There’s a special nostalgia for the 90s when it comes to anime as that was, for many, the heyday of the Studio Ghibli film period. Every decade of the studio has great works from the beginning to today, but what made the 90s era stand out more was that it was when the films really started to get more awareness in North America. While the Ghiblifest event we’ve had for the past decade or so is fantastic and they are available across the country, back in the 90s it was a traveling show going from city to city as there were only a few prints available to do so. And they were largely done through art house theaters and the like, which just upped the allure. The main change came with Princess Mononoke in 1997 as it started to get shown in more mainstream theaters, but it had a huge showing in a lot of these art house theaters.
And those festivals in Harvard Square for me in the heart of Cambridge back then at The Brattle continue to stand out for me. And I was lucky enough to take my kids to a couple of them in the late 2000s so they had that kind of experience. During the festivals of these days in the 90s, I’d go into the city for a few days in a row to go to the theater for a double-header showing. And one of those films, just a few years old, was Porco Rosso and was done up with a Pom Poko showing. I had long learned of Hayao Miyazaki’s love of flight going back to all the works in the 80s but Porco Rosso felt different as it was playing in a different period of time and mixed in that sense of wonder with the flight with the darker threads of fascism creeping through.
The story of Porco Rosso is one that fits surprisingly well into the Miyazaki style. It takes place in the Mediterranean sometime in 1929 in a locale where things are rough and hard but the people are good-hearted and live life to the fullest. But even in a beautiful area like this with the sea and the islands, there’s something that just shouldn’t be there causing trouble. And that’s the air pirates, a loose federation of various groups who scour the area for targets to plunder and steal from. The movie opens up with one group, the Mama Aiuto’s, attacking a tourist boat where they loot it clean and then take fifteen schoolgirls as hostages on their own seaplane for a getaway. The local authorities call in for Porco Rosso, a bounty hunter pilot who specializes in dealing with these pirates for a price. He lives in a gorgeous secluded little island with just a tent and his radio (and some booze of course). Porco takes the job and heads off to deal with the pirates.
The visuals of these planes flying and skimming over the water are just gorgeous to watch and hold up incredibly well all these years later. I will always enjoy the various eras of animation and how they’re produced, but coming of age in understanding the medium during this period and the traditional method of it – and Miyazaki’s demanding methods – just makes the intricate quality and detail stand out all the more. They’re so beautifully animated that you can’t help but just let your jaw drop as it feels so effortlessly done. But it’s the attention to detail that really gets you as we see a variety of these kinds of planes from different times and they’re all wonderfully detailed. It’s these little things that make it feel ever so more realistic. In fact, other than the part about the lead being a pig, this is a very realistically done movie.
Porco’s troubles don’t end with these particular air pirates though, as the larger federation has brought in an American pilot to deal with him, and the two are definitely more alike than not. Especially in that they both have affection for a lovely singer who entertains most of the pilots and others in the area in her small island locale. It’s the fight between the American named Curtiss and Porco that eventually causes him to take his already beleaguered plane back to Milan to be fully restored. And it’s along this backdrop that we see the growing tide of fascism taking hold in the country and changing things for the next big movement.
But the movie isn’t really about the times so much as the people living in them and how they cope with it. The movie also knows how to play to the humor, from the way the hostages at the start handle things to when we see Porco and Curtis in an “official” competition in the final third of the movie, and both their guns jam. They’re reduced to just flinging parts at each other across the sky. Their engagements with their planes are spectacular, but it’s the way the two play off of each other, neither being completely serious and having a knowing wink almost ready to go. There are a lot of serious aspects to the film but I love the way it eases the humor to things as well and gives it a chance to breathe. It’s a fully fleshed-out project that also knows how to be, of all things, human.
That said, the film is definitely one of Miyazaki’s lighter films with its bright visual flare and almost cheesy humor at times. Porco is an odd lead but it works well as a chain-smoking cranky pig. Miyazaki’s style of animation fits in perfectly with the look of the Mediterranean as envisioned here and at times almost takes on the look of a painting. While it’s not the deepest or most soul-shaking film that they’ve put out, it’s one that’s interesting as it hews the closest to real-world politics of Miyazaki’s overall. We see pieces of Porco’s human time in World War 1 and very distinct planes from that era, which is welcome to see detailed so accurately. Miyazaki’s own politics have been complicated over the years and there’s a discussion of how this film, made during some European conflicts at the time in the early 90s, made it challenging to land on a particular theme in this area. While his politics may be complicated, that makes for an engaging viewing for the audience who brings their own understanding of the world to it and can take away radically different interpretations. And that still holds up all these years later, making for a worthwhile revisit anytime.