It’s never entirely clear what turned the titular fighter pilot of Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso into a hog-human bounty hunter (Shūichirō Moriyama), roaming the Adriatic Sea in his cherry-red amphibian plane. As the tale is told in Miyazaki’s script, Porco’s plane was shot down during World War I, along with many of his brothers in arms, during a bloody dogfight. As his companions ascend to the heavens, he remains and is mutated into his present piggish form. In essence, their deaths give them a sort of eternal afterlife, whereas survival has quite literally cursed our hero, and it’s in this view of the military life, and competition in general, that Porco Rosso reveals itself to be one of Miyazaki’s most personal works.
Aviation itself has weighty philosophical and emotional meaning to Miyazaki. His father kept the family safe and sent his children to university, even through numerous bombings of his homeland, through his job as a plane-parts magnate, supplying rudders for the government at times. The work that Porco does, and his lengthy training, is reflective of what funded Miyazaki’s education, career, and comfortable lifestyle. And Porco Rosso, which pits its swine-like protagonist against Curtis (Akio Ōtsuka), a snobbish, competitive American ace pilot, works as a strangely sobering tribute to war survivors. Porco is, chiefly, a great cynic, also a world-class misogynist and a prideful grunt, but as Miyazaki writes him, he embodies a familiar, disquieting truth: that humans don’t have a great stomach for how ugly war and violence appears, especially in retrospect.
That being said, Porco’s outsider attitude is largely self-generated, and as a character, he’s equally rooted in Miyazaki’s self-skewering vision of himself in battle and at war. More to the point, this vibrant subtext never overtakes the fantastical yet critically restrained narrative and its rather sensational action sequences. The Studio Ghibli team give Miyazaki, who originated this world in a manga series, a variety of big, colorful dog fights, along with comedic exchanges with infantile pirates, and the focus is constantly on composition and design over any overly grim view of an entirely invented yet strangely violent world; each plane is fitted with heavy artillery. Miyazaki’s view point has less to do with the total grimness and horror of war than a critique of how societies treat soldiers, specifically those who are alive and on the losing side.
This being Miyazaki, a studied cinephile, the entire narrative also alludes to classical Hollywood conventions; everything from The Tarnished Angels to Only Angels Have Wings to Hell’s Angels can be gleaned in the story and the distinctly, almost rebelliously jovial mood. Unlike Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso doesn’t seek to ponder harrowing realities through an oft-fantastical medium, but rather successfully seeks to balance familiar elements of Hollywood entertainments and Miyazaki’s own contemplative philosophies and imaginative, self-effacing personality, not unlike a Hawks or Ford military melodrama.
Indeed, some of the most visually stirring and resonant scenes involve Porco simply talking with Fio (Akemi Okamura), his young female protégé, or her grandfather, Piccolo (Sanshi Katsura), Porco’s trusted mechanic. It’s in the haggling, reminiscing, and technical jargon swapped between Porco and Piccolo especially that strikes a note of unfettered sincerity, two technical experts, mythological in their abilities, hashing it out during the overhaul of Porco’s plane. It’s the intimate timbre of tradesmen talking shop, a quiet humor that underlines every sequence in Porco Rosso, which stems predominately from the writer-director’s need to explore the roots of his privilege, and recognize his father as, among many other titles, a fellow craftsman.
The clear-sky blues and Coca-Cola reds pop off the screen, as do the assortment of colors that fill the scenes on land or out at sea. There’s also a great deal of attention paid to keeping the texture of the animation, as no digital touch-ups register to the point of distraction upon casual viewing. Both the style and the colors look as good as ever, with nice, inky black levels. The sound is similarly immersive and engagingly well transferred. When Porco is testing out his new engine, you can really hear the chaotic bluster it kicks up. The mix is consistently excellent, with all the talk out front and the roar of the engines, calm of nature, and the spritely score balancing nicely in the back.
The storyboards and the extremely abbreviated interview with producer Toshio Suzuki are the two minor fascinations on this disc’s supplemental portion. The behind-the-scenes featurette focuses entirely on the American dubbing process rather than the film, and other than that, there’s just a trailer. It’s a disappointing showing overall.
The extras are skimpy and pointless, but Buena Vista has given great care to the A/V transfer of Hayao Miyazaki’s quietly ponderous, extravagant, and hugely enjoyable tale of the world’s surliest pig pilot.