Continuing lessons on living from the animation maestro’s oeuvre
Previous life lessons:
Welcome back to our continuing series on “Living With Miyazaki,” as we examine the lessons one can take from his films through their recurring motifs and varied approaches. After the back-to-back blockbuster success of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, plus the launching of Studio Ghibli as a powerhouse in the animation landscape, Miyazaki pivoted yet again with perhaps his oddest concoction ever.
Which, if you’ve been reading and watching along, is really saying something.
THE MOVIE: Porco Rosso
Porco Rosso sits almost dead center in Miyazaki’s filmography. There are five films before it, and six films after it (once How Do You Live gets released). Like many a middle child, it’s an often forgotten outlier that exhibits traits of what came before and what comes next, belonging to both halves of Miyazaki’s film career, and to neither.
It has the look of two-fisted pulp adventure, but it moves like a hangout film, which is to say that it doesn’t move very much at all. It’s built atop the most whimsical possible premise, but is vastly more concerned with the tactile and tangible than it is with the magical and the fantastic. It’s a warm and loving film, but its titular character can be, charitably, described as an obnoxious, insensitive jackass, not to mention being quite literally pig-headed.
To hear him described, Porco (real name “Marco”, but only one person is allowed to call him that) might have swaggered out of any of the dime store novels and serial films that also spawned the likes of Indiana Jones. In the pre-World War II Adriatic Sea, Porco is the most ruthlessly efficient bounty hunter out hunting bounties on the air pirates who run rampant over the water. Once an average Italian pilot, Marco was long ago turned into a pig by an unknown curse, a fact that draws absolutely zero remarks from any of the regular humans walking around the movie.
The ’plot’ such as it is kicks off when the pirates, fed up with Porco Rosso and his red plane always swooping in to bust up their heists, recruit a hotshot American flyer, Curtis, to challenge the pig in aerial combat. Curtis, a daring maverick in a real top gun of a plane, successfully shoots his rival down, sending Porco on the lamb to get himself a new set of wings.
Miyazaki films tend to be heavy on incident, light on plot, and nowhere is this more clear than in Porco Rosso. It has fewer moving pieces than even the pointedly straightforward Castle in the Sky, instead contenting itself to follow Porco around as he eats, drinks, flirts, chats, and gets his new plane ready. You can’t really describe an animated movie about an anthropomorphic pig and his feud with plane-based pirates as “naturalistic”, this shit ain’t exactly Mike Leigh, but there’s no heroic quest to be undertaken, no master plan being pursued, not even any real obstacle to be overcome. Curtis and the pirates are too blatantly ridiculous to ever pose any real threat. The true villain of the film is the audience’s understanding of what’s coming for Europe in only a few short years. The creep of fascism is ever-present, storm clouds amassing on the margins of the glorious blue horizons over and under which our lovable scamps and scoundrels play out their harmless games of pirates and bounty hunters.
There are later films that deal more thoroughly with Miyazaki’s thoughts on fascism (spoiler: he’s not a fan), but Porco Rosso isn’t exactly about that.
No, what the film really zeroes in on, and what I’d like to discuss more thoroughly in this life lesson, is craft. This is a film about a master craftsman, made by a master craftsman, that luxuriates in the technicalities of creation, of craftsmanship. If Kiki’s Delivery Service is about the soul and spirit of an artist, then Porco Rosso is about the actual labor of artistry, the nitty-gritty of getting your hands dirty, learning by doing, of working towards mastery step by exhausting step.
That love of craft is reflected not only in the characters’ and their obsessive pursuit of perfection with their aerial vehicles, but in the incidental moments that Miyazaki chooses to hone in on. Throughout the film, Miyazaki and his animators take the time to emphasize process at every turn, whether it is all the complex cranks and levers that Porco and the other pilots have to constantly adjust while flying, or the myriad laborious menial tasks that go into building a plane one rivet at a time, or the wheeling and dealing to get the most gas for the least money. Everything is part of a process, and each process is important in the pursuit of your goal, whether that’s designing an airplane or using that airplane to shoot down some pesky pirates. It all comes back to dedication to the craft.
More to the point, the film Porco Rosso is itself a testament to that craftsman work ethic. More than even other Ghibli films, this is a film of textures, of sensations, captured with such a vivid and bold palette that the animation crosses the divide and imprints as reality to the viewer. The sea breeze is so lovingly captured in ink and paint that you can almost smell the salt on the air. There are long stretches of unbroken quiet throughout the film, amplifying every diegetic sound that does occur, whether it’s the clink of ice against glass, an exhalation of cigarette smoke, small waves lapping against the sand.
Miyazaki has always been the A#1 champ when it comes to flying sequences, but the ones featured in Porco Rosso are above and beyond even his own high-water mark. You feel the wind that screams by and the water that splashes up as the plane kisses the surface of the sea. The fluidity and life in every frame is nothing less than stunning, and it’s only possible as the result of an absurd level of focus and dedication towards craft.
At one point, Porco and his mechanic Piccolo stand around a massive ROARING plane engine, causing dozens of painstakingly individually animated steel shutters to violently shudder around them, even as Porco and Piccolo’s own flesh is buffeted by the torrential forces. The scene is about two masters of their craft putting in deliberate work to get every bit of minutiae correct for their creation, and the scene itself is a showcase for a master of his craft to demonstrate how meticulous effort manifests in movie magic.
There’s a more somber lesson to be imparted by Porco Rosso, though. Those storm clouds I mentioned earlier? They can’t actually be ignored forever. Eventually, they have to break, the storm has to arrive. For as much fun as it is spending time with Porco and the motley crew of scoundrels and rapscallions that populate his world, we know from the outset that that world is doomed, and the doom is coming sooner rather than later. No matter how much Porco busies himself with his planes and his grudges and adventures, he knows what’s coming and knows that he’s powerless to stop it.
Craft is important. Art, culture, creativity, these things are vitally important. But Porco Rosso carries in it the bittersweet knowledge that dedication to your craft won’t keep the world at bay. It won’t stop the tumult and turmoil that guide the shape of history. No matter how careful you are, no matter how wholly you throw yourself into your own passions and pursuits, sooner or later there will be a man in a uniform at your door, telling you that the party is over and the bill is due.
But the red plane keeps on flying, long after it was probably meant to stop.
Next up, let’s go for a nice, sedate walk in the woods with Princess Mononoke.