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:”
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.
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.
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 redemptive 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 older 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)
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.