Porco Rosso is a unique film in the canon of genius animator Hayao Miyazaki. The historical and geographical context of the movie is specific; there is no fantasy world or alternate universe in which the characters operate. Indeed, most of the story could have occurred in reality and within the context. The only element to the story that stretches our perceptions of reality, ever so slightly, is the titular character.
The story takes place during the 1920s between the two World Wars. The setting is Italy and fascism is rising. Blackshirts are everywhere and the “firm answer” of the fascist regime to the political turmoil in post-war Italy lays the backdrop to the picture. In many respects, Porco Rosso is Miyazaki’s most “adult” picture. It is entrenched with politics and world affairs, generating many of its more obvious plot points from the rejection of fascism.
We meet Porco Rosso, a man with the head of a pig, as he works as a bounty hunter guarding ships in the Adriatic Sea. He frequently combats pirates and defends other ships, yet there is a sense of camaraderie between the pirates and Porco. He is a legend in the area and has earned the respect of mostly everyone he comes into contact with. We are not told specifically how Porco wound up in the condition we find him in, although Miyazaki does include some hints that he became a pig after he left the Italian Air Force.
The film revolves around Porco’s relationship with Gina, a woman who runs Hotel Adriano in the Adriatic Sea, and his rivalry with American pilot Curtis. Curtis is attempting to gain employment with a gang of pirates and decides to directly challenge Porco as a way to boost his profile. When Porco heads to Milan to rebuild his plane, he comes into contact with young Fio and a group of fascists who smell bacon. Luckily, Porco has friends in the Italian Air Force who keep him ahead of the blackshirts and he is able to head back and properly challenge Curtis with a rebuilt plane (courtesy of Fio) and renewed energy.
The animation is typical Miyazaki, brimming with color, quality, and unbelievable detail. Miyazaki’s meticulousness is renowned and Porco Rosso is a marvelous example of this. His attention to detail is impeccable, especially in his presentation of Italy and the historical elements as they fit the context of the piece.
As Miyazaki’s sixth animated picture, this 1992 film demonstrates the director's growth as an artist. It is often thought that Porco Rosso is his most personal work and that the character of Porco is loosely based on himself. Flight is a common theme in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind featuring airborne armies and the title character’s glider and Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service flying around on her broomstick. There is a sense here that flight represents a form of ultimate freedom, as though Porco only feels safe and, perhaps, human in the skies.
The core of the film for some may well be Porco’s conflict with Curtis. It ends in a bruising fist-fight, the two characters throwing ideological punch after punch at one another. But for me, the core of Porco Rosso lies in Porco’s denunciation of everything that holds him down. He has literally been stripped of his humanity through circumstances we don’t understand. He may turn human again and he may not. For the time being, Porco finds his ultimate autonomy in the skies and in the dismissal of all that anchors him.
He is Bogart-cool, always on the move, always smoking, always prepared.
Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso is a delightfully animated, tenderly constructed, and magnificently frank piece of art. It is certainly his most adult work and little besides the protagonist’s facade seems launched towards younger viewers. A delicate masterpiece, Porco Rosso stands as one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most significant movies and as one of the most enjoyable, affecting animated films of all time.