Several months ago on the suggestion of a friend, I began to watch movies from Studio Ghibli. He recommended that I watch them in the order they were produced, and since that is my nature anyway, I have done so when I could even though it has become evident that there seems to be no real reason to do so.
So, when I got to Porco Rosso, I watched it—even though it was about a man who was a pig who flew a plane. I had absolutely no desire to watch this movie, but, as you will have guessed since I am writing this post, before very long, I was very engaged in the movie. It was surprisingly easy to get used to the main character being an anthropomorphic pig. He's taken very seriously as a character, so the viewer accepts him.
Porco Rosso entered World War I as Marco Pagot, an ace fighter pilot, and having been cursed along the way, returned home as a pig. As the movie opens we find him relaxing in a reclining lawn chair on a deserted island in the Adriatic. He is now a bounty hunter. He hunts “air pirates” who prey on ocean liners, kidnapping children and stealing whatever valuables the boats are carrying. His first job is to capture a group of pirates who have robbed an ocean liner of gold, and kidnapped 15 little school girls. Now, usually a story about pirates kidnapping school girls would be horrifying, but these pirates are softies where little girls are concerned and the girls ride roughshod over them. In general, for pirates these guys aren't a bad bunch. In apposition to Porco's seriousness, the pirates are always comedic. The head pirate bears a distinct resemblance to Popeye's Bluto.
When Porco wants to have a good meal, he heads for the Hotel Adriano. The proprietress of the hotel is the beautiful Gina, four-time widow of fighter pilots. Gina's voice is as beautiful as she is, and all the pirates who frequent her restaurant are in love with her including the new guy on the block, American Donald Curtis. She is in love with Porco, and waiting for his curse to be broken, but knowing that he is a pig, he doesn't encourage her.
Porco's plane is in really bad condition, so he takes it to Milan (where he is wanted for desertion) to his mechanic, Piccolo. Under protest from Porco, his airplane is re-designed and re-built under the direction of Piccolo's young granddaughter, Fio, aided by a bevy of old grandmothers. Porco is not happy with all this female help, but all the men have moved on. When the work is done, Fio goes along with Porco to help keep the plane running. It is from their conversation that we learn (sort of) of how Porco became a pig.
He tells Fio about a mystical experience that he had during a battle in which all the other pilots are killed. He sees them all ascending to another place, and we somehow come to understand that he turned into a pig because, well, he is a pig. All the other pilots from both sides gave their lives for the cause, and yet he survives. He is a selfish pig, which, looking back on the story up to this point, we can clearly see.
Two things surprised me about this scene. One was that the movie was not just an entertaining story, but that it was about something serious. The other was the complete western-ness of this scene. His vision of the pilots ascending into the heavens has an almost Christian feel to it. And this is true not just of one scene in one movie, but of many of the Studio Ghibli films. All the characters in this film are western. At one point in the movie they say an almost Christian grace over their meal—of course, they are Italian. But I just wonder why the Japanese creators of the Studio Ghibli films have chosen this western milieu so often. I wish I had time to do some reading about them.
The American versions of the Ghibli films are produced by Disney, and so the voice-actors are very good, and frequently well-known. In this movie, Porco is voice by Michael Keaton, Donald Curtis by Cary Elwes, and Piccolo by David Ogden Steirs. In Howl's Moving Castle, which we watched yesterday, one of the actors was Lauren Bacall!
As I have indicated before, the mood in Porco Rosso is sometimes very serious, and sometimes almost slapstick, the slapstick being more comic relief than the center of the film. In the end, it seemed to me that Porco Rosso was a kind of combination between Casablanca and Beauty and the Beast, with glimpses of some other movies, too—The Quiet Man comes to mind.
According to Wikipedia, and this is the sort of thing I think you might be able to trust Wikipedia for, Porco Rosso was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1992. And, of the 15 highest grossing films in Japan, 8 are Studio Ghibli. This seemed rather strange to me, but then I remembered looking at a list of the highest grossing films in the United States a few years ago, and more than half of them were just this kind of film, the kind that you can take your children to, but which also have another layer that adults can enjoy. Looking at the top ten list for 2015, two are cartoons, and four others are the sort of adventure films that appeal to both children and adults. It makes one wonder why movie studios seem so bent on producing sex-filled movies about people with vacuous lives.
Not only did I surprise myself by enjoying Porco Rosso the first time around, I found it just as good on the second viewing. It's not going to become a movie that I watch every year, but I might get it from Netflix again so that my grandchildren can watch it. And if I do, I'm sure I'll sit down and watch it with them.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.