FILM REVIEW: Porco Rosso (1992)

Porco Rosso (Japan, 1992)
Directed By Hayao Miyazaki

Starring Shuichiro Moriyama, Akio Otsuka, Tokiko Kate, Tsunehiko Kamijo

With Studio Ghibli films consistently topping the Japanese box office, Hayao Miyazaki could afford to take a few risks. Amid the constant clamour to bring Princess Mononoke to the big screen, he crafted Porco Rosso, a notable departure from the themes and characterisations of his previous work. But despite its more male-oriented storyline and realistic backdrop, it remains every bit as magical as the master's more direct dabbles in fantasy.Porco Rosso began life as a short promotional film funded by Japan Airlines. As the production grew, the airline continued to fund it and gave it in-flight distribution long before its theatrical release; in spite of this, it was still the highest grossing film in Japan that year. The legacy of the airline's involvement can be seen in the opening sequence, which lists the title and key cast members in ten languages.

Porco Rosso is a marriage between two related tropes or motifs in Miyazaki's work. On the one hand, the film is a tribute to European war films and the Hollywood romances of the 1940s, containing strong references to Casablanca and A Matter of Life and Death. On the other hand, the film contains Miyazaki's own perspectives on war, honour and gender equality, held together by his continued obsession with flight. The film was originally going to be set in Croatia, but was altered to fascist Italy and made darker following the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia.Like all of Miyazaki's work, the design of Porco Rosso is fantastic. The lovingly hand-crafted feel of the old-fashioned aeroplanes and the pilots' paraphernalia is immensely detailed, making even the most ridiculous of machines feel grounded in reality. The animation is much more kinetic than Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, so that while the flying sequences retain a poetry and grace, they are also a lot more exciting. The fly-by sequences, with the planes swooping low and causing chaos, are particularly well-executed so that they don't feel choreographed.

From a more narrative point of view, the great success of Porco Rosso is its ability to turn the most hackneyed elements of wartime romances into something new and interesting while simultaneously paying homage to these stories. Although the character of Marco is clearly inspired by Humphrey Bogart, you never get the sense of the film's creativity being held back by a need to be respectful to these archetypes. This is in stark contrast to Dreamworks, whose affection for old Hollywood and more adult movies frequently stifles the initial creative spark of their films.There are any number of scenes or elements in Porco Rosso which inject an air of surprise or unpredictability into familiar characters. The most obvious is the fairy tale element at the centre: the main character is a pig, but the rest of the cast accept his nature like he has been that way forever. There is a certain amount of prejudice that goes with Marco's nature, but this is more along the lines of racist epithets than sardonic, Pirandello-esque commentary.

Likewise, when the schoolchildren are kidnapped in the opening set-piece, they treat it as an adventure, causing havoc on the pirates' ship and willingly jumping overboard when it is forced to land (one of them explains that they are all part of the school swimming team). The central romance between Marco and Gina is only hinted at, and the ending on these grounds is surprising: as with Casablanca, their romance is not so much consummated as left hanging on an uncertain, slightly bittersweet note.All of these careful decisions mean that the film can get away with some of its more unusual creative choices. The build-up to the final showdown between Marco and Douglas is immense, leading us to expect a highly tense dogfight and a breath-taking climax involving burning planes and crash landings. But although this set-piece is dramatic, it isn't climactic in the traditional sense. There are dogfights and one huge belly laugh when Douglas gets hit by a spanner, but otherwise it's an internalised battle of wits with no real resort to spectacle.In any other film, such an approach would feel like a massive let-down - and considering Miyazaki's running theme of pacifism, it seems like an odd thing to build towards. Likewise, the ending of the showdown, in which Douglas and Marco have an improvised boxing match in the middle of the sea, could feel like the director resorting to violence to disguise the plot running out of steam. But somehow, neither of these things transpires. By the point at which we are blindsided by these events, we have become so lost in the wonder of Miyazaki that even the most outlandish decisions make a crazy sort of sense.Where much of Miyazaki's work has drawn inspiration from Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, Porco Rosso bears a much closer resemblance to Biggles, Tintin or the boys-own adventure comics which inspired Indiana Jones. The male characters in particular are have-a-go heroes who dice with death on a daily basis, gallivanting all over the sea to fight with pirates and be back in time for tea and medals. This is present even in the title: 'crimson pig' could easily pass as an alternative nickname for The Red Baron.

But where other have embraced the nostalgic appeal of fighter pilots in and of itself, Porco Rosso places their breezy antics on an ever-darkening political landscape. The Mickey Mouse short which heralds the golden age of Hollywood by its reference to King Kong is counterpointed by Italy's gradual descent into fascism and the impact it has on both Marco and the pirates. Both sides find themselves increasingly obsolete in the new Italy, with their flamboyance and showmanship at odds with the cold harsh militarism of the mafia and fascist police.The film is also about challenging prejudice, not just with respect to Marco but to the wartime role of women. All the factory workers rebuilding Marco's plane are women, who not only retain their feminine features (e.g. working in dresses) but can do the job just as well as the men - as well as having better manners and actually taking baths, in marked contrast to the pirates. The character of Fio, who redesigns Marco's plane and becomes his mechanic, is every bit as independent and graceful as Nausicaa, and like Nausicaa her relationships with men are not governed primarily by sexual attraction.If all that wasn't enough, there is a fantasy sequence in Porco Rosso which is worth the price of admission alone. Having been chased by fascist pilots, Marco passes out and climbs above the clouds until he reaches a "cloud prairie" with no-one else around. Soon other planes, with their rotors no longer turning, rise out of the clouds and float up to join a belt of planes above. We realise we are seeing the afterlife of pilots, whose spirits live on to endlessly circle the skies. It's a really powerful, heart-in-mouth image which calls to mind W. B. Yeats' poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death: there is the same sense of elegiac resignation in the fate of the pilots, who leave the horrors of the Earth behind to float forever in the skies they loved.Porco Rosso is a brilliant film and one of the very best of Miyazaki's career. It isn't quite a masterpiece, since it is slightly too long and like Howl's Moving Castle years later it is occasionally too wrapped up in its own whimsy. But those are small and forgivable flaws in what is otherwise one of the most enjoyable, magical and vibrant films of the 1990s, from a director on the cusp of true greatness with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Rating: 4.5/5

Verdict: A soaring work of brilliance


Rémi Porco said...

thanks for the share

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