Monday, May 20, 2024

First Contact: Porco Rosso

It turns out, Alex would watch anime when pigs fly

I feel, at odd moments, that the fact that I haven’t watched all that much anime should get me my nerd card revoked, doubly so for only having watched so much of Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved films, and most of that as a child (similarly, I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings or seen any of the movies, nor have I watched all that much Star Trek, or any Doctor Who). I did watch The Boy and the Heron in theaters and enjoyed it. However, it took some time, and only by wrangling with a television that decided to have a tantrum that night after getting home from a long drive back from New York, did I eventually get around to watching Porco Rosso, which I finally did after being recommended it by my internet friend Nathan Goldwag, whose Journal on Civilization you should read.

In so many ways, Porco Rosso is precisely the sort of media that I lap up in droves. It has outlandish technology, roguish characters, and perhaps most importantly, the lushly rendered setting that ties itself directly into a real historical period. All this is combined with the beautiful artwork and that je ne sais quoi that even I can detect in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, an ethereality I associate, perhaps unfairly, with the Japanese.

The delicate dance between reality and unreality in this film is demonstrated most clearly by the namesake character, a daredevil pilot who fights pirates in the Adriatic Sea in an odd and distorted version of the 1930s. Italy is a real country here, in the throes of Mussolini’s reign of terror, but Porco himself resides in a fictional country that seems to replace, at least in part, our world’s Kingdom of Yugoslavia. He served in the Italian air force in World War I, but has fled his homeland out of opposition to fascism. Perhaps most notably, and definitely most obviously, he is an anthropomorphic pig, who had at one point been a human male. This change is never explained, but one can detect there an undertone of the man’s general disgust with humanity in perhaps ‘choosing,’ if that is even an accurate description thereof, to become an animal reviled by so many people as a riposte to our species’ vaunted pretensions and sordid realities.

During the film, I couldn’t help but regret that I didn’t watch it as a child; I had watched Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, and it was released before I was born, so it would have been possible. I would have loved the gorgeously rendered aircraft of all types, even if I didn’t have the knowledge of aviation history that Miyazaki and company clearly did. This film activated the part of my brain, long dormant in most cases, that loved construction vehicles and tanks and sixteen-wheelers and helicopters as a child. It would have been a film I would watch again and again and again on a VCR whose basics I had memorized by three years old.

It’s a theme that comes to me as I write this, as the film clearly dwells on nostalgia, on the glorification and glamorization of pasts that in some ways were the greatest ever and in other ways never existed at all. From the way the film presents its setting, we are seeing a decline of a freewheeling, high-flying age of aviation that is being overtaken ever more by the industrialization of human slaughter. The Adriatic here is a chaotic place, a violent place, certainly, one where cruise liners are also aircraft carriers (a choice that delighted and confused me in equal measure—it implies so much). Here, it is the Italians who are threatening to clamp down on this age of romance, and the domestic politics of this country are doing their share, as there are fascists marching in the streets. I do not know if Miyazaki was aware of this, but knowing him he may well have been, but it is so fitting that it is Italy doing this, as it is the country that first used airplanes as a weapon of war, in 1911 as it wrested Libya from the Ottoman Empire. More obviously, it is the Italians who, after all, invented fascism. As the aerial zomia of the Adriatic fades, we are left with characters, Porco himself most of all, who don’t know what to do with themselves, or their place in this world more generally. To quote Matthew Stover’s novelization of The Revenge of the Sith (which, incidentally, is a beautifully written novel which is in some ways even better than the film it’s based on): it’s the end of an age of heroes, and it has saved its best for last.

This is a beautiful film, and much of that is in the portrayal of the environments, man-made and natural. The natural scenes are so lush, like those in all of the works of Miyazaki’s I’ve seen. Who wouldn’t want a secluded beach to oneself like Porco does here? I would, if only to read there. The architecture, too, is the stuff of the fantasies and dreams of those who do not live there, with cobblestone streets and houses that look almost otherworldly to an American like myself (of course, I suspect the effect isn’t nearly as strong for those who have lived there their whole lives). It’s just pretty all around, and it makes me want to visit Italy and Croatia and the countries of the Adriatic more broadly.

This is a film about what has been, what we wanted to have been, and what never could have been. It is a film about yearning, in all its myriad forms, and yet how temporary all of our desires and hopes necessarily are. It feels very Buddhist, in some way, about how nothing of this world will ever truly satisfy you. But all the same, it professes love for this world, for experience, for joy. To quote the philosopher Amod Lele, himself quoting a commenter on his blog (which I also encourage you to read), “we don’t cease to enjoy a song because it has an ending.” It’s ultimately an ambiguous message for a film with an ambiguous ending, and in some ways the only appropriate message for such a film. Life is short, and it is better to be a pig than a fascist, is it not?

Now if only he had finished his planned sequel set in the Spanish Civil War…


POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.