Miyazaki Retrospective: “Porco Rosso”

I have heard it said that Miyazaki, as a director, becomes very predictable the more of him you watch.

I haven’t found this to be true at all.

There was a point in “Princess Mononoke” where I actually turned towards my family and said “I honestly have no idea how he’s going to bring this film to a conclusion”. I had no idea what was going to happen next in “Spirited Away”. I certainly didn’t see the dirigible ending coming in “Kiki’s Delivery Service”

True, Miyazaki goes back to certain themes and motifs, and he has an obvious and unabashed love for flying – but so what, really? What director doesn’t explore things they’re passionate about? Do we criticize Tolkien because he stuck to fantasy?

And it’s not as if he doesn’t do unique things with his ideas. “Porco Rosso” gives the impression of being lighter or “lesser” Miyazaki, without as much depth or ambition or insight as his very best films, like “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away”. But while “Porco Rosso” isn’t quite as good as either of those films, there’s a lot more going on there than it’s often given credit for.

The movie, of course, is about a fighter pilot named Marco Rossolini (in the American dub) who has been transformed into a pig. One interesting aspect of the film is that we never actually learn why; Miyazaki gives us several potential options and the symbolism is fairly clear, but he leaves it intentionally ambiguous, both for us and for Marco himself.

The dogfights in “Porco Rosso” aren’t as well choreographed as the action scenes in “Castle in the Sky” or the fight scenes in “Princess Mononoke”, but some of the imagery is – as always -still wonderful, and the setting is one of the most visually fascinating of all of Miyazaki’s films, being the first one he made rooted in a real, historical place and time. The detailing on the planes is exquisite; you can feel the care he put into the designs bleed through.

“Porco Rosso” is structured as a comedy, and it is – a good one. The real highlight of the movie is the sparkling dialogue, which shines even through the dub. Marco is a wonderful character, one of Miyazaki’s most entertaining, essentially Humphrey Boggart in pig form. He’s excellent at trading barbs with whoever he happens to be talking to and his facial expressions are priceless.

The mechanic, Fio, and a potential love interest, continues the Miyazaki tradition of creating a character feminists swoon over that they would never actually create themselves. Fio proves herself fit to fly with the big boys, but in precisely the “Wrong” ways. When Marco balks at her being his mechanic, she asks him if it’s because she’s too young or because she’s a woman (“Both excellent reasons”).

Her reaction is brilliant. Instead of yelling at Marco, or getting offended, or getting mad, she shows him her design and begs him to give her a chance, pointing out that he started flying at 17, the same age she happens to be. No anger, no nastiness, and no frustration – and that is why we like her. She wins him over with optimism, ingenuity, and sheer hard work.

Ultimately what elevates the movie from a fun and atmospheric adventure film to something truly great is its brilliant ending. Because for all its lightheardedness and fun, this movie is one thing that no other Miyazaki film is: a tragedy. And you know what? It’s perfect.

SPOILER for the ending coming:

The great irony at the end of the film is that it’s only after Marco finally turns back into a human (so it’s implied, at least) that he commits his very worst act: Abandoning Fio and Gina.

But that’s the thing about Marco. In the end, he’s not so important. Fio and Gina do perfectly well without him. And now when he finally has no excuse, the only person he hurts by leaving is himself.

And that’s why “Porco Rosso” is a great movie. Only a bold, brilliant director would or could have ended “Porco Rosso” like that (just as, conversely, only a bold, brilliant director could have given “Princess Mononoke” a happy ending), and Miyazaki is both. This is just further proof to me that, far from being predictable, Miyazaki could do pretty much anything he wants to and succeed with flying colors. It’s a shame that this one isn’t more famous.

I know this will shock you, but – recommended.

EDIT: An interesting spoiler:

Apparently, going by reviews and various things about “Porco Rosso”, it is implied that Marco actually does get together with Gina – the other love interest of the film, and the one Marco is really in love with – in the end.

I think this still works very well BECAUSE it is only very lightly implied and still left ambiguous. In the end the important thing is that “Porco Rosso” doesn’t end in a straightforward victory for Marco; if it is not a bad ending for him, the possibility of a bad ending needs to be there. That possibility exists, and so it still works well.

  • Christopher R. DiNote

    My daughter (2.5 yrs old) has become a complete Miyazaki nut (and incidentally, so has my wife), since we introduced her to Totoro, Ponyo, Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and a few you haven’t reviewed yet: Whisper of the Heart (I think my wife and I like this better), The Secret World of Arietty (her previous favorite), and now, she’s obsessed with The Cat Returns – the English dub works, I think, because Cary Elwes’s portrayal of the Baron is spot on Errol Flynn almost, it just works. We have Nausicaa (the little one gets bored with it), and Princess Mononoke, but we’re going to hold off on that as well as Castle of Cagliostro of course. Porco Rosso is the one that I want, and we just picked up The Wind Rises.

    I came to Miyazaki because of Castle of Cagliostro – I picked up an earlier dub (US Manga Corps or something) in the early 2000s, well before Disney-Pixar clued in to Ghibli and got the distribution deal. Also, I started reading the Nausicaa collection by Viz – to this day though, I don’t think I ever finished all four volumes. I know the movie and the series take different directions. I saw Princess Mononoke in theaters when it was released dubbed here in the States.

    The current dubs were an absolute coup by Disney.

    • Bellomy

      Some of those are Ghibli, but not Miyazaki, and some just written but not directed by him – but I take your point.

      I still need to see Howl’s, Cagliostro, Nausicaa, and The Wind Rises.