It’s pretty safe to say that if you’re an Gizmodo reader, you’ve probably seen at least one Hayao Miyazaki movie (and likely more). Along with the legendary Studio Ghibli, the anime production company he co-founded, Miyazaki has made some of the greatest and most celebrated animated movies ever. But there’s one film of his that always seems to get lost among his other achievements, like Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. It’s the movie where pigs fly.
Porco Rosso is nearly unique among Miyazaki films in that its main protagonist is an adult instead of a teen, tween, or little kid. Admittedly, the 40-something Marco Pagot is not exactly a man, but an anthropomorphized pig. He accidentally cursed himself when, as a pilot in the Italian Air Force during World War I, he saw the futile carnage and was so disgusted by humanity he didn’t want to be part of it anymore. The movie begins 30 years later, just before World War II, but long after Marco has become a flying bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea with the titular epithet Porco Rosso, for his piggish appearance and his crimson seaplane. The 1992 movie is one of his lesser-known works, and if you’ve only seen a few images, clips, or the trailer, you’d be forgiven for thinking Porco Rosso is just another one of Miyazaki’s films for kids. It’s as bright and colourful of any of the animator’s work, and often just as whimsical.
It begins with Porco rescuing a gaggle of adorable schoolchildren so rambunctious that their sky-pirate captors are completely overwhelmed by them. The movie ends with a very cartoonish fistfight between Porco and a dashing but extremely egocentric American pilot named Curtis. Porco is grumpy in a pretty adorable way, and the 14-year-old mechanic he gets foisted on him after his plane gets shot down is as spunky as a Ghibli character can be. The firefights between the various planes are visually exciting but never feel particularly dangerous. In this way, it’s far more kid-friendly than 2013’s The Wind Rises, which uses historical non-fiction to create a more challenging companion piece to Porco Rosso — although both, interestingly, are set primarily between World War I and World War II, and are highly focused on aviation, one of Miyazaki’s personal loves.
In The Wind Rises, it’s 1918, and young Jiro Horikoshi is too nearsighted to be a pilot, so he turns his passion toward creating aircraft instead. After years of study and hard work, the plane he designs ends up being a prototype for the infamous Zeroes flown by the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II. The Wind Rises is much more a tragedy (Horikoshi’s young wife also dies of tuberculosis during the film) and the assertion that Jiro’s plane was “beautiful” irrespective of how they were used rings hollow against the destruction of post-WWII Japan.
While Porco Rosso doesn’t overtly deal with such adult themes, the two World Wars also frame the film; Porco’s experiences in WWI form his origin story, while WWII looms over the entire movie, as the rise of Italian fascism is an increasingly looming threat over all the characters in the film, and their various ways of life. While both are effectively sanitised for kids, older viewers can’t possibly disconnect the two conflicts from their real-world horrors, especially the ones looming in the future. There’s a sadness to seeing Porco, Gina, Fio, and even the other sky pirates’ adventurous, practically carefree life, because adult viewers realise that this life is nearly over. This all gives the film a bracing framework of hard, cold reality underneath the light-hearted moments and silliness.
But Porco Rosso is also filled with a wonderful melancholy that flies right over children’s heads (no pun intended) but should be unmistakable to any adults paying attention. Although Porco and his longtime friend Gina clearly love each other, Porco pigheadedly (and that time the pun was absolutely intended) refuses to reciprocate her obvious affection because he feels completely unworthy of her. It’s tragic, but it’s also beautiful in its way. If Porco Rosso was truly intended only for children, the movie would end with the curse being lifted, and the returned Marco Pagot sweeping Gina in his arms so they could live happily ever after. Instead, the film hints that the two finally came together, but doesn’t confirm it — a perfectly imperfect ending which allows its audiences to wonder how the movie ended for themselves.
I don’t think Porco Rosso is Miyazaki’s greatest film, but I do think it is unfairly overlooked in his oeuvre. Perhaps that’s because the idea began as a short manga penned by Miyazaki himself, and the original plan for the animated adaptation was as a short, in-flight video for Japan Airlines, matching the director’s love of aircraft and flying and the company’s love of… well, getting money to fly people places. It’s hardly the most auspicious of origin stories, but Miyazaki is still the one who decided the story he had created deserved to be told in a full-length film. (Japan Airlines still got to run Porco Rosso as an in-flight movie for a while before the film’s official theatrical release.)
Porco Rosso is not without its accolades, but over the last 28 years, it always seems to get left out of the conversation, which is a damn shame. It’s just as much a masterpiece as his other bevy of masterpieces. And what makes Porco Rosso so singular is that it might be the most emblematic representation of its creator ever made: Porco is distrustful and disgusted with humanity as a whole, but always tries to put faith in the younger generation. He’s a romantic at heart, but his feelings have been tempered by the poignancy of realism. Most of all, he loves flying, the quiet, graceful beauty of sailing through the air, far above the troublesome, real world’s reach.
Hayao Miyazaki, meanwhile, is notoriously grumpy at just about everything — including the anime industry and anime fans — but he’s always held some kernel of hope inside him because he never stopped trying to give children incredible, meaningful cinematic experiences. Miyazaki’s passion for and obsession with flight also pervades many of these films. It just happens that none of them soared through the air more gracefully than Porco Rosso.