Pulp Masterpieces, Part 8: Porco Rosso (1992)

When anime fans talk about legends in the industry, I think one name that makes just about everyone’s list is Hayao Miyazaki.


A writer, manga artist, director, and producer, he was responsible for some of the finest examples of the art. He tackled numerous genres, from the post-apocalyptic, environmental cautionary tale Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

…to the tale of a young witch making her way in the world in Kiki’s Delivery Service…

…to The Wind Rises, the biographical story of Jiro Horikoshi, chief engineer during the early and mid-twentieth century who was responsible for the Japanese Zero.

Miyazaki is a master of numerous genres and tones, from the fanciful to grim. One film has a wild forest girl riding giant wolves…

…and another has a magical moving castle…

…and then we have the film I’m looking at today, which involves a man with a pig’s face combating air pirates. I give you… Porco Rosso!

The plot: Years after the Great War, a master pilot turned mercenary and bounty hunter named Porco Rosso, cursed with a pig face…

…fights air pirates terrorizing the Mediterranean. One day, the pirates recruit a gun for hire, a skilled American pilot named Curtis to take Rosso down.

Rosso must repair his flying plane and winds up with a sidekick, a young woman named Fio who is a talented mechanic and engineer.

Who will win, Curtis or Rosso? And will either win the affection of club owner and singer Gina?

Porco Rosso (which is Italian for “crimson pig”) is a beautifully animated, highly entertaining film. Miyazaki does a spectacular job of capturing the aerial action, and in typical Miyazaki style, the character designs are wonderful. I also love the design of the various aircraft, from the impractical and sometimes outrageous air pirate vessels…

…to Curtis’ biplane…

…to Rosso’s magnificent craft.

I’ve spoken before in other Pulp Masterpiece articles about how important air travel was in the decades between wars, but I don’t think those films quite captured the romanticism of it the way Miyazaki does. Sky Captain comes close in some scenes, but not quite in the way that, in Porco Rosso, the pilot is a dashing figure, a soldier of fortune living largely by his wits, courage, and more than a little luck. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sky Captain, but despite his girth, Porco is a more heroic figure as a (pig-faced) man than a guy whose plane is outfitted better than Batman’s.

I believe Miyazaki has some love or fascination with at least some aspects of western civilization. Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in a fictional city that’s reminiscent of some European country but whose exact period is hard to pin down; TVs seem to be common, but the clothing is early 20th Century. It reminds me a bit of Paul Dini’s Batman animated series, with its mix of high-tech and noir. With Porco Rosso, we see a more definitive time period (the era between world wars), however, the setting is just as fanciful as Kiki’s in its own way, with air pirates and mercenaries playing their trade in the Mediterranean. Looking at this movie and its air battles, I wonder how much of it was the inspiration for the Crimson Skies video and board game.

The world of Porco Rosso is beautiful, and fully fleshed out, from Gina’s island restaurant…

…to the town that Rosso visits.

And I like how Miyazaki doesn’t feel a need to explain each and every thing going on. In town, the government seems ready to change, but rather than bog things down with some hackneyed political discussion, we simply get a banker trying to sell Porco “patriotic bonds”. And we also get a military parade in the street.

Miyazaki is able to keep the focus of the story on the pig, but at the same time show how he exists in what feels like a fully realized world. I like the little things about the film that Miyazaki slips in, like we know the year is 1929 by the magazine covering Porco’s face early on, or how Curtis won the Schneider Cup, or how Miyazaki touches upon the Fascist regime in Italy when Porco meets an old friend of his…

…and we discover our hero is a deserter, because “I’m a pig, not a fascist.” Rosso has a history, but the movie isn’t bogged down by it. He feels like a man who’s lived a full life, and despite his repeated assertions that he’s just a pig looking out for number one, he has a powerful sense of honor. He’s a pig, yes, but a principled one.

So why does Rosso have a pig face? I have no friggin’ clue. I’m serious, it’s just so random of a plot point that it has virtually no impact on the overall story whatsoever. Was it a way to keep Rosso apart from Gina? Is the pig face supposed to represent some less savory aspect of Porco’s character that he’s struggled to overcome? Is there some sort of cultural reference that I’m missing? I just don’t know. If it was to keep Porco and Gina apart, I think Miyazaki had other ways of doing that, like him feeling guilty for having feelings for the widow of a beloved friend (actually, the widow of three of his beloved friends; Gina just might be the real curse in this film, and Porco’s pig face a blessing). Could the story have centered around him finding a way to get rid of his pig face? He doesn’t seem overly concerned with it, and others react to it like people with pig faces is pretty normal. I think if you want to enjoy the movie, you just have to largely ignore it and understand that the movie is Japanese, and hence to Westerners there might be elements that just come across as either weird or batshit crazy.

And call me crazy, but if somebody had cursed me with a pig’s face, I think I would be beyond eager to find a way to undo said curse. Unless Porco feels he deserves it for his feelings for Gina, and for surviving when his friends have died. That may be the case, but due to the man’s stoic nature and reticence to talk, it isn’t entirely obvious and it’s left to the viewer to make that assumption. Not every emotion or plot point needs to be spoon-fed to an audience, and sometimes it’s a good thing to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Or maybe Miyazaki thought a protagonist with a pig face sounded cool. Who knows?

One staple of Miyazaki films is the independent, willful young woman. You see her show up in almost every one of his movies. From Nausicaä on, she’s usually intelligent, brave, and often optimistic. If she’s the central character, she’ll go through a hero’s trials, experience doubts, and often find herself growing as a person. It is a role most often seen represented by boys and men in other movies or TV shows. Porco Rosso’s is Fio…

…only, unlike other Miyazaki films, she’s not the central character but more of Porco’s sidekick. I love their relationship; in an early scene when Porco expresses doubts in her ability to redesign his damaged plane, she asks, “Are you leaving because I’m a woman, or because I’m so young?” and he responds, “Both, actually.” It’s honest and it fits in with the era in which the movie takes place, and rather than get angry, Fio instead points out to Rosso that he won a championship when he was just 17, the same age she is now (frankly, I think she’s lying; she looks 14 to me, and that would fit in with the Miyazaki girl trope). As an aside, I find it frustrating when I watch a show taking place in an earlier era and the male protagonist is pretty much a 21st Century man, politically correct, without prejudice. Rosso feels very much like a product of his time, reluctant to see his plane put back together by gang of women.

So yeah, he’s imperfect by today’s standards, but still likable nonetheless. I don’t need my heroes perfect, and frankly, I think it’s more interesting to see a protagonist overcome their flaws or to be proven wrong and learn to be a better person rather than them be improbable paragons of virtue.

But back to Fio. I like her a great deal. She’s willful without being annoying, intelligent without acting smug about it, brave without being reckless, and possessing of amazing powers of persuasion. An amusing scene is when she talks the pirates out of killing Porco, convincing them that they’re honorable, whereas before they were the scurviest pack of skydogs to haunt the Mediterranean.

Why does Fio ultimately travel with Rosso? It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, to be honest. To ride with him he has to leave behind one of his machine guns. Does she have a crush on him? Eh, maybe. Porco is loveable in his gruff, mildly misogynistic way. I think it’s more likely that like many “Miyazaki girls”, she has an unbridled thirst for adventure and sees Porco as a way to trade her boring life in Milan for one of adventure with a soldier of fortune… with a pig’s face.

I love the story behind Rosso’s plane as well; a radical design, and only one was built because it was believed that no one could fly it, and Porco found it collecting dust in a warehouse. His craft is every bit as unique as he is.

The love triangle feels natural, where Gina has an unrequited affection for Porco but he seems reluctant to reciprocate, while Curtis pursues her seemingly because she’s beyond his reach and he’s not a man who’s used to losing. I do like one line from her, where she says Americans fall in love easily. This from a woman who married three friends and apparently has her sights set on a fourth.

And then the second love triangle forms when Curtis sets his sights on Fio…

Now I really hope she’s 17.

…which raises the question: who’s the real pig here?

When it comes to Japanese animation, I prefer subtitles to dubbing almost every time. No, I don’t consider myself some snobby purist; it’s just that in my opinion, the original Japanese voice actors do a better job conveying emotion and tone than their American counterparts, who sometimes don’t sound all that experienced, or in some cases, are inappropriately cast or may even sound a little bored. This movie is worth watching twice, and I suggest you view both the original and the dubbed version to judge for yourself. Michael Keaton as Rosso and Carey Elwes as Curtis are competent (I do find it amusing that Keaton, who’s played Batman, Birdman, and the Vulture also plays a pilot here), and Susan Egan as their kind of, sort of love interest Gina does a credible job, as does Kimberly Williams-Paisley as Fio, but I think overall the original cast do the roles more justice, and honestly I never mind reading subtitles.

If you’ve never watched anime, Porco Rosso wouldn’t be a bad first film to test the waters with. And if you’re a fan of modern anime, it wouldn’t hurt to give this classic a try. And if you’re a fan of the pulp genre, I think you might find this movie a real treat.

Next time, we look at the greatest pulp-inspired film ever made. Any guesses?

Tag: Pulp Masterpieces

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