With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
Up until this point in the Miyazaki Marathon, we’ve seen Miyazaki take on a variety of different fantastical stories. We’ve seen a high-octane spy comedy, a somber piece on war and environmental activism, a fantasy adventure movie, a low-key family film, and a coming-of-age story about witches. All of them have been entertaining films, each with its own unique style and execution, but Miyazaki’s sixth film, Porco Rosso, would be the biggest challenge that the director had faced up until this point: creating a movie for adults.
While we mostly associate Studio Ghibli’s canon with more family-friendly experiences, the studio hasn’t shied away from making films aimed at an older demographic. The best example of this would be Grave of the Fireflies, a very mature story about the horrors of war and the impact it has on children. But that film was directed by Isao Takahata, not Miyazaki. Miyazaki up until now had fantastical settings and characters that always felt like they were in their own little world that anyone, both young and old, could enjoy. 1992’s Porco Rosso isn’t really aimed at young children with a lot of its themes focused on adult audiences. Porco Rosso is an outlier in Miyazaki’s library, but it also serves as being arguably his most personal film at this point in time given how its real-world setting allows it to more subtly flesh out a lot of his ideas.
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The origin of Porco Rosso is not originally as a feature-length film, but rather as a short film originally intended to air on Japan Airlines flights to celebrate their 40th anniversary. However, the production faced several issues, one of which was that most of Ghibli’s staff was working on another film, Only Yesterday. Despite this, production had to start up, so Miyazaki worked on the film solo for a time before deciding to use female staff to begin working on the animation for the film. This was unheard of at the time, but allowed the film to begin production and actually saw the film double from a 45-minute project to an over 90-minute feature.
The film stars a former WWI pilot who was cursed into becoming a pig, now known as Porco Rosso. He’s one of the best dogfighting pilots around and doesn’t let himself become too attached to anyone, just enjoying the freedom that flying the skies offers him. This is much to the disdain of the woman who loves him, Gina, and the irritation of a hot-headed rival named Curtis. However, the focus of the film slowly shifts from the wonders of the sky and the freedom that it provides to taking a direct shot at a real-world threat; fascism.
This is the first Ghibli movie that makes blatant political commentary, with Proco taking direct opposition to a fascist faction of the Italian government that is based on the National Fascist Party, a real-life political group led by the infamous Benito Mussolini. The fascists slowly encroach upon Porco’s way of life and try to stop him and the freedom that he desires so much. He outright says that he would rather be a pig than a fascist, goading and mocking anyone who aligned with the ideology. One can argue that this isn’t the first that Miyazaki has gotten political given the heavy environmental messages in Nausicaa, but the messages here feel much more direct and focused.
While all of Miyazaki’s films up until this point have had some personal elements in them that motivated Miyazaki to work on and complete them, Porco Rosso takes it to an entirely different level. Miyazaki worked on the film with the expectation that it probably wasn’t going to do well at the box office, but that didn’t matter all that much to him. He was given the opportunity to direct a movie about one of his favorite hobbies, that being airplanes. While we have seen numerous flying mobiles in previous Miyazaki movies, whether they be Nausicaa’s glider, the various flying devices in Castle in the Sky, and even Kiki’s broom, Porco Rosso allowed Miyazaki to draw and animate planes inspired by real-world aircraft. To put it simply, Miyazaki is an otaku for planes.
This shouldn’t be a surprise as Miyazaki has grown up surrounded by planes, with his father being the head of an airplane production company called Miyazaki Planes. The company constructed several bombers that were used in WWII, which also probably affected his anti-war beliefs that are on display in most of his films. His family was connected to the loss of countless lives with those bombers, so perhaps there’s a bit of guilt on display in his films whenever aviation and war intermingle as they do in Porco Rosso. At least, that’s the reading that you would get from The Wind Rises, which directly deals with those issues and can be inferred were most likely present in Porco Rosso’s production. Planes can be magical forms of transportation, but they can lead to such senseless violence when used for selfish pursuits.
The same conflicting nature is present within Porco as well. He’s undeniably our protagonist, but he isn’t a good guy. While he scores points for being firmly anti-fascist, he’s also sexist towards his female assistant Fio, openly undermining her abilities at the beginning of the film due to her age and gender. He also treats Gina coldly, rebuking her attempts to settle down and live a quiet life with her at her hotel. He plays this curt and surly pilot with a heart of gold, something that is akin to how Miyazaki behaves in real life. The man tells it like it is and is known for having numerous negative statements on the state of the industry, how grueling the making of art can be, and generally how most people, and the business, suck. But that doesn’t stop him from still making films that appeal to all audiences.
Except, Porco Rosso was meant for adults like Miyazaki. It was intended for older audiences who also adored planes like Miyazaki did and wanted to see a more grounded setting with more personal drama and conflicts that seem almost wholesale taken from Casablanca. It all works, but it creates a film that to this day stands out from the rest of his library. Mostly because a lot of the film is left open to interpretation by the viewer and respects their intelligence by not forcing answers upon them.
One of the most prevalent questions of the film is whether or not Porco will turn back into a human, with the film leaving you to draw your own conclusions. Does Porco finally settle down with Gina and live a happy life, or is his freedom too precious to him and he only visits Gina in between flights of fancy? If this film was aimed at kids, we probably would have gotten a more fairytale-like ending where Porco saves the day, defeats the fascists, and marries Gina after breaking the curse. That’s not how real life works. We’re given a snippet of their lives and meant to interpret what we want about it, which is a very adult direction to take a movie about a flying pig.
Porco Rosso is probably one of Miyazaki’s most overlooked movies, but it offers a different examination of the director. It’s a film that let Miyazaki make a passion project about the things that he was interested in and aimed at an audience that was similar in age and interest to himself. It offers up new and compelling examinations of his thoughts on fascism, war, love, and freedom, all through the guise of aviation. This wouldn’t be the last time Miyazaki would directly tackle aviation and its contrasting relationship between freedom and death, but that’s for when we talk about The Wind Rises. As it stands, Porco Rosso is the one film that most Miyazaki fans have probably not seen, yet it should be seen to understand what exactly a mature Miyazaki movie would be like.
Next time, Peter is going to take a look at what many consider to be Miyazaki’s magnum opus, Princess Mononoke.