiles the pig pilot

Porco Rosso – known to anime fans as “the Miyazaki film with a pig as a fighter pilot” – is 21 years old this year. It’s very possible that Porco may be poised to return for a second adventure, maybe even next year – for more, see below! The film is also echoed in Miyazaki’s (allegedly) final movie, the just-released The Wind Rises. Yet it’s easy to think of Porco Rosso as the odd one out among Miyazaki’s Ghibli pics. Some anime fans even claim it’s among the director’s few duds. It’s not, but if you’ve seen other Miyazaki film, then you may have to adjust your expectations.

Of course, the film looks fabulous. And yes, it has a flying pig, but it’s not actually very fantastical. It has a perky aviator girl, but the main character’s a middle-aged ‘man’ who looks, we repeat, like a pig. It has pirates and air-battles, but it’s not an adventure in the epic mould of Nausicaa or Laputa. Rather, it’s a character piece; a shamelessly nostalgic dream of a better past; and a light comedy that finds lots of excuses for drawing cool aircraft. And under all that, it’s one of Miyazaki’s most grown-up films.

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso is set in 1930s Europe, and has a sweet scene in a Milanese cinema where kids gawp at a mouse aviator fighting a bad-guy pig. (Disney’s first Mickey Mouse cartoon was a flying caper, 1928’s Plane Crazy.) “This is a lousy film,” grumbles Porco Rosso, the porcine fighter pilot. “This is a good film,” argues his companion as the mouse gets the girl.

It’s a cute moment, perhaps asking us what cartoons are for. Miyazaki originally wanted to make a silly, irresponsible picture, “frowned on by the PTA.” He drew a fifteen-page comic in which the high-flying Porco competes with a cocksure American and clownish air-pirates, to the cheers of ordinary people. The final punch-up between the main rivals, played for laughs, recalls John Wayne fighting Victor McLaglen in the 1952 film The Quiet Man.

All this is in the anime, but the comic omitted some important things. It didn’t have Gina, who in the film is the graceful and beautiful chanteuse who remembers Porco from when he had a human face, and fondly calls him “baka” (perhaps best translated in this context as “fool” – the word is framed at the front of Studio Ghibli). A Porco Rosso film poster showed Porco, Gina and a sunset sky, positioning the film as a romantic drama distinct from Miyazaki’s kids’ fantasies. Disney had used the same strategy for its fairy tales, promoting The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast with romantic silhouettes.

Porco Rosso

The Porco Rosso film also gives Porco a melancholy history, making him a larger-than-life hero who’s tired, middle-aged and socially alienated (the reason for his magic-realist appearance as a pig). Pixar’s later The Incredibles has a similar premise but at least gives Mr Incredible a family. Porco is a loner on a sheltered island beach, though, unknown to him, the thrice-widowed Gina waits in a jewel-like walled garden, the ocean between them. Planes loop and dive, swooping over flowing cartoon landscapes which ravish the viewer, but the underlying situation is static – the opposite of Miyazaki’s children’s films, which are forever going somewhere.

Miyazaki said the film’s sombre elements were inspired by the conflicts in Eastern Europe – Porco’s island is supposedly off Croatia – much as his later Howl’s Moving Castle would be influenced by Iraq. However, the director’s comments also suggest that Porco’s deeper themes were forced on him when the film became a feature, having been planned as a 30 or 45-minute featurette.

His producer Toshio Suzuki was involved in the extended, faintly postmodern story. At the start, Porco lies on the beach with his face under a film magazine. Soon after, he leans on a bar at Gina’s hotel and blows cigarette smoke, looking so much like a film star (Casablanca-era Bogart comes to mind) that we laugh in recognition. Gina looks no less a starlet, especially when holding her broad-brimmed sunhat in an exquisitely-framed moment of remembrance. The American “villain” Curtis wants to be a movie star, though Gina warns him, “Life here is more complicated than where you’re from… You go to Hollywood, kid.”

Like all Miyazaki films, Porco Rosso features a wide-eyed young girl (the 17 year-old engineer Fio), but even she feels like a self-conscious pastiche of the Miyazaki type, outrageously competent and cute. Befitting a grown-up film, Fio flirts playfully with Porco, while demanding he live up to the stories she heard as a child, so he can be changed by her kiss. Gina arrives at the end like the world’s loveliest schoolmarm (or mother) to bring the brawling males to order.

For all the testosterone, Miyazaki portrays masculinity as nobly idealist and hopelessly childish, except when redeemed by a woman. It’s a theme that would become the core of Miyazaki’s 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle, which is also released on Blu-ray this month. In Howl, a boy sacrifices his heart to gain the powers of a star – male desire at its brashest and most thoughtless.

Porco Rosso

Howl, incidentally, is usually seen as Miyazaki’s first film adapting a British author (Diana Wynne Jones). Porco Rosso, though, borrows a scene from Roald Dahl – namely a story Porco tells Fio, about when he flew through a cloud of light and saw hundreds of ghost-planes in a pure blue sky, carrying dead airmen’s souls. The beatific image isn’t from Dahl’s children’s fiction, but from his 1940s story, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” inspired by Dahl’s own experiences as a fighter pilot, which Miyazaki surely envied. (You can find Dahl’s story in the collection Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying.) The Porco scene lets romantic, Hollywood-style fantasy soften the war looming round Porco’s edges. However, the ending gently conveys that the Adriatic dream is passing, dispersed like the rude revellers by darker human follies.

Porco Rosso was one of Ghibli’s and Miyazaki’s first big hits – it topped the Japanese box-office in 1992, and earned nearly twice the take of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s also enjoyed two of the best Ghibli dubs. The new Blu-ray includes the excellent Disney-produced version, featuring Michael Keaton in the title role. Older-school Ghibli fans, though, are fond of the earlier French-language dub, featuring Jean Reno (Leon) as the world’s most nonchalant swine. Reno’s own anime-related career has since gone in very strange directions.

And now, Porco Rosso will return! Well, it seems very possible, despite the much-publicised recent retirement of Miyazaki. In 2010, the director confirmed to a Japanese magazine that he was considering a Porco sequel, Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie, set during the Spanish Civil War. You might assume this idea was shelved when Miyazaki announced his retirement… were it not for a tantalising item in Britain’s Guardian in 2011. It profiled not Miyazaki but the junior Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who made Ghibli’s hit Arrietty (we blogged about him here). The Guardian piece claimed, “he’s working on Miyazaki’s sequel to his 1992 feature Porco Rosso.” And then this September, just after Miyazaki’s retirement announcement, it was reported that Yonebayashi would release a Ghibli film in summer 2014. Putting two and two together… Do we smell bacon?

Well, we’ll see. In the meantime, Miyazaki’s own last (perhaps!) film, The Wind Rises, was released last summer. It’s another period aviation drama, though its hero has a human face and is a “real” person from history: Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Judging from its extended trailer and early reviews, it’s far more serious than Porco, with little of the earlier film’s comedy, though it finds time for fantasy sequences amid the sombre war scenario.

But let’s end on a light note. Furry cartoon animals fighting it out in planes were a bit of a trend when Porco Rosso came out in 1992. Older readers may remember an excellent ‘90s Disney adventure-comedy TV cartoon called Talespin. In it, furry animals (including a version of The Jungle Book’s Baloo) take on pirates in aerial battles. Before anime fans start frothing, Talespin was made before Porco, leading the show’s co-creator Mark Zaslove to cheekily suggest “Hayao was lookin’ at our stuff… God knows we were looking at his.” The cartoons’ similarities also led to a sublime fan mashup, using Talespin’s theme…

Porco Rosso is out soon on UK Blu-ray from Studiocanal.

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