A film that evolved slowly in Hayao Miyazaki's imagination (at various stages it appeared in manga, then was mooted as a short in-flight movie), Porco Rosso sees the filmmaker indulging his love of old planes, notably flying boats, and Italy and the Mediterranean of a bygone era. Despite its unique contrivance of having a bipedal pig (snout, floppy ears, dashing 'tash) in a world of ordinary humans, this is no whimsy. And despite it being more readily humorous and playful than his later films (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), Porco Rosso is far from trite, with its themes of remorse and dismay at the rise of fascism.
Porco Rosso (voiced by Michael Keaton in the US dub; Shûichirô Moriyama in the original) is a bounty hunter based on a remote island in the Adriatic. A former member of the Italian Air Force, he now makes his living contending with the region's air pirates who, like him, operate from flying boats. Sick of Porco's disruption of their activities, the pirate gangs join forces to hire an American air ace, Curtis (Cary Elwes; Akio Otsuka), to take him down.
Behind the ensuing romanticised tale of adventure and exciting aviation, Miyazaki's film features depression in Europe in the late 1920s. We get glimpses of men in uniforms and armbands, parades and flag-waving, as a new fascist party ascends to power. When an old friend from the Air Force warns Porco there's a warrant out for his arrest and suggests he come back to them, he says "I'd rather be a pig than a fascist."
So why is Porco Rosso a pig? Miyazaki leaves it open to interpretation to an extent, but the man who was previously Captain Marco Pagott was a flyer from a young age who become an ace in the war, but seeing so much death (a remarkable sequence in the film sees him having a near-death experience after a dogfight), his ideals had collapsed and been replaced by bewilderment at notions of patriotism and loyalty, at humanity itself. Losing his faith in humanity, he left the race. He's still a man of certain virtue (we learn from one of the pirate bosses, who resembles Bluto from Popeye, "The pig doesn't actually kill anyone"), but he's also a loner, beholden to no one - least of all a nation that's embracing fascism.
It's not some magical state per se; it's more a state of mind for Porco/Marco. The tomboyish Fio (who is the film's variation on the quintessential Miyazaki heroine) struggles to understand him, even saying "Porco! What if I try kissing you? You know, like in a fairy tale where a prince has been turned into a frog and a princess turns him back into a human again by kissing him." He's a unique hero - if, for anything, for his appearance, which is an expression of his guilt and disquietude.
In a nutshell: Although it involves much of Miyazaki's favoured subject - flight - Porco Rosso is perhaps his most unusual film. However, despite its odd combination of dashing heroics and porcine allegory, it is nevertheless lean, vibrant and remarkably deep.
By Daniel Etherington