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The greatest appeal to Studio Ghibli films is that every entry into their canon is legitimately eligible to be one of the studio's best. You'll be hell-bent trying to find one negative element from any Studio Ghibli film that would weigh the whole film down. It's a testament to their ability to engage our emotions and imagination.
Of course, with a filmography that spans 20 years, a few films will be overlooked. While marquee titles like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away tend to be at the forefront of the general audience's minds, Porco Rosso is the hidden gem that hasn't truly shined as much as the others.
Before I begin, I'm well aware that Porco Rosso currently has an astounding 100% Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes, proving that I'm not the only person who believes in the strengths of the film. However, despite its ranking one one of the top score aggregator sites for film, most people don't automatically think of Porco Rosso as the prime example of Studio Ghibli's work. It's this group of fans that I'm ready and willing to address.
Porco Rosso is an adventure film about an anthropomorphic pig, the titular Porco Rosso ("Crimson Pig" in Italian). Porco, known as Marco Pagot while he was human, was a celebrated World War I fighter pilot for the Italian army who decided to leave the army out of his distaste for fascism. Living his life as a bounty hunter keeping the Adriatic Sea free from sky pirates, he is threatened by an American pilot, Curtis. After repairing his plane with help from his old friend Piccolo, his granddaughter Fio, and their extended family, Porco returns to his hideout, where he's challenged by Curtis to a dogfight with either Fio's hand in marriage or Porco's repair bills at stake.
Unlike director Hayao Miyazaki's typical fare, Porco Rosso is rooted in real world, taking place between the two World Wars while Italy was transitioning into a fascist state. What's interesting is that, while the fantastical worlds of typical Miyazaki films are amazing, the fact that he was able to take a specific location and timeframe and warp it to fit his vision. Throughout the film, Miyazaki makes references to Fascism and Italy's secret police. At one point, an old friend and ex-comrade of Porco's warns him of the impending search conducted by the Italian government in relation to his desertion. As Porco says in the film, "I'd rather be a pig than a Fascist."
Another major element in Porco Rosso is its depiction of female characters. A common theme in Miyazaki's works is the role of females as strong-willed, independent characters. I believe that Porco Rosso's depiction of females goes above even those found in Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. While Porco is sometimes old-fashioned and a bit sexist, discouraged at the thought of Fio redesigning his ship because of both her age and gender, Miyazaki uses this negative character trait to build Fio's character even higher. Compounded by this fact is the Piccolo extended family aiding in the rebuilding of Porco's ship due to the absence of the male family members due to the impending Depression brought on by World War I.
But perhaps the greatest element of Porco Rosso is Porco himself. Simply put, there is no real explanation or resolution as to why Porco is a pig. While there are numerous analytical essays on Marco's transformation into Porco, the mystery swirling around him is a breath of fresh air for those tired of neatly-tied endings. Furthermore, the fact that, despite appearing as a pig, Porco is more noble and honorable than the human characters, creating a duality between his inner personality and outer appearance. There are implications that his disillusionment with humanity is what led to his transformation, but it's never overtly stated.
Adding to Porco's mystery is the intriguing fact that there are fleeting moments where his human form is shown. Gina, and old friend and potential love interest of Porco's, implies that Porco turns human again at nights. This is teased in a scene when Porco and Fio return to his hideout where Fio catches a glimpse of Marco before he turns back. Why does this happen? Is it some sort of curse?
The best, and arguably most iconic, scene of the film is Porco's last memory as a human. Rushed back to action after Bellini's, his best friend and fellow fighter pilot, wedding to Gina, Marco's squad is ambushed by enemy pilots during World War I. After the rest of his comrades are downed in action, he eventually loses his attackers, albeit drained of all his energy. His plane goes into auto-pilot above the clouds where he reunites with Bellini and the rest of his squad. As he looks up, he sees a white band made up of all the downed pilots from the war ascending higher into the sky, resembling a "pilot's Heaven." He desperately attempts to get Bellini to resist flying up, but ends up unsuccessful.
As he descends from the sky, Marco's transformation into Porco is complete.
It's hard to choose a favorite Studio Ghibli film, yet Porco Rosso serves to be my favorite and most underrated of the studio's canon. Mixing Miyazaki's imaginative vision with real-life politics, a strong depiction of female characters, and an unanswered mystery, Porco Rosso deserves to be spoken in the same breath as the other Studio Ghibli staples. As it stands, however, Porco Rosso stands as a relatively-unknown secret to those unaware of just how deep Studio Ghibli's vision goes. With rumors of a sequel, Miyazaki's first continuation of a previous feature, the lore of Porco Rosso's world just might find its time in the clouds that it deserves.