PORCO ROSSO (Kurenai no buta) B+
aka: Crimson Pig
aka: Crimson Pig
Japan (93 mi) 1992 d: Hayao Miyazaki
I’d rather be a pig than a fascist. —Marco Rosso
Perhaps the film that best expresses Miyazaki’s love for airplanes, as we venture right into the cockpit in this one, which features dazzling WWI style aeronautical loops, climbs, chases, and fighting techniques, a bit like the dazzling in-air camera angles in Howard Hughes fabled HELL’S ANGELS (1930), where the ace fighter pilot is a somewhat hefty, trench coat wearing pig in dark glasses and a moustache known as Marco Rosso. We are introduced to him as he’s sitting in a lounge chair sipping a beverage with a straw under the shade of an umbrella next to the lapping of the waves on an isolated beach retreat listening to the radio while reading a Cinema magazine. When the phone rings, this perfect harmony comes to a sudden halt, as he is called into action to save a group of young girls after being hijacked from a cruise liner along with a large payroll by air pirates. Of interest, the girls couldn’t be more fascinated at the thought of being kidnapped. This kind of humor goes all the way back to PANDA! GO PANDA! (1972-73) when a young girl is left home alone in the woods, and rather than be scared, she’s positively delighted at the thought that a burglar might come around so they could become fast friends. These girls immediately have the run of the airplane, and without anyone harmed, Rosso negotiates a deal where they release the girls and keep half the loot, which is all done by flashing messages to one another using reflecting light off a small hand mirror.
Already, this is not what we expect, though it has a similar humorous tone from the air hijackings at the beginning of CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986). While that earlier film beautifully blends fantasy with reality, this one is grounded in an American created Hollywood reality, where Rosso has a laid back, world weary Humphrey Bogart feel to him, a constant cigarette dangling from his lips, where he sits alone at a bar and sips a cocktail while a glamorous chanteuse (Jina) sings a sad Marlene Dietrich-style song (in French, no less!). We could just as easily be sitting at Rick’s bar in CASABLANCA (1942), but it more likely resembles Gary Cooper’s entrance to the exotic night club in MOROCCO (1930), where his American “look” feels so out of place, as immediately in this film there’s a handsome, adventurous, wide-shouldered American named Donald Curtis who’s besmitten with Jina and wants to marry her, a proposal she simply laughs off. This is the first identifiable American character in a Miyazaki film, an arrogant, opportunistic man who turns out to be another flying ace who was hired by other air pirates to take out Rosso, as he’s cutting into their profits. But Rosso’s plane is so beat up that it leaks oil and the engine routinely stalls in mid-air, leaving him at a distinct disadvantage, so he declines the offer, but Curtis shoots him out of the sky anyway leaving him for dead. This bold, post-war depiction of a reckless American cowboy mentality is stunning in its accuracy even now.
With the help of Jina, Rosso’s long distance friend, she helps get him and what’s left of his plane to Milan where his grandfather’s factory can make repairs. Using an engine appropriately named Ghibli, a bright young female engineer named Fio draws up new plans to redesign his plane, insisting that she accompany him on his initial flights to test its worthiness in the air, where she turns into what amounts to his sidekick, providing renewed energy and enthusiasm to burn, quite a contrast to his quiet, resigned isolation. Eventually they all meet in a duel in the sky, winner take all, where the other sky pirates are busy taking bets on the ground, which again takes on the feel of several American Hollywood movies, like the infamous fight between Eastern city slicker Gregory Peck against the rough and tumble Western ranch hand of Charlton Heston in William Wyler’s THE BIG COUNTRY (1958), where each become ants dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape, or John Wayne’s reticence at being goaded into that infamous fight sequence in John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN (1952). The best scene of this film is a flashback sequence the night before the battle which reveals a bit of the mystery into Rosso’s past, as he was once human, an ace fighter pilot for the Italian Air Force in WWI where he describes an exhausting epic battle in the sky sequence where everyone except himself was eventually lost, where he envisions himself flying just above a cloud seeing his friends again floating high above him to a heavenly sky that is jam packed with the dead along with their planes. Rejecting fascism, claiming he wanted a will of his own, he quit the Air Force and was mysteriously turned into a pig, ("Thanks for the offer, but I'd rather be a pig than a fascist."), escaping from humans who constantly belittle his pig status, retreating to his own remote island in the Adriatic Sea. While never revealed in the film, one gets the feeling Miyazaki, through Rosso, is battling his own personal pacifism and questioning his own loss of faith in humanity by depicting an inner Beauty and the Beast struggle within himself that remains conflicted after losing so much from war.
One of the film’s more unusual characteristics is its refusal to wrap things up in the end, as mysteries remain unexplained, while also providing beautiful art designs that can be seen at the sides of the end credits (all in Japanese), which continue to add a breathtaking look at Miyazaki’s love for flying machines, including their intricate original pencil sketches. A man who would be a pig, perhaps a comment on men and chauvinism in general, Rosso declares at one point “all middle-aged men are pigs!” This was originally conceived as a 45-minute film designed to entertain weary businessmen flying on Japanese airlines, expanding to feature length, giving it a much more open ended feel where it admittedly sags in spots but it refuses commercial sentiment, feeling highly autobiographical, making it one of the more unusual and least seen films in the Miyazaki repertoire.