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Porco Rosso:
The Italian Batman

4,306 words

Porco Rosso is one of the more famous Studio Ghibli films, released in 1992. It is the midpoint of an unofficial Miyazaki trilogy examining flight as a method of personal and national liberation, beginning with 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, and concluding with 2013’s The Wind Rises. Porco Rosso is the strongest of the three, being bright, bold, and easy to follow whilst touching on more serious themes than its premise might suggest. It uses fairy-tale magic as a plot device in a way similar to Kiki’s Delivery Service (“I wish I could release you from that spell”) whilst shunning the overt historical drama and lofty ambitions of The Wind Rises. It is a purposefully international film, introduced with title narration in a variety of languages, and formalizes Miyazaki’s adoption of Europe as a setting and subject; in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the setting is merely implied to be European by being European-like, but Porco Rosso is explicitly set over the Adriatic Sea. It is dated with a Miyazaki leitmotif of a magazine cover, placing the setting in the late summer of 1929. As the film progresses, it partly recounts Porco’s experiences as a pilot within the Great War, and as well as taking as a given the regime change within Croatia (then Yugoslavia) and the Great Depression.

The strengths of Porco Rosso are best understood in contrast to The Wind Rises, as Porco Rosso succeeds in delivering a more complex lesson than the latter film despite the cartoon framing. Porco is an anthropomorphic pig in an otherwise semi-realistic and pseudo-historically accurate world. This is repeatedly lampshaded as part of the narrative, as Porco is something of an egoist. The Wind Rises is also mostly fantasy; it layers dreams heavily upon reality through flashbacks, flashforwards, and hallucinations. It delivers a biopic of the Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi partly from the perspective of fictional dream experiences. Large, impersonal forces such as earthquakes, poverty, and war are relayed in both films as historical truths, but the narrative of personal development in The Wind Rises, which is adapted from the 1937 Japanese novel The Wind Has Risen, is largely fictitious.

The film follows Jiro from childhood, finding inspiration from an imported aviation magazine (which explicitly dates the film as beginning from the 14th of February, 1918), through his struggles and successes as an aeronautical engineer, and concludes with a dream sequence following the maiden flight of his prototype Mitsubishi A5M, a dramatization of the real event that occurred on the 4th February 1935. [1] [1] Both films center on men and their relationship to aviation as a method of self-realization and national triumph. (Porco’s plane in the “stupid red color” is emblazoned with Italian tricolor on the tail and wings, defaced with an R for Rosso and the arms of Savoy in yellow and blue). The Aviation magazine Jiro reads is a real magazine; the real issue was released a day later on the 15th. However, neither Count Giovanni Battista Caproni, the aircraft designer for the Italian army whom Jiro meets within his dreams, nor his biplanes, appear on the cover. [2] [2] The Italian Air Force of the ’20s plays a minor role in both films, and an idealized Italian romance features prominently in Porco Rosso. The elegance and flamboyance of romance are closely intertwined with flight in both films, less successfully in Porco Rosso as the romantic lead is quite a thin character — in The Wind Rises, the real romance is between Jiro and aircraft, with a fictional wife thrown in for good measure.

Whilst the real Jiro did indeed have a wife and children, in the film, his wife Naoko, who suffers from tuberculosis and dies prior to the war, is lifted from the novel. The relationship with her adds little to the development of his aircraft nor character, and is mere drama for drama’s sake outside of showcasing a quite touching and emotional Japanese marriage ceremony. (That the Japanese theatrical release poster does not show Jiro nor any aircraft whatsoever, but instead Naoko painting outside, shows how confusing the emphasis on this plotline is in a film nominally about the history of Japanese fighter planes). Porco’s partnership with the fiery Fio, by contrast, is pivotal to his survival and redemption. Fio ‘flies with her spirit’ like Kiki in a different way: Miyazaki’s affection for strong female leads comes through in this seventeen-year-old aircraft designer, who redesigns Porco’s seaplane and introduces an explicitly stated Princess-and-frog gambit. She is able to use her feminine wiles to talk Porco and herself out of a tough situation with a gang of pirates. Miyazaki’s female characters are refreshing and honest; only now, with cinema saturated with women (poorly) emulating men, is the normality of Porco & Fio’s attitudes toward each other remarkable.

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Early in The Wind Rises, Jiro meets Caproni in his dream world and they discuss the dreamlike nature of aircraft. When traveling, he experiences an earthquake and mass fire that foreshadows the incendiary bombing of Japan. Upon his re-encounter with Caproni in the film’s final sequence, the tension between the freedom of flight offered by aviation and the contingency of aircraft development on wartime usefulness, especially civilian terror bombing, is again discussed. Unfortunately, their conversations are virtually identical. However, there is no dawning realization or emotional pay-off. Jiro and the viewer have learned nothing. Whilst an outstanding piece of cinema full of wildly imaginative, skilled storytelling (the aircraft in dream sequences and are particularly fantastic and the sound effects even involve people imitating aircraft noises, neatly invoking the idea that as a cartoon is an imaginative representation of reality, the sound should also be an imaginative representation), The Wind Rises is ultimately quite superficial. Its juxtaposition of cataclysmic warfare with star-crossed lovers does not offer a moral or philosophical resolution. After a Mitsubishi prototype fails and is torn apart mid-air by drag and inertia, at the planes post-mortem, Jiro comments that it was not his wing strut that was responsible — “I think the problem is deeper and more complicated.” But unfortunately, the biography progresses before we are even shown what the problem is. Porco Rosso, however, experiences and resolves these contradictions personally as he is cast into misanthropy by petty nationalism, and is later able to unburden himself from it. It is not through Jiro’s biopic, but Marco Paggot’s — “Porco” — that we arrive at the necessary deeper and more complicated answer.

Porco Rosso begins with the titular, heavily overweight, pig-faced pilot snoozing with his feet up in a deckchair in his desert island hideaway (just off the Adriatic coastline of Croatia), with a magazine over his face. The opening and movie as a whole are utterly perfect — it is brisk, considered, and meticulously framed. Porco Rosso economizes on time, but expands with detail. The wooden box telephone rings and the short conversation reveals Porco to be a bounty hunter — The Mamma Aiuto’s gang of air pirates are on the move, and he has to chase them down. The iconic red seaplane roars out of the pigcave and takes flight over the open ocean. The paper map he is navigating by adds the film’s location: the isles of Kornati, Ugljan, Lošinj, and the Sibenik Canal are all clearly labeled, but the map is nothing like the real geography. (Just to confuse cartographers, Veli and Mali Lošinj, which are neighboring districts on the island in real life, are on opposite ends of Porco’s map). The Mamma Aiuto’s fit the anime trope of a gang of minions and henchmen, and their misshapen aircraft is like a flying jeep. In one shot, the interior is shown, pregnant with loot — kidnapped schoolgirls clamor for space amongst automatic weapons, bottles of alcohol and oil, half-eaten fruit, and a treasure chest. The gun emplacement is completely exposed to the open air, indicating the lumbering slowness of their plane. Porco’s plane hugs the water and is nimble and acrobatic, showing off to a tourist trip and downing the pirates with well-placed shots to the engine.

It is in Porco’s dealings with the pirates that we get a better indication of his character. “You can keep half the money. Give me the rest and the kids, or I’ll kill you all.” Is it an empty threat? It’s a generous offer and the pirates know it. “He left us money for repairs!” “Don’t be such a sap.” Porco is being paid “top dollar” to recover the money and the girls, yet leaves them to fly and rob another day. Perhaps Porco is settling for an easy life and doesn’t want to get blood on his hands. As a flying ace feeding off pirates, it’s in his interest to make sure they cause enough mischief that hiring him is profitable. Nonetheless, in their desperation, the Mama Aiuto’s (like Gotham’s crime families) turn to a man they don’t fully understand; only instead of being a Joker savvy to fraudulent moral scheming and shenanigans, the nemesis they introduce to Porco — Donald Curtis, named after his plane (a Curtiss) is a joke — a seemingly crazy American infatuated with fame and fortune, and a compulsive womanizer, to boot. Porco encounters him in the bar of the Hotel Adriano, run by the damsel Gina, a widower. “Even American pilots know Madame Gina of the Hotel Adriano.” Porco has dinner with Gina, as they have been friends since childhood — “You’re the only one left from the old days” — but whilst Porco resents evidence of his human past, Gina is a custodian of it. It suggests that in his transformation from Marco to Porco, he has become deprived of something essential beyond mere looks, and recoils at the proof that he was once complete (perhaps in a distantly similar manner to transgenders condemning their prior selves as “dead” by labeling their birthnames as “deadnames”).

Porco takes Gina’s boat ashore, to Dubrovnik. He is immediately noticed and watched by the police monitoring celebrations of the new regime. In the bank, it is noted that Porco is alienated from the nation and national unity. (The banknotes feature Alexander I of Yugoslavia as a lizard with a forked tongue, but in reality, the notes looked nothing like what is depicted. Perhaps this is just Porco’s imagination). He is asked, “How about helping the people out with a Patriot Bond?”, to which he replies, “Do I look like a person?”. In the 1993 translation, he adds to a gunsmith: “‘Country’ and ‘law’ don’t mean anything to a pig.” Porco leaves for Milan, willing his faulty “little” engine (“engine-chan”) to make the journey successfully. The serenity and romance of the journey are interrupted by threatening weather and the approach of Curtis — the American forces him into combat. The duel is unwitnessed and ugly; Porco tries to escape (“See you later, yank!”) but loses his cloud cover. Curtis shoots his plane down when Porco’s engine stalls. He exclaims, “Now I’ll be famous too, yahoo!”, and takes a red wooden panel from Porco’s plane as a “souvenir for my mama in Alabama.” Assuming we can take his words at face value, Curtis is a fool who will destroy a man’s life for a newspaper column and a keepsake. But Porco’s plane is not entirely wrecked: the fuselage is salvageable, and he takes it to Milan for repairs. His pig-like nature is again invoked as alienating him from normal life, as Gina senses impending doom: “You’ll end up roasted. I won’t go to your funeral.” He drily replies that “A pig’s gotta fly.” Or, even more cleverly, “A pig who doesn’t fly is just an ordinary pig.”

It is in this middle section of the film that the elements are put in place for Porco’s eventual redemption. We are introduced to the lovely Fio, whose headstrong challenge to Porco and aeronautical understanding endear her to him. He works out a deal with Piccolo, her grandfather, for the pair of them to design & rebuild his plane. Porco’s reflexive indifference to organized religion, a staple of liberal nihilism, puts him at odds with those around him — he is caught off guard during the company lunch, as he is about to dig in when Grace is said. No doubt that going to Mass is one of the many things that Porco, a satire on middle-aged bitterness, has a dismissive opinion about. He meets his old friend Ferrarin, a Squadron Leader in the Italian Air Force, in a surreptitious visit where he is warned he the regime is pursuing him for “illegal entry and decadence” amongst other things — “Marco, come back to the Air Force. We can work something out for you.” But Porco is unswayed, and too in love with his cynicism: “Better a pig than a fascist.” In the 1993 translation, Ferrarin is an anarchist who replies: “Nowadays we can only fly in service of worthless causes like ‘country’ or ‘nation’”, which seems contradictory to him remaining a flying officer and a friend. Luckily time and re-translations seem to have ironed out some of the kinks in the original script, as in the current Blu-Ray translation, Ferrarin states more ambiguously that nowadays you “need a government or an airline to fly.”

It is during Porco’s stay at Piccolo’s that we are briefly shown his eyes, as he takes his spectacles off to wash his face before a mirror. Despite being offered only a glimpse, we can see his expression is one of resolute determination despite the world-weariness brought about by carrying so heavy a past for so long. Then his glasses are back on, and once again, we are with “Porco.” The disguise is similar to the Batman’s face mask and cowl; only the Bat, in typical American fashion, has taken his grief to a more vulgar extreme and expends himself in a futile, self-destructive effort to batter crime out of existence in Gotham. Only the presence of more destructive, callous, and mercenary characters like Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker, and Bane make the Bat appear a hero instead of a maniac. Bruce Wayne parades around in a Lamborgini, but it is an empty act, an attempt to show that he is still interested in worldly possessions when his emotional wounds preclude him from being grateful for his aristocratic position and influence. It is only at night when the Bat makes an appearance, as the cold light of day would reveal how immature the whole getup really is. Porco, however, like the Joker, is in character full-time.

Alone in the lamplight on his desert island retreat, he appears to Fio (watching from her sleeping bag) to have reverted to being Marco. Only in solitude is the defensive facade and ‘character’ dispensed with. But as Fio grabs Porco’s attention, the moment is broken. He describes to her the roots of his misanthropy – As a fighter in World War I, he almost died in a dogfight against Austro-Hungarian planes. His friend, Bernili, [3] [4] married to Gina mere days before, is shot down. Marco passes out from the stress of combat, and comes to in a mystical, dream-like sequence: his plane floating in a world above the clouds, and the aircraft and pilots are ascending in a stream towards the heavens, as “aeroplanes are cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.” Marco shouts to the dead Berlini that he should go instead, but it’s no use. Presumably, being witness to such a needless loss of life leads him to conclude that the ideal of a “nation” is a hollow fraud, and he recounts that he thought God “was telling me to fly on alone, forever.” Sometime off-screen, Marco’s defection from the air force is completed, and he becomes “Porco,” a mercenary on the slide to left-wing anarchism.

It is interesting, then, that not only does Miyazaki equate a loss of national pride and resentment towards nationalism as being fundamentally piggish, but actually introduces a critique of American interference and obliviousness through the character of Curtis. Curtis appears throughout as an imposition disrupting the balance of Adriatic life. (Despite this, he is still handily polite, and when the press becomes a nuisance it is Curtis who tells them to shut up). It is the entire female half of the Piccolo family clan (“Not a single man. . .”) that rebuilds Porco’s aircraft. Thankfully, Porco still has a genial good-natured streak and enjoys greeting each of them personally. They are settled and on the build despite suffering economic setbacks. Curtis, meanwhile, has traveled across the Atlantic simply to make a minor name for himself. Having broken Porco’s wings, he breaks into the private garden of the Hotel Adriano and tries to seduce Gina with his ambitions of stardom. She is reading. As Curtis intrudes, she is annoyed and audibly closes the book. “You’re impossible. This is a private garden.” Her sensitive world of romantic considerations, and the underlying reasoning of European society as a whole, is closed to Curtis. He explains: “Being a hired gun is just a rung on the ladder. I will be a star, I’m sure of it. And then, President!” Gina bursts out laughing, and as Curtis leans in to assure her of his sincerity — “I’m serious! I promise to make you First Lady.” — he jars the bone china tea set laid out, very conspicuously and deliberately, in the center of the shot. “Life is more complicated here than in your country. If you’re only looking for a fling, that’s easy. . . Go to Hollywood by yourself, little boy.”

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Batman, who flies for Justice with a capital J, as distributed by the Judicial system, is an American and a patriot insofar as America upholds liberal notions like the sanctity of life. This is demonstrated by his rather whimsical decision to never dish out the lethal stuff personally, but to leave ne’er-do-wells tied upside down or to lampposts for the Gotham City police department to round up and catch-n-release later. He has no problem blowing up The League of Shadows, however, as they want to get rid of a murderer or civilization here or there. But when it comes to using a sawn-off against some mobmen, he has moral qualms. The death penalty in the States is viewed as an unpleasant last resort, rather than a first-order necessity, so in the arbitrary sliding scale of Good and Evil that Batman uses to decide what is worth risking his life and limb for, the United States judiciary comes out on top. A far more believable Batman is offered by Nicholas Cage in Kick-Ass, whose bulletproof-vested Bat dispenses vigilante justice using fragmentation grenades and a pump-action shotgun. His daughter Hit-Girl uses night-vision goggles and a handgun to topple thugs in one standout scene that makes the audience wish the “real” Bat would drop the sentimentality and start putting the fascist in crypto-fascist.

But just what is a batman, anyway? We can neatly conflate both the military noun of an officer’s orderly with the comic-book superhero: a vigilante who fights criminals outside the law, but who retains qualms about the personal taking of life vis-a-vis its systematic dissolution through judicial or demographic means. The “Batman” is he who fights for the system outside the system: he is its orderly and handmaiden. He delegates his “right” upwards, yet if he is caught off guard (like Porco) and finds himself in debt, then “it serves you right.” He looks down on the military, as those who entrust their lives to the chain of command do so knowing that his country may make mistakes that prove fatal for him; the serviceman considers his nation a greater organism that supersedes him and becomes part of its hardened shell. The Batman, in contrast, “has no jurisdiction” — he has no country, because he is not the ally of any national grouping, but ill-defined, sacrosanct liberal tendencies (to be well-defined is to be able to be nailed down, and liberals are like jelly).

Thus, Porco unwittingly is a participant in creating the very pattern of life in which someone like Curtis thrives. If society isn’t worth killing for, then it’s not worth living for either, and extracting fame and fortune becomes the dominant paradigm. The distinction we have to draw between Porco and the Bat is that while Batman shuns killing criminals out of shallow sanctimony, even though all his experiences impress upon him the necessity of doing the opposite, Porco shuns killing the air pirates out of disdain for unnecessary blood and esteeming them as gentlemen in a sporting game. In one of the film’s few good jokes, he quips: “Farewell to days of fun and freedom in the Adriatic.” “Is that Byron?” “No, it’s me. See you later.”

Despite their comic nature, Porco nearly meets his financial doom at their hands as they prepare to wreck his plane. Fio shames them as she wants to protect her first aircraft, which carries with it the hope of the Piccolo clan that Porco will pay off his debt to them. Unwilling to go home empty-handed, they decide to turn Porco into ham hock before Fio proposes a wager: an air-duel between Curtis and Porco; Fio’s hand in marriage to Curtis, vs. Curtis settling Porco’s debts. Porco is grateful that Fio, who “believes in him,” has given him not only a chance at life but a chance to remain a flying ace. Nor does Fio’s rebuttal to a gang of armed men verge into silly fantasy about what women are made of. Immediately after they depart, she deflates and confesses how scared she was, and the adrenaline of suppressed panic sets her heart pounding. She dives in for a swim to burn it off.

The film concludes with the duel, which takes place with great fanfare and delivers vast profits to the pirates staging it. The leader of the Mamma Aiuto’s conducts the “formalities” of each side placing their wager. Again, the film celebrates just getting things done rather than being held up by sentimentalism, as the unruly crowd is brought to heel by machine-guns and a thrown grenade to keep them compliant. The air duel is spectacular, and despite Fio’s freedom hanging in the balance, Porco still refuses to shoot Curtis down: “The pig’s not a killer. He’s going to wait until he can put two or three rounds into the engine. The damn fool! This is no time for sportsmanship.” In the crucial moment, both their guns jam, and they put down to settle the score with an ugly fistfight, which becomes a boxing match (a stick grenade is used to ring a saucepan for the bell).

The pirates’ intention to drag the fight out conspires with plot armor to protect Porco. He emerges victorious as Gina arrives to warn them of the impending arrival of the air force. As Gina’s plane departs with Fio, Fio leans over the side and kisses Porco — he is bowled over, literally, as the wing of the departing plane hits him in the side of the head. But it knocks some sense into him. Fio’s kiss makes him realize the foolishness of his cynicism, especially as it goes against the grain of his character; he put everything on the line not just for Fio, but also to spare Curtis’s life, and previously for his comrades. We can infer he has reverted to being Marco by Curtis’s reaction: “Hey, your face! Wait! Show me your face! Just one look!” His journey and self-sacrifice for Fio have transformed him from generalized misanthropy (“You make me think humanity’s not a complete waste”) to normal reattachment to the particulars of place and people: the closing shots imply that he has given up bounty hunting to reenter his romance with Gina, established in childhood with his first solo flights. No longer isolating himself by having “become a pig” with all the attitudes and selfishness that entails, he no longer needs to maintain his fame or infamy. Curtis, however, born and raised in the “land of opportunity,” leads a nomadic existence in search of it, and eventually reaches stardom in an absurd romantic film featuring dinosaurs.

The flight sequences in Porco Rosso are simply stunning and exceed both Kiki’s Delivery Service and The Wind Rises in their beauty and dynamism. The cartoon escapes the frivolousness of “fighting crime” as a vehicle to carry the plot, and instead elevates recovering from wartime grief with idealized adventure and fairy-tale transformation. There’s plenty to like about Porco, and the film presents him to us a work in progress — a crime fighter by financial necessity, rather than an unreformable, grim character battling in the darkness. Most importantly, it shows that a man who shuns the “cursed dream” of aviation or national independence because of the immense destructive energies it can unleash becomes ignoble and altogether more piggish. Whilst Porco is glamourized for his compassion and toughness, these are all really traits of Marco — “Porco” is a labyrinth prison he eventually escapes from. It dares to show that a man who has abandoned his proper ties is alienated and incomplete. All taken together, Porco Rosso is a grand accomplishment.

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[1] [7] The gull wing design of the Mitsubishi A5M is very faithfully represented within the film, if mildly exaggerated.

[2] [8] Aviation Week, 14 Feb. 1918. [https://archive.aviationweek.com/issue/19180215 [9]] Caproni may well feature in the article on Italy’s plans for air postal routes, but I don’t have a spare hundred dollars for the sake of clarifying a reference.

[3] [10] The spelling varies between translations so I have written it here as it appears in the Blu-Ray edition.