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  • Adam Tye

Add it to the List: Porco Rosso

Miyazaki’s overlooked gem is the classiest film about a flying pig you will ever see.



Available on Netflix.


Note: this article was original published May 29 2020 on adamphilreviews.com.


During this acutely weird period in all of our lives, a lot of us are retreating to childhood favourite-films for comfort. Which also means, of course, that a lot of people are retreating to Studio Ghibli. Most of the studio's greatest hits you've either already watched or at the very least have probably heard about, which is why I want to talk about the one that routinely falls through the middle of the cracks: Porco Rosso. Where the gentle lusciousness of Kiki's Delivery Servicemeets the high-flying adventure of Laputa. It's an oddball even by Ghibli's standards, but one that blossoms during its second half to become more than worth your time.


Now, if there's a reason that Porco Rosso tends to get left out of most conversations, I would guess that it would be down to the film’s central premise: a WWI fighter pilot is cursed to be a pig and must make his way out of Italy before being captured by the new fascist government. I can already hear your eyebrows raising. What stops Porco Rosso from being the kind of nightmare fuel that might be let out of Illumination Studio’s dungeons, however, is the level of class and care with which Miyazaki and his team treat their subject matter. Anyone with a passing sense of familiarity towards Ghibli’s output isn’t likely to be surprised by this, but even so, Porco occupies a remarkable tonal space. It’s both knowingly cheeky, blissfully light, and yet gifted the kind of detailed atmosphere befitting of a Casablanca comparison. And yes – that is a fair point of reference. This is a film with chattering smoky bars, fascist agents prying on the horizon and an Old-Hollywood-style romance lifted straight from Rick's Café Américain (and brought to you by the perfect voice of Susan Egan/Meg from Hercules). Miyazaki’s trademark obsession with flying is the humming engine under the hood, and he constructs some astonishing aerial dogfights to make any live-action director drool. But I’ll be damned if I try to sell people on a pig-starring animated film that seriously pretends to be Casablanca. The movie is too aware of its own off-kilter premise for that, and is far from a chore to sit through. It’s an element I try to emphasise as much as possible with film recommendations – I’m reminded of the umpteen pleas I’ve made to people regarding Parasite, which is a timely and dense film that also happens to be absolutely hilarious. Porco Rosso isn’t 'hilarious' – this isn’t a joke-a-minute comedy stacked with puns and winks to the audience - but it is wry and incredibly lithe. It's a feeling that is ingrained from the very beginning; as a pirate attack on a yacht is constantly undercut by both the captive children's excitement and the pirates’ general uselessness. But I think the true ace in the hole comes with the character of Fio – a character strong-willed enough to turn enemy pirates into a band of softies, and carrying a zest for life that breaks through even Porco's hardboiled exterior. She's an enormously welcome presence because, if the film has a downside, it's that Porco himself can be a tough nut to crack. He's less immediately compelling in the same way other Ghibli heroes are (Keaton's grizzled restraint - whilst spot on - doesn't help to make him more endearing) and it can make the opening half feel more obtuse than it necessarily is. Fio helps Porco - both character and movie - open up; retroactively enriching the opening acts. This feels like a film that rewards rewatching. It is also a film that - unsurprisingly for Miyazaki - often eases on the brakes; with slower, more observational moments of quiet existence. Practically a trademark for the director, these sequences are often what people remember most about Ghibli's movies - it is a defining part of their appeal. And it almost begs the question: why? What is it in particular that draws so many people towards a film like Porco Rosso or My Neighbour Totoro, not just during a time of unease and fear of the outdoors, but in general? The answer I keep coming back to is the artwork's incredible sense of 'place'. Better than photorealism – these are environments that obviously don't exist and yet feel like they should. I should be able to lounge in that tucked-away beach cove, or take a boat to Madame Gina’s island retreat. There's a reverence for simple existence that Miyazaki refuses to undercut with violence, even where it feels obvious. The film's iconic artistic image arrives close to the final act, in an incredibly serene and disarming scene where Porco gets a glimpse of the afterlife: a silver band stretching into the heavens, made up of hundreds of thousands of planes. For a director who has spent much of his career focused on flight, this feels like a defining image (at least, until he would go on to make The Wind Rises).

By its very nature, Porco Rosso is a tricky sell for most - and that's before we even get to the protagonist. It is a film so idiosyncratic in its sensibilities, that trying to break them down often feels schematic. Describing how Miyazaki places scenes of action next to scenes of calm is one thing; watching this melding actually play out is another. I mentioned at the beginning that most people reading this are likely to have watched at least one of Ghibli's films. If you haven't, and you like the sound of Porco Rosso's peaceful brand of colourful escapism, but are still squirming every time I mention that it stars a talking pig, then I would enthusiastically point you in the direction of Kiki’s Delivery Service instead; which is a less immediately-bizarre film, though with lower stakes and a much larger emphasis on everyday beauty. For those who have made their way through the studio's Hall of Fame and never got around to giving Porco Rosso a shot, consider this your sign to do so. In a world that's gone bugnuts-insane, it seems only fitting that a flying pig should be a source of comfort.

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