In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (which is a fantastic documentary about Studio Ghibli around the time of the production of The Wind Rises), Miyazaki described Porco Rosso as “foolish” because he said it was a foolish decision to make an adult film for children. Miyazaki is famously critical of his own and others’ work, and from everything I’ve read it seems like Porco Rosso is his least favourite of his own work. The crux of the issue Miyazaki has with the film is that he “was so disappointed that I’d made something for middle-aged men, because I’d been telling my staff always to make films for children”. This stems from the fact that during the production of the film the Yugoslav Wars broke out, and this changed the tone of production for Miyazaki and his team. But while Miyazaki may consider this to lead to Porco Rosso a failure, I think the real-world politics and the way they’re presented make the film to be a strong outlier in the Ghibli canon.
While Porco Rosso is undeniably the most obviously political film so far in the Studio’s history, and possibly overall but that title might go to Grave of the Fireflies or The Wind Rises, the fantastical elements and overall light tone make the film digestible and charming as well, while remaining accessible for children and adults both. The film centres around Marco Pagot, an Italian Ex-Fighter pilot who now lives as a bounty hunter, spending his days living alone on an island or chasing down Air Pirates for bounty money. But this is set against the backdrop of military unrest and conflict, throughout the film we see towns filled with eager citizens welcoming the new military powers taking over, areas subjected to poverty, secret police, and Marco’s own disgust at the fascists in the region. There’s a really powerful scene that takes place in a flashback about Marco’s time fighting in the war, during a dogfight Marco loses consciousness and awakens above the clouds and in the stillness of the moment he sees a band that he initially thinks is a large contrail but is soon revealed to be a gathering of jets, flown by pilots who have died in battles. It’s a beautifully presented and heartbreaking moment that makes Marco realise the toll and horrors of the war, while encapsulating Miyazaki’s own disgust at war. For me this is the most striking criticism of war in the film, but there’s other moments throughout that highlight the films criticism of the banality of war, such as the famous (and perhaps one of my all time favourite lines of dialogue) where Marco tells his former colleague who’s trying to recruit him for working for the government: “I’d much rather be a pig than a fascist”. But the film also shows its politics in the lavish fashion and lifestyle of the mainland citizens compared with the islands affected by the economic depression, having to charge more for fuel and bumming cigarettes from Marco. One really interesting element the film does to further this criticism is that it never shows us the power of the government, we see military members, and the secret police, but the looming government in charge of all this is never shown to the audience, furthering the idea of the human toll these conflicts take and how the people in control rarely face the conflict and instead leave it for the regular people to deal with. But going back to Miyazaki’s claims that this attempt to infuse politics into a children’s film was foolish, all of the ways in which these issues and ideas are implemented and subtle enough to not deter or confuse children, and yet powerful enough to leave a lasting impression.
But as much as I love this film, and I do think it is really great, the film is not perfect. One of my biggest issues with the film is the use of static animation. I’m no stranger to the technique, nor am I inherently against its inclusion, my favourite Ghibli film so far (Nausicaä) is filled with the technique, but the reason why I take issue with it more in this film is that it’s not smoothly integrated like in other Ghibli films. While there are some clever uses of the technique in the film, such as when the Air Pirates take the picture with Fio, there’s just a few too many sequences where it’s a grating inclusion that becomes too obvious as you watch. However, on the flip side of this criticism, the film also contains some absolutely gorgeous and kinetic animation too! Scenes like the plane going down the river are absolutely fantastically animated and the use of the waves is splendid, and in fact almost any scene with water is animated beautifully, and the beauty of the planes flying, specifically the dogfight scenes, cannot be understated.On the topic of the dogfight scenes, the way they’re coupled with Joe Hisashi’s absolutely gorgeous soundtrack, elevates the scenes so much, to the point where they feel like the planes are dancing to the music. But as with any film he works on, Hisashi’s soundtrack elevates every single scene it’s used in, and the main theme of the film is one of my favourites out of any Ghibli film.
My only other criticism is that the story is noticeably weak at times, I think is due in large part to the fact it was only planned initially to be a short film, before being developed into a feature film, but there are times where the narrative lacks the required weight. While the film often works utilising it’s ethereal quality and pensive aspect to ruminate on the politics, the build-up to the climactic fight ends up feeling somewhat limp and unearned by the end of it. There are aspects of the story that I really love, the romance subplot feels is amazingly done and it has an old-hollywood feel that reminds me of Casablanca, and the relationship that develops between Marco and Fio is so enjoyable to watch develop, but it’s just the air pirate plot that feels somewhat sluggish and too slow in my opinion. But taking the film as a whole, I do think it is weaker than the previous films I’ve reviewed for this column, but I would have to wholeheartedly disagree with Miyazaki on his remark that the film was in any way “foolish”.