Porco Rosso is a surprisingly apolitical disappointment

Maybe more like a thumbs sideways?

Porco Rosso, the 1992 anime film about a flying pig-pilot who does battle with sky pirates in interwar Adriatic floatplanes, might be Studio Ghibli / director Hayao Miyazaki’s most memed movie. In addition to that thumbs-up image above, plenty of lines make common appearances on anime meme boards like “You make me think humanity’s not a complete waste,” “Laws don’t apply to pigs,” and the classic “Better a pig than a fascist:”

On sourcing: my computer broke this week so I referenced this script for quotes and pulled screenshots from stupid meme posts on reddit. As the memes show, lots of different fan-sub versions float around out there so sorry for any inconsistencies.

But for all the memes, Porco Rosso is a surprisingly apolitical film, with those lines representing more throw-away jokes than a vigorous thematic ideal. Yes, the titular character Porco is a typical anti-authority anti-hero who chafes under the rule of Depression-era Italian fascists. But he’s also such a severe misanthrope that if he happens to take anti-fascist action, he only does so because the facists happen to be in charge. Combine that apathetic position with what might be Miyazaki’s weakest feminist message among his otherwise excellent cast of believable female characters and I don’t know what to do with Porco Rosso. Yes, it’s beautiful, as all Ghibli movies are. But despite the anti-fascist hype, it lacks much of Miyazaki’s characteristic thematic focus. In a word (or two), it disappoints.

Let’s take a look at the movie’s most famous line first: “Better a pig than a fascist.” Porco says it to Ferrari, an old aviation comrade from the First World War. Ferrari tries to warn Porco that the fascist authorities are pursuing him for a variety of real and exaggerated crimes and offers Porco immunity if he would only rejoin the airforce. In response, Porco drops the “better a pig” line but follows up with another rarely quoted — “I only fly for myself” — when Ferrari proposes and rejects some “worthless causes” like “country” and “nation.” After leaving the meeting with Ferrari, a tail from the fascist secret police follow Porco, prompting his naive aircraft mechanic Fio to ask if he is a spy. Porco laughs no and replies “You have to work harder than me to be a secret agent.” Or in other words, though Porco will not cooperate with the facist regime, he is too lazy to resist them either.

Another memey quip, though in context it again demonstrates Porco’s anti-heroic apathy. He flies — and fights — only for himself

Of course, Porco has a reason for his apathy. While flying for Italy during the Great War, he lost his whole squadron in a fierce battle over the Adriatic Sea. In one of Ghibli’s trademark brushes with Shinto-ish-tic mysticism, Porco (still a human named Marco) catches a glimpse of the world of the dead while retreating above the clouds in his damaged fighter. He begs to trade places with a fallen comrade in the ghostly procession of hundreds of warplanes across the sky. But fate refuses: the trauma the war afflicts Marco with a stubborn misanthropy and sometime off-screen he transforms into a pig.

The moment carries a solid anti-war message that observes the tragedy of the aviation pioneers lost on all sides, especially when placed against the ironic frame of flight as a liberating force common to so many other Miyazaki movies. However, Porco Rosso maybe dilutes that anti-war theme by otherwise heroizing or trivializing violence.

On the trivial end, the silly sky-pirates Porco comes to battle after the war in his new role as a bounty hunter are criminal incompetents… when they shoot at crowds or even toss grenades, no one ever dies or suffers injury. Tiny little girls even put them to shame: during the pirates’ introductory kidnapping scene, the schoolchildren in their possession play around their cannons and machine guns, making it impossible for them to fight back against Porco. It’s funny to watch the buff old men fail to children. But then the scene perhaps opposes the broader anti-war theme: despite the apparent trauma suffered by veterans like Porco and the pirates, the movie’s audience has nothing to fear from modern war. It’s cute instead!

On the heroic end, though Porco himself refuses to kill, his climactic dogfight-into-fistfight amounts to something more like a glorious prize-match or duel for honor than a principled stand against (fascist) bullies. Like with the pirates’ failed kidnapping, Porco Rosso plays the scene for comedy with some cartoonish exaggerations. But more than anything, it made me sad to see a washed-up veteran like Porco destroy his body while peacocking in a pointless display of masculinity. As part of its broader homage to early airplanes, the film carries a certain wistful nostalgia for World War I combat aviation. Again though, against an anti-war theme, the heroizing clashes with the tragedy of the war’s fallen pilots and the inter-war destitution of its survivors. Of course, that’s probably part of Miyazaki’s point to show how the war continues to assail veterans like Porco long after the battles themselves. But compared with the relentless, almost overbearing thematic insistency of stronger Miyazaki films like with Spirited Away’s anti-capitalism, Porco Rosso maybe misses the same punch.

Even on feminism, one of Ghibli’s most consistent political messages over the decades, Porco Rosso fails to deliver much more than an unnuanced “girl-power” archetype in Fio, the 17-year-old aviation engineer who fixes Porco’s plane (delightfully, alongside every other female member of her family as manual labor. The men went off to work elsewhere due to the Depression). Fio fits the Miyazaki mold of a modern, emancipated young girl (she studied in America, for whatever its problems, a far greater bastion of liberty than fascist Italy). Unusually for Ghibli movies though, she confronts direct misogyny via Porco’s initial refusal to accept, and then appreciate, her help. Fio perseveres though… through the course of the film, she softens Porco’s piggish sexism in cheerful displays of her bravery and mechanical expertise until he almost-maybe falls in love with her.

Another common meme: Porco’s hard heart softens for Fio but, again, the movie itself is more ambiguous than the line in isolation implies

However, despite her competence, Fio lacks much strength as an independent character — in the plot, she primarily exists to redeem Porco rather than advance her own goals. When Curtis, a blowhard American fighter pilot with Reaganite ambitions in Hollywood and on to the presidency, challenges Porco to the final duel over debt payments for his plane repairs, Fio offers herself up as the bet’s collateral. If Porco loses, she swears to marry Curtis, who is struck by her beauty. In the plot, she does so because those debt repayments ultimately belong to her since Porco had taken the repairs on credit (and because ~she believes in him~). But for such a supposely feminist movie, isn’t it bizzare for a woman to literally risk selling herself into marraige for Porco’s sake, a chauvinistic anti-hero who, before Fio made her sacrifice, had only ever treated her with sarcastic disdain for being a girl? Like with the other political messages in the film, Porco Rosso lacks a strong feminist ideal — Fio doesn’t challenge the misogynistic culture that permits her sacrifice in the first place (and in fact, she perhaps embraces it, for profit! After making the deal, she realizes that she should have “padded the bills” to fleece Curtis).

Gina, a chanson signer and the second prominent female character in the film, fills a similar redemption role for Porco. Gina lost three husbands to aerial combat around the world and doesn’t want to lose Porco — her last true love — next. But as long as Porco remains trapped in his pig’s body and misanthropic mindset triggered by the war, he won’t allow anyone to come close to him. So, Gina waits, literally, in the private garden at her hotel where she believes Porco will at last confirm their love. 

In that role then, Gina perhaps fits into the Japanese literary tradition* of depicting critical women as simultaneously lovers and motherly, these perfect beings whose only flaw is a compulsion to dote on inferior men. For example, see the way she serves her sky-pirate patrons in a suggestive but not sexual way, or how she calls Curtis “boy” and shuts down his childish scuffle with Porco. However, as much as I enjoy that trope in Japanese works, it often carries a subtle sexism: yes, Gina is more competent than Porco in most domains. But like Fio, she puts that competence in service of an undeserving man, who, though less misogynistic than at the beginning of the movie, still ends it trying to press his bloody, bruised face against young Fio’s. Though played for a joke, it’s a moment of disgusting emotional infidelity against his true, mature love in Gina (who had arrived to save him just moments earlier!!!).

* (the classic academic reference here would go to Takeo Doi’s concept of “amae” in The Anatomy of Dependence. Like a lot of old-school psychoanalysis, it’s probably nonsense in a clinical setting but it may have more power when discussing fiction — from literature, perhaps see the women in Izumi Kyoka’s love suicides or many of Genji’s lovers in his eponymous Tales)

Another meme: it’s funny, but beyond that Gina fits the Japanese trope of the motherly-loverly woman who falls for broken men to advance their redemption. However, without a man to target her, she lacks independent vigor.

I suppose as a personal matter, my disappointment with Porco Rosso stems from Porco’s role as an anti-hero. He hates fascists, but only resists them in a live-and-let-live way by simply avoiding them on his deserted island. And to that end, he doesn’t champion any political ideal — he just fights for sufficient money to fund his apathetic isolationism (and, against Curtis, pointless honor), thus badly diluting both the anti-fascist and anti-war messages. On other issues, he softens his misogyny through the redeeming presence of Gina and Fio. But then he still tries to kiss Fio (a child!) in his last physical appearance in the film.

And that’s my biggest problem: Porco is an anti-hero that never becomes a hero. Despite the flashes of his humanity seen when talking to Fio the night before his battle, he remains a — well — selfish pig to the end. For all of his fun one liners and suffering during the war, I could never sympathize with him as long as he lacked a position to drive him beyond mere misanthropy. A final scene in Gina’s garden teases Porco’s ultimate redemption and return to humanity. But what did he do to deserve it? Flee from the fascists? Defeat an unworthy opponent in Curtis? It’s so weak.

With Porco as the lead then, I don’t know how to recommend Porco Rosso. In spite of its unusually explicit political setting in the interwar Adriatic (compared with more subtle ones from other Ghibli movies like post-war Japan in My Neighbor Totoro), Porco Rosso fails to hone that setting into a political point. Of course, the movie still benefits from Ghibli’s gorgeous animagics and a captivating visual homage to early aviation — those positives already place it among the best anime films around. But without a stronger message to string it all together, Porco Rosso may be among Ghibli’s worst.

To close, once again: it disappoints.

Not “terrible” but certainly weak among Ghibli’s greats

6 thoughts on “Porco Rosso is a surprisingly apolitical disappointment

  1. I recently watched Porco Rosso in a pseudo-Ghibli marathon, and you more or less expressed all my misgivings about the movie — from its failure to strike a resonant political point despite its anti-fascist movie hype, to its really dated and flawed portrayal of an empowered and independent woman. I have yet to watch every movie Miyazaki has directed at Ghibli, but I feel Takahata has been far more coherent and sensitive about his political views and treatment of women in his movies.

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    1. Oh, it’s nice to see someone agree already! Porco Rosso felt like one of those unassailable critical classics for which I just couldn’t wrap my head around why people would praise it so highly.

      I think Miyazaki’s fine… I call Porco Rosso a disappointment because I enjoy his other movies so much more (though most of them only vaguely remembered now from childhood). Spirited Away alone convinces me that he has the “coherent and sensitive” thematic strength you described in Takahata (and even literally-for-six-year-olds Totoro hides some expert subtle messaging). Maybe part of Porco Rosso’s problem is that it just can’t live up to the high expectations set by those better films.

      I lost my links to the revelant interviews with Miyazaki because my computer broke, but, if I remember correctly, Porco Rosso is one of those anime he has called a “mistake” or “bad” or something similarly curmudgeonly because it had a strained production process. It’s also the only one he’s discussed making a sequel for; I think he maybe recognizes that he could have done better than the first time around. It has the recognizable thematic preoccupations of his other movies (just in a weaker form), so, who knows, maybe Porco Rosso is just an odd fluke hamstrung by an odd production (it was planned as an airline movie!).

      edit: spelling, sentence fluency

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  2. That was interesting to read. I haven’t actually seen Porco Rosso, and I’ve never been interested enough to put it on my to watch list. I did watch Howl’s Moving Castle, which baffled me with a very flat war being played out in the background and baffled me even more after learning that it’s not in the book (I’d assumed he cut unwisely) So going from my experience with Howl, I can’t say I’m too surprised. Even in his other films, Miyazaki feels more like a moralist dreamer than a politician. His films work best for me when he’s not facing the darker regions of the mind – with the exception of Princess Mononoke, which was the first of his films I saw and which gave me a wrong impression of what to expect from him. I don’t know how to put it. Maybe, generally, Miyazaki is better with inspriational than cautionary tales? That doesn’t quite get at what I’m trying to say. I think. I’m not actually sure what I’m trying to say.

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    1. I don’t like theorizing about another person’s psychology, but here’s a half-baked, half-hour take on Miyazaki:

      I haven’t watched Howl’s Moving Castle since childhood so I can’t comment well on it now, but I think Miyazaki changed the story as a protest against the emerging Iraq War. That attempt to make the movie topical may have then resulted in a kinda hamfisted anti-war message that didn’t fit the source material (and in interviews, he mentions the same problem with Porco Rosso and the then ongoing Yugoslav Wars, considering the Adriatic setting).

      I think the (excellent) distinction you address somewhat relates to target audiences. Miyazaki does his best work when he focuses on children and their needs (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service) with his classic magical, Shinto-ish fairy tales. But when he tries to speak to adults at the same time for more general audiences (Howl’s Moving Castle), he ends up with somewhat overcooked political themes.

      I think Spirited Away really demonstrates that duality. Spirited Away is a fantastic coming of age story for children. But its insistent anti-capitalist political message smashes into adults (or at least me) so hard that it kind of ruins the innocent magic of the adventure, not because I disagree with the message, but because it’s so damned unsubtle (I wrote about the problem like a year ago and linked it somewhere above if you care enough).

      On politics, Miyazaki has this reputation as a sort of disillusioned once-upon-a-time communist with a curmudgeonly, misanthropic streak that comes across in his interviews even if the movies disguise it. That misanthropy flows into a general pessimism that perhaps fits your “cautionary” distinction: if socialism failed and environmentalism failed and pacifism failed, well, maybe (adult) humans just suck and we’re all dooomed. So when Miyazaki cautions his adult audience, it’s almost like he does so knowing that the warning won’t work (he can’t be a politician if he doesn’t believe in solutions), resulting in ironies like anti-capitalist Spirited Away becoming a colossal (closely guarded) commercial property or Porco Rosso’s anti-war message bleeding into complacency against fascism (because you can’t appease a fascist by asking them to leave you alone).

      Meanwhile, misanthropy doesn’t work so well on the youngest children because they didn’t choose to exist. They have no sin or systemic complicity to caution against. So what does Miyazaki have to do but try to inspire them? Maybe it’ll even work (from Porco, the “you make me think humanity isn’t hopeless” line to Fio). And that’s Miyazaki as the “dreamer” you mention. If his generation failed, he can at least dream that the next one might do better.

      A lot of reviews call Porco Rosso Miyazaki’s “most personal film” and also his most “mature” one (Ghibli created it for an airline, making the target audience middle-aged business people). In that sense then, perhaps we see more of Miyazaki as he talks to adults: his misanthropy comes out in Porco and his caution decays into apathy. The movie still has some Ghibli magic, but far less so than his other works.

      I’m no expert though on Miyazaki though… I’m just rambling before bed at this point. So, who knows?

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  3. I read your post on Spirited Away back when I discovered your blog (I don’t remember when; the post wasn’t new when I read it. Must have been around a month or two before my first comment.) I remember being surprised that I never saw the film as a capitalist critique. I did a double take and went through the scenes: consumerist parents, check. Polluted river god, check. No-face’s greed spurt check… It’s really not subtle at all. It’s also not very interesting in itself, so I probably just rode the narrative and watched the film like a child.

    With Howl my problem was different. I didn’t actually see it as an on-the-nose peace message: What I saw was a completely unmotivated setting-background: now we fight, now we don’t. Basically, the war in the film blocked the narrative’s flow like a bored Nurikabe who can’t be bothered to cover the entier street, just most of it. I seriousy thought it was a matter of sloppy cutting. Then, suddenly, in the resolution the scare crow turns into the missing prince, who… either was never mentioned to be missing before then, or so de-emphasised that I completely missed (not impossible, since I was mostly bored). With Spirited Away there was moralistic stuff tagging the narrative, but you could follow the narrative just fine without paying much attention to its message. If there was an intended message at all in Howl (and if Miyazaki added the war in there probably was; maybe topicality was an incentive as you suggest – it’s better than anything I can come up with), it doesn’t come across, and doesn’t co-operate with the story at all, at times re-interpreting motivations in ways that don’t fit. I’ve read a few book vs. film posts in my days, and it appears what the war allowed Miyazaki to do is to get rid of the Wicked Witch of the Waste as a clear villain, as he doesn’t do clear villains. (See this article, for example: “Miyazaki doesn’t do incorrigible villainy, and Howl the movie lifts that burden from the shoulders of Jones’s Witch of the Waste, sharing it out among a number of warmongers and miscreants.” – Something Miyazaki reportedly said to Wynn-Jones on their meeting).

    This bears out when I look at Princess Kushana from Nausicaa, or Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke. The problem with fascism is that the system relies on social dynamics to keep going; you’re not dealing with one misguided person; you’re dealing with a hoard of such people who re-inforce each other. I think Miyazaki’s mode of story telling isn’t equipped to deal with this. He prefers to take people on their own terms; not possible with an overpowering social force. I think that Miyazaki simply doesn’t know how to deal with this situation. In a show with a war-weary antihero as a protagonist, having a fascist antagonist undergo a conversion would have people ask whether we don’t focus the story lense on the wrong person. It’d be the more monumental change. But if you also don’t want to demonise a villain what do you do? Ignoring the problem and going for silly humour might be a way out. I can sort of see it that way.

    I’m not an expert on Miyazaki either, and I don’t even really click with him (I’m more of a Takahata guy myself). So, as you say, who knows?

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    1. I just watched Howl because you made me curious. I don’t know if the war interrupted the flow of the narrative so much as it was background noise against the love story, which kinda fits in with what I’ve read about Miyazaki trying to make the movie topical with Iraq (since Howl could have fought any ambiguous dark force to similar effect while still rehabilitating the witch as a not-evil character). The scarecrow was (briefly) foreshadowed as a magical creature of especial importance to Suliman, though his ultimate status as the prince doesn’t seem to have much meaning beyond the “happy ending.” I suppose I can excuse that as “children’s movie magic” and so that Miyazaki could find an “out” to conclude his maybe unnecessary anti-war message in the literal plot. It’s awkward though, yeah (but still better than Porco =P).

      On the other part of your comment, I think you’re spot on with the fascism thing.

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