Suspended between war and peace

30 years of Studio Ghibli's Porco Rosso. Porco Rosso is now considered a powerful anti-war film. But can an animated film about a man cursed with a pig’s head actually deal with politics in the real world?

One of my favorite movies about Italy is Porco Rosso, a film about a wisecracking anthropomorphic pig who flies a red seaplane. And it’s not even Italian – it was made in 1992 by famed Japanese director and founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki. When it was released, it was praised for its humor and artwork – in my humble opinion, aerial flight has never been captured better on film (sorry, Top Gun, although you get points for using real aircraft).

Set in an alternate 1929 on the Italian and Istrian shores of the Adriatic Sea, Porco Rosso follows the exploits of Italian fighter ace turned bounty hunter Marco Pagot (voiced by Michael Keaton in the quite excellent English-language dub, which I’ll be referring to throughout). A curse has turned Marco into a pig, though how and why is never fully explained. When hotshot American pilot Donald Curtis (Cary Elwes) turns up at the Hotel Adriano – owned by the multitalented Gina (Susan Egan) with whom Marco shares an unresolved romantic attraction – the brash flyer strikes a bargain with local sky pirates to eliminate Marco in exchange for a free pass to marry Gina, who doesn’t care for the American at all. Marco narrowly survives the ambush and heads to Milan to have his beloved flying boat repaired by Signor Piccolo (David Ogden Stiers) and his plucky 17-year-old granddaughter Fio (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). Warned by a pilot friend that the fascist secret police are on his curly tail, Marco returns to his secret home base, taking Fio along with him as a kind of apprentice. Curtis and the sky pirates corner Marco again and challenge him to a race. The stakes are high – if Marco wins, Curtis will pay all his repair bills; if Curtis wins, Fio must marry him.

A scene from Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso
could have been a story about tragic characters trying to hold onto their humanity as the world slides into fascism and war, in the vein of Cabaret (1972) or Babylon Berlin (2017, ongoing). But there are no real confrontations in the film, and no overriding sense of menace from the fascists. Instead, Porco Rosso takes a stand against fascism by telling a story suspended in an alternate and indeterminate space where oppressive power cannot reach. 

The most obvious of these states of suspension is the Scarlet Pig himself, a character that is half-human, half-beast. Marco is an outsider; he no longer belongs to either world. And while he can’t escape his human feelings of guilt, he can’t live in the present like an animal, either. However, it is during one of the film’s key aerial scenes that the most enigmatic moment of suspension takes place. Marco recounts an experience from the Great War: during a deadly dogfight, Marco momentarily passes out. Upon regaining consciousness, he finds himself skimming above the clouds, while high above him hundreds of aircraft float past in silent formation, drawn to some unseen destination like moths to a light. For a few endless moments, Marco is literally suspended between life and death until his plane drops down through the clouds again, back into the world of the living. Only now Marco is transformed into a pig-headed human … 

Overarching all these moments of suspension is the alternate interwar Italy in which Porco Rosso is set. The end of the film jumps ahead several decades – we learn about all the principal characters’ lives since the events of the film, but not once is World War II mentioned. Perhaps it never happened in this world.

Studio Ghibli's Porco Rosso

This blissful, confrontation-free world is a retreat from the terrible realities of the 20th century. The construction of an alternate world where fascism and World War II didn’t happen is itself a kind of resistance. Porco Rosso’s powerful message is that if only we could see clearly the most important things right before us – the things that give us joy, the people who love us – we might avoid being caught up by the demogogues and ideologies that can lead us to war and destruction. Marco and his friends don’t like fascism, but they’re not scared of it either. They simply don’t take it seriously.

This is where Porco Rosso’s act of resistance lies – if we don’t take ideologies of hate and division seriously, they cannot grow. This is not wishful thinking, it’s a way out of the cycle of conditioning and alienation that plagues our real world. Watching Porco Rosso is a powerfully liberating experience, and that’s not just because of the soaring animation. Make no mistake – beneath the whimsy and the slapstick humor and the wide-open skies, Porco Rosso is a resistance film. I like to think I’d never be a fascist myself; it’s just a shame that I can’t be a pig either.