Wrestling with the Crimson Pig: The Perverse Genius of Porco Rosso

One of my projects this summer has been (and continues to be) to spend as much time with my brainy pipsqueak of a ten-year old nephew, introducing him to some of my favorite comics and, most particularly, the movies of Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki's films are of course well known for their broad appeal among audiences of all ages, but re-viewing the film the other day with the aforementioned pipsqueak, I was particularly struck by the notion that the director's early-90s dogfight-fest Porco Rosso is a strange and wonderful film that cannot really be considered a children's movie at all.

Porco Rosso stands out in the director's oeuvre in a number of obvious ways: its setting is historically and geographically identifiable and, excepting the fact that the hero is an anthropomorphic pig, the film eschews any significant fantastical elements. This is not to say, however, that the movie falls under the rubric of narrative realism. Indeed, Porco Rosso is a more or less pure expression of the sort of Romanticism associated with the poets of the last great phase of the 'movement' in Britain, particularly Byron and Shelley, but more on this later.

Another genuine oddity of Porco Rosso stems from the decided conclusion that the movie doesn't really have a plot, at least not in the fully realized, feature film sense. This is in part attributable to the film's source and the circumstances of production. The genesis for Porco Rosso was a 15-page watercolor manga published in English as The Age of the Flying Boat. As Miyazaki recounts in an interview which appeared in the July 1993 issue of Animerica, Porco Rosso was originally intended to be "a 45-minute film exclusively for screening on international flights," but as the film kept growing it was determined that the only hope for recouping the spiraling costs would be to release it as a feature film.

That same issue of Animerica reprints the first five pages of Miyazaki's original manga, roughly corresponding to the film's opening set piece, in which Porco—or Marco, as the pilot is properly named—foils the Mamma Aiuto gang's piracy of a pleasure craft, securing half of the captured gold and rescuing the gaggle of intrepid young girls taken hostage by the pirates. This scene plays out a bit differently in the manga and these differences are instructive in understanding how just how strangely subversive Porco Rosso is.

Rather than flying off with an entire classroom full of pre-pubescent girls, as they do in the film, the Mammut Gang, as they are called in the comic, pointedly bring just one adolescent girl along with them as a hostage. Moreover, the pirates are singled out as having a particular predilection for beautiful young girls—indeed, Marco himself twice refers to the pirates as having a "Lolita complex." This pointed allusion to a possible sexual motive for the pirates' hostage taking is belied by the gang's strictly mercenary behavior. When the young girl jumps from their plane after Marco has shot it down, the pirates lament the loss of their "source of revenue."

But while the explicit references to sexuality in the comic are undermined by the behavior of the pirates, thus neutralizing any sense of sexual menace, the situation is reversed in the film. At first glance, the substitution of a dozen or so pre-pubescent girls for the manga's solitary adolescent beauty seems to remove any hint of the sexual danger suggested by the comic. However, close consideration of the young girls' fearless and playful response to their captors and the succession of images of half-dressed water nymphs crawling all over these grown men and their undeniably phallic machines reveals the film's version of events to be paradoxically far more transgressive.

One need look no further than Richard Hughes's intoxicating 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica to find a quasi-canonical literary analog to the events chronicled in the film's opening. In Hughes's novel, a ship carrying the children of British expats living in Jamaica back to England is set upon by a crew of pirates at least as bumbling and ineffectual as the Mamma Aiuto gang. When the children are taken hostage by the pirates, they become almost animalistic inhabitants of the ship, just as the young girls captured by the Mamma Aiuto gang do in Porco Rosso.

What is interesting about A High Wind in Jamaica is Hughes's refusal to romanticize childhood. With the children aboard, the pirate ship is steeped in violent and sexual animal energy—in part exuding from the pirates themselves, but equally, if not more so, from the children.

One of the more puzzling aspects about Porco Rosso is Porco's largely unexplained ambivalence toward women, displayed in his turbulent relationship with seductive bar owner Gina, but even more exaggeratedly in his attitude toward the teenage creator of his improved seaplane, Fio. Fio is a bundle of latent sexual energy, profoundly affecting all the men around her, and Porco is clearly uncomfortable with this from the beginning. Porco's discomfort with sexuality, displayed in its turn when he rescues the young girls from the pirates, in his relationship with Gina and in the strong parental yet still somehow more intimate bond he establishes with Fio, may in fact be related to his transformation into a pig.

Though the reasons for his porcine state are never adequately explained, what becomes clear as the film progresses is that it seems strongly tied to a sense of self-loathing in the character. Porco vandalized the only surviving photograph of the human Marco, scratching out his former face until it is unrecognizable. Moreover, when Fio comes straight out and asks how he was turned into a pig, his response, that "all middle aged men are pigs," is telling in spite of its obviousness.

Though I don't think it would be fruitful to speculate on some sort of explanation for Porco's self-loathing in some imagined past events, this detail fits in with his overall Byronic character. It is also of a piece with his obsession with aviation, which burdens Porco with an implicit death wish. Not to take this too far, but Porco's obsession with airplanes and aviation echoes somewhat the nautical obsession of the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley met his ultimate end in a somewhat mysterious sailing accident—some have suggested that his boat had been set upon by pirates—in his newly custom-built vessel off the shores of Northern Italy, leaving his creative and much younger wife Mary a widow.

The end of Porco Rosso, like pretty much all of the film, is even more vague and ambivalent than Shelley's demise. We can guess from Curtis's remark that Fio's kiss has restored Marco's human visage, but this is perhaps more of a typically Miyazakian recourse to fairy tale tropes than any definitive statement of redemption. We also know from Fio's closing narration that Porco ultimately evades his Fascist pursuers. But Porco's feud with the Fascists seems more a gesture of individualism than a statement of deeply held political conviction. In a way, then, it is almost unfortunate that movie is not still known here by its original title, Crimson Pig. By saddling the character with such an explicitly inflammatory label, the film simply completes the aura of ambivalence and danger that surrounds the porcine ace.


Why Iron Man 2 Is Better Than The Dark Knight

It's curious how The Dark Knight became canonical while Iron Man 2--which is starting its slow death to DVD at the dollar theater right now--got the shaft. Both attempt an "In These Times" contextualization of their heroes, but only the latter does so with the understanding that social commentary is nothing new to comics, or life in general, and thus carries it off with genial aplomb.

Tony Stark, like Bruce Wayne, loosely fits the Randian hero framework. He’s a billionaire industrialist whose technology is seen as unwieldy in private hands, is considered a menace to societal stability and faces the threat of collectivization by deadweight bureaucrats who can’t appreciate or understand his will to power.

The Dark Knight, though, has superficial insight into ineffectual bureaucracy and its vulnerability to corruption, chalking it up to either one large buyout by the mob or, later, an inability to deal with unconventional, ahistorical terror (kind of like how Blue Velvet’s critique of the White Picket Fence’s placid illusion relies entirely on the outta nowhere psychotic city mobster Frank), inadvertently leaving essential questions about representative government and what it takes to build a passably democratic system entirely out of the picture.

Iron Man 2, on the other hand, is grounded in the real world complications of the military-industrial complex, where Tony Stark, claiming to have “successfully privatized world peace,” is really just compromising to avert what essentially would be a governmental monopoly on the same thing. At the hearing over what should be done with Stark’s invention, Senator Stern hollowly invokes “the American people” even though both of them work outside the public interest (with Stern using rival corporate figurehead Justin Hammer to co-opt Stark’s technology on behalf of the US military, and Stark coasting on the benefits of being a public superhero with private property).

The Dark Knight takes most of that for granted. Where most of the moral dilemma in The Dark Knight turns on the question of who should be allowed to regulate crime: vigilante Wayne or the government as epitomized by “White Knight” Harvey Dent, the arsenal provided by military hardware specialist Lucius Fox is only considered nominally transgressive in the film’s final moral dilemma over the use of mass-wiretapping to catch the Joker.

From the start of the first film in the Iron Man franchise, cause and effect in relation to military technology is the core of the moral dilemma, taking it from a realistically unprogressive epiphany on Stark’s part that “it’s hurting our boys” to a whole plot point resting on the connection between the arms industry, the military and international weapons trafficking, with Stark’s plans to shut down the arms wing of Stark enterprises and focus on alternative energy invoking shareholder wrath. In no way does it exclude the glitzy, pyrotechnic allure of the technology and its seductive prowess, making the Iron Man franchise a wholly subversive deconstruction of the military’s technologically advanced weaponry wrapped in a self-aware plug for it.

Iron Man 2 is also firmly rooted in history, assessing Stark’s “will to power” in the context of the Cold War, subverting the heroic theory of invention by showing the privilege afforded Stark in having been on the winning side. The villain, Ivan Vanko, is the son of Stark’s father’s partner-in-development, a similarly brilliant but unfortunately Russian scientist cast out by the U.S. government on suspicion of character. Dying without the means to realize his vision, poor and unacknowledged for his contributions, the legacy left to his son is a brilliant scientific mind wasted by an arbitrary political turnout.

The Joker, meanwhile, has no back-story, which is flaunted by the filmmakers as some transcendent bird-flipping in the form of pat explanations (an insult to the audience who sat through the two hours of exposition that was Batman Begins). Basically, he’s an enigmatic evil whose Deus ex Machina lunacy becomes a ticking time bomb exercise in “the ends justify the means.”

The Joker has a cynical view of mankind that has led him to transcend societal norms but not at the expense of making sure everyone knows that they’re capable of being forced to break those norms, too. His preferred method involves placing random kidnapped targets in compromising situations that will force them to act out of base self-interest and in spite of ethical standards. And so begins a debate whose answer is little surprise to anyone familiar with literature documenting human behavior in concentration camps, or the Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments, even just those Saw movies.

Vanko’s villainy is an identifiable, sympathetic vengeance that carries with it a pointed critique of public relations techniques used to rehabilitate the pasts of shady personages, companies and countries in the public mind, powerfully corroborated by the sequel starting off with Stark having learned nothing, going back to his old ways after capitalizing on the public’s affection for his alter ego. Though the film kind of whitewashes Stark’s father’s past as a World of Tomorrow beacon for alternative energy, in the context of the preceding exposition it’s reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s turn in Julien Donkey-Boy, where just because he’s philosophically astute doesn’t exculpate him from being an asshole.

Both films make statements about the post-9/11 “war on terror” with its changing rules of engagement, but whereas The Dark Knight’s villain is symbolic to the point of being problematic, Iron Man 2 has a sense of history that pushes the truth of how wars or adversarial stances don’t end but are put off, merely setting up the lingering after-effects. 9/11 and the “war on terror” deal with agents of chaos whose historical narratives and philosophies are inextricably tied with the society they target, creating an overlap of implication that equalizes culpability in violence, not postmodern menaces whose actions accidentally overlap with those of the governments they target.

Iron Man 2 also has subtle insight into sex and race in the upper echelons of power. Whereas The Dark Knight casts Morgan Freeman in his usual supplementary role as a wise, useful hand and Rachel Dawes is merely a volleyball between two dynamic males, Iron Man 2 comments on the precarious positions both Rhodey and Pepper Potts face as black and female officials, respectively, in high-ranking positions. While Tony Stark is allowed to be a wild card, indulge in swaggering debauchery, and play highly destructive games of cops and robbers, Pepper Potts has to take care of the paperwork while Rhodey has to handle the PR.

Both films have a spare but pointed usage of pop music highlighting the discrepancy between Stark and Rhodey’s boundaries. In the first film, on a private jet, Rhodey attempts injecting a level of gravity into Stark’s experimental shenanigans while Stark puts on a Ghostface Killah video, gets some Sake and orders his flight attendant to strip for him, Rhodey losing it in the process (perhaps a joke on Terence Howard’s professed disavowal of rap music). In the sequel Rhodey crashes a private party at Stark’s mansion. Stark, drunk in full Iron Man regalia, tells his Jewish DJ (the late Crazy Town member Adam Goldstein) to put on a rap and pop medley, while Rhodey, putting on a prototype and excluding himself from “getting down,” locks Stark in a game of battle bots in order to knock some sense into him.

Stark (and importantly, not the director) filters Pepper through the Madonna/Whore complex, seeing her as a symbol of purity, a saving grace and real love interest he can set aside his womanizing of floozies for. She, meanwhile, has to assess public perception knowing that her genuine hard work keeping Tony in line and generally functional while also running his company for him could be compromising. If she gets entangled in what could possibly just be an impulsive, if slightly matured, libidinal urge, she could get branded a gold digger who slept her way to the top in the process.

Iron Man 2, importantly, has a sense of humor, like Sam Rockwell’s turn as Stark wannabe Justin Hammer, a hilariously meta in-joke referencing the initial consideration of Rockwell for the part of Stark before it was handed to Downey, Jr. It doesn’t forget that it’s Hollywood entertainment but is smart enough to realize that it’s not an either-or dichotomy, instead expressing a wide variety of emotions more reflective on human discourse than Batman’s one-note plodding.

Unlike the mostly humorless Wayne, Stark doesn’t brood depressively underneath the weight of the world, instead sardonically playing the greased machinations of politics for the farce it is, trading scathing ripostes with everyone from the still funny underneath that Botox Gary Shandling to really anyone he comes into contact with. That The Dark Knight was polarizing in a way that had critics making stances means that it won in another way. It's a product whose import begs to be taken seriously via a bombardment of unleavened grimness, working on the assumption that utter devastation is the only way to make an impression (regardless of whether there’s a coherent point to be made) and thus is itself akin to an act of terrorism.


Wake Up, Wake Up It's The Best of the Month: June 2010

S.H.I.E.L.D #2 by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver

With this series and his recent run on Fantastic Four, Jonathan Hickman is becoming one of Marvel's brightest stars--even if most comics readers don't realize it. His work borrows a page from the Morrison handbook and utilizes science-fiction/fantasy in broad terms to illustrate themes about society at large as well the characters' inner development. It's the artful way he does the former and the fact that he cares about the latter at all that makes his work so interesting.

Hickman's big trick is taking everything up a notch. In Fantastic Four Reed Richards wants to literally solve everything, and S.H.I.E.L.D. is no different, with grandiose dialogue like "Drink deeply and live forever" and "I built all of it." It sounds like this would get old after a while, but it never does. Hickman uses sci-fi as a tool and not as the focus of his stories. You're too busy thinking about how the characters relate to each other to seriously consider the guy with a nuclear reactor in his chest, and it all feels properly commonplace.

Issue #2 suffers from a scatterbrained style--which is probably another Morrison influence--but it's still a strong read due to well, the same thing Hickman does in everything, and also smaller things like an incredibly designed double-page spread featuring Nostradamus and Leonardo's continued presence as number-one-most-awesome-human.

Abe Sapien: The Abyssal Plain #1 by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and Peter Snejbjerg

Abyssal Plain begins with a Russian man trapped in a submarine waiting to die and writing to his girlfriend to pass the time. He goes on to talk about, in the panel above, how you never really think you will die, how there's always some hope. It's the kind of thing that makes you feel like you've been punched in the solar plexus. Short and direct and really powerful.

The opening is effective but strange, because it doesn't have anything to do with the plot really, and even the deeper, thematics aren't addressed in the story. What it does do however, is provide a the sense that every character in this story--and the Hellboy universe--whether important or not, has a notable, affecting backstory. The result is that even the smallest detail or piece of information, even the slightest shift in person feels bigger and deeper. So when Abe's counterpart in this B.P.R.D mission starts acting like a jerk, he's not just a foil or simple counterpoint to Abe's good-natured kindness, you get the sense of this guy slowly cultivating his shitbag attitude...and that makes it all the worse.

Tons of wordless panels help this story to fly by--each panel feels like it carries it's own weight--but the tone's set with the opening. Again, not thematically laid-out and not a key piece of plot information, but somehow the feeling of this issue's set from page one. Immediately after the opening, a panel of Abe staring out into a grey sky gives the impression that Abe is having the same sort of thoughts that the sailor had, and when Abe briefly meets up with the sailor's body later, there's a mysterious knowing look between Abe and the corpse and we almost understand it.

The Bulletproof Coffin #1 by David Hine and Shaky Kane

This is one of those comics that feels like such a small portion of the overall picture that it's hard to know exactly what's going on at times. The plot has no clear focus, with things jumping from the main character, Steve, to excessive explanation of the fictional Hine and Kane and their Kirby/Lee like relationship.

The comic is ultimately a celebration/deconstruction of comics' underbelly. The stories behind the stories, like the Lee/Kirby drama, and the early weirdness of comics where from panel to panel really anything could happen. It's like how Paul Karasik included his search for information about the Fletcher Hanks in the back of I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!. His interest started with the weirdness of the comics, but grew into an interest into the man behind them, and pretty soon real-life weirdness and comics weirdness were the same thing. There's definitely a natural inclination to try to understand the psychology behind the people who create art--especially in those who create the weird or subversive--and Bulletproof Coffin feeds that interest while still giving readers the more visceral and simple thrills of a comic book.

It's successful as a meta-comic because it doesn't try too hard to analyze what is going on, and like the comics it emulates, Bulletproof Coffin is interested in entertaining; in being awesome. The book's major diversion is sticking in an entire comic by the fictional creator and it's not all that different from the rest of the comic--just as weird and cool and exciting. Kane too, subtly shifts his style for the comic-in-a-comic but not too much, so it's all one big, weird thing.

Kane draws Steve lounging comfortably holding that comic in his hands, and it's a great panel because it wordlessly captures what it's like to relax and read a comic. The next panel is his hands holding the comic, then it's a full page spread of the comic he's reading, and you proceed to read the whole comic he has in his hands. It's a trippy all-encompassing use of visual narrative and when I saw the cover inside the comic, it threw me for a loop--the idea of starting another comic inside this other comics--and I think that's the feeling Hine and Kane are going for here.

Others: Thor #611, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #1, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #3, King City #9