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.