It was only just a few weeks ago that I went to watch The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki's latest (and final) feature film. But a little over 20 years ago Miyazaki already dedicated a film to one of his biggest passions: the airplane. Porco Rosso [Kurenai no Buta] is a very different film in style and scope, but I always considered it to be one of Miyazaki's best. And as it turns out, time has been particularly gentle to this one.
Ever since Miyazaki brought the Ghibli brand to life, he indulged in sneaking flying machines and monsters into this film. From a flying Tonari no Totoro to the broom of Kiki, from islands and airships in Laputa to the flying machines and bugs of Nausicaa, it's clear that Miyazaki had a soft spot for all things airborne. But never was it so apparent as in Porco Rosso.
And though the airplanes in Porco Rosso make up a big part of the film's background, its true charm is found elsewhere. In part it lies with Porco, the main character of the film, a jet fighter turned pig (the only truly fantastical element present), in part with the Adriatic setting that gives the film an extra warm and melancholic layer, lying comfortably on top of the feel-good atmosphere. Both elements combined make for a unique film within Miyazaki's oeuvre.
Porco Rosso tells the story of Porco, a rogue airplane pilot. He flies around the Adriatic Sea, taking up odd jobs while saving local residents and cruise ships from pirates. He leads a pretty good life until an American pirate shows up and challenges Porco to a one-on-one battle. Porco's plane fails him, forcing him to sneak back into Italy to upgrade his machine and get rid of the American once and for all. There he runs into Fio, a young female architect who plans to help Porco with his mission.
Even though the film is more than 20 years old the animation still holds up today. It's clearly a little less complex and fluid than Miyazaki's Kaze Tachinu, but the film just oozes style. The blue skies, the romantic Italian setting, and the amazing attention to detail that characterizes Ghibli's films make for a visual treat. Add to that the cheeky yet fun character designs and some lovely airborne scenes and you can rest assured that the Ghibli magic is fully present, even without all the fantastical extras.
The soundtrack too is essential in setting up the atmosphere. Resident composer Joe Hisaishi is at it again with one of his better, more recognizable Ghibli scores. His music is complemented by some classic '30s tracks that capture and enhance the Italian setting just perfectly. Way back I watched part of the French dub with Jean Reno (Léon) as Porco, it's not a bad option for those who really can't get a hold of the Japanese dub, but as always the original version is preferred. Whatever you choose to watch though, do stay clear from the English dub, which is an assault on the ears, completely ruining the carefully constructed charm of the music and visuals.
Miyazaki's films fall into one of two categories. There are his big, epic, and spirited films (Sen to Chihiro, Mononoke Hime, Hauru no Ugoku Shiro) and his smaller, charming, and less dramatic films (Ponyo, Tonari no Totoro, Majo no Takkyubin). Even though the setup of Porco Rosso would suggest this film might fall into the first category, this is actually one of Miyazaki's simpler and more light-hearted films. It's feel-good all the way through, with quite a lot of dramatic elements, but never presented in a very serious or menacing way.
Porco Rosso remains one of my favorite Miyazaki films. Personally, I prefer his softer, smaller films over his big epics, as they are more aimed at atmosphere and less at getting a message across. It's a film that breathes feel-good, doesn't overstay its welcome, and leaves you with a big, wide grin on your face. A film I happily revisit once in a while and never loses any of its charm, no matter how many times I've watched it. A must-see for everyone with a soft spot for animation.