Set after World War I, Porco Rosso revolves around an Italian former flying ace, who at some point became cursed with a literal pig's face, thus earning him the nickname "Porco." The movie is unexpectedly deadpan regarding this affliction. Given that this is a Miyazaki picture, one perhaps expects some fanciful adventure to ensue, wherein the characters journey to colorful locales and endure whimsical trials in a quest to break this gypsy or whatever curse and restore him to his human form. But no, instead, when people see Porco for the first time, they at most act mildly intrigued, and then everybody moves on. And it's not as if this is some fantasy world filled with animal people; Porco's pig form is the only supernatural element in the entire story, which is otherwise more precisely set in a real place and time than any other Miyazaki movie. Porco himself does not seem too overly concerned about the curse. It hasn't affected his diet, his lifestyle, or his piloting skills. He's basically just a human being who happens to have the face of a pig, and, like it or not, the movie doesn't bother to explore the how of it.
Pig or no, Porco remains a legendary aviator, and, in between-wars Italy, he makes his living as a bounty hunter, becoming the bane of the air pirates of the Adriatic. They enlist the services of an American ace and self-styled Casanova named Curtis (ironically voiced in the Disney dub by Cary Elwes) to take Porco down. Potentially complicating this rivalry (but mostly just adding some humor at the American's expense), Curtis also has his eyes on the nightclub owner, Gina, who is obviously in love with her dear friend Porco, despite that he seems mostly dead to romance.
It's clear early on that the showdown between Porco and Curtis will form the climax of the story. Building up to that, the film's middle act is surprisingly sedate and unhurried. It's the most laid-back movie Miyazaki has ever done, without an abundance of action or events or the sorts of otherworldly sights that the director is typically known for. It is more concerned with having viewers spend time getting familiar with the characters and setting.
As Porco prepares for his duel, ordering repairs and adjustments on his plane, he is disconcerted to find the local workforce made up entirely of women, the economic depression having earlier forced all the men to relocate in search of work. Also placing the story's setting is a subplot that has Porco having to evade the Italian secret police because he is not on board with the new Fascist regime. And probably my favorite scene occurs when Porco and an old war buddy still in the service meet inside a movie theater. As they talk, the projector plays a slapstick black-and-white cartoon seemingly inspired by Betty Boop and early Mickey Mouse. Porco and his friend's respective assessments of the cartoon are classic, and I'm guessing Miyazaki himself would probably agree with both of them.
Porco Rosso does have its share of breathtaking moments as well. In today's context, where news about "the war" conjures images of drones pounding the Middle East, the kind of aerial combat featured in Porco Rosso is already almost unimaginable. When Porco recounts a particularly grim episode from his dogfighting during the war, the flashback is presented with a muted delicacy that further imbues the scene with an eerie surrealism, as each side's fighters first form up with precision and grace, then meet in a balletic dance that seems almost choreographed. When the first plane bursts into flames and goes down, one comprehends it as in a dream. Intellectually, you understand what has happened. And yet the scene, of these machines circling far above mankind's natural dwelling place, and as unresistingly fragile as they are unrepentantly destructive, remains just slightly isolated from sensory reality. To try to resolve this dissonance is to confront some innate madness of war, or maybe even just mortality.
And perhaps that is where the film offers some clue as to why Porco became a pig. Living alone in a tent on an island, a burned-out and world-weary Bogart-esque cynic—in fact, the entire movie is designed to be as close as you'll find to a cartoon Casablanca—the mercenary Porco is unlike any other Miyazaki protagonist yet, in a way, perhaps more thoroughly Miyazaki than all the others. The implication is that, during the war, Porco experienced something horrible that changed the way he saw the world, and that change has manifested physically in his taking on a pig form, thereby changing, in turn, the way the world sees him.
Miyazaki never was a soldier, but there is little doubt that Porco is a self-portrait of the director himself. In interviews with the man, what's consistently apparent is his negativity toward this age we live in. He's down on the state of the Japanese animation industry, down on how Japan is raising its youth, down on society in general, kinda just down on everything. It's an odd attitude for a director best known for films that seemingly cater to a romantic worldview. The man and his work appear in conflict. I wonder if this tension troubles him. Porco Rosso suggests that it does.
Nearly all his protagonists are youngsters, still spirited and optimistic. Perhaps they too are self-portraits of a sort—reflections of his own worldview at that age. But Porco is the only one who is truly middle-aged, as Miyazaki himself was when he wrote this story. What we see in Porco is a realist with not a lot of faith in humanity. Yet we also get the sense that he was not always this way. No, obviously he did not begin life already disillusioned; that's something that can only come with age and experience. Whether it must come with age and experience is debatable, but that it happened to Miyazaki is certain, and perhaps a part of him sees that as regrettable. No doubt, it's not easy to live with what you've become, when you can still remember how much nicer the world used to look. And thus, while Porco himself shows no desire to return to human form, nevertheless the film's heroines, Gina and the spunky young mechanic Fio, root for his curse to be broken—essentially, for him to regain his hopefulness and vigor for life. Whether Miyazaki roots for that is hard to determine. I don't think the movie intends for Porco's happy ending to be conditional upon his regaining his human form, but maybe that's just my own interpretation through a lens of contented disillusionment. But Fio especially—clearly in the lineage of Nausicaa—seems inserted into the movie specifically to argue on behalf of the part of Miyazaki that does still hope. Yes, it's as though a struggle between two aspects of Miyazaki is playing out within a movie to serve as a message from the director to himself. Fascinating.
Following the more youth-oriented Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso comes across as Miyazaki pausing in a moment of self-reflection to consider his own stage of life. It's not too serious a survey—he did give himself a pig's head, after all—but thoughtful and honest, self-indulgent yet humble. And, after watching it, I feel like I know and appreciate the man behind the movies better.