Films by Hayao Miyazaki have something special about them, oneiric, mysterious, and deeply personal; they appeal to something fundamental within us. Porco Rosso is no exception. It feels like being gently carried away by Mediterranean waves on a warm summer evening, evoking sentiments of sceneries from pastel paintings and old photographs. Yet, deep below the surface, Porco Rosso carries something melancholic and nostalgic, the shadow of an era foregone to the cogs of time. It is a story of regret, change, and acceptance.
The scene that the film sets early on is that of an intriguing world; flying pirates, island bars, and plane derbies are but some of the elements that give to Porco Rosso that whimsical feeling that Miyazaki has endeared to us. Flying through the skies with Porco to the tune of Joe Hisaishi’s score moulds relief and a sense of boundless distance to the film. By contrast, the more we grow to know our protagonist, the more we come to realise what lies beneath the surface of the world and the man.
Our titular porcine protagonist, Porco, is a vestige of the First World War. He is a soldier that, in more ways than one, lugs around, and is pulled down by the weight of the past. He lives in an era he does not fit in, choosing to live quite literally on the fringe of society; isolating himself on a secluded beach nestled within tall cliff sides. Porco also latches on to the only thing that remains of his past life: flying.
Porco is initially introduced to us as an easy-going, friendly, and slightly flirtish character. Despite his reclusive choice of domicile, he appears to be well acquainted with the patrons of the Hotel Adriano. He engages with familiarity with his old friend and love interest Gina but there is a distance between them. Porco does not like photos of his time as human, his past life seems to only bring up pain for him. Parallels can be drawn between Porco and his plane, a Savoia S.21 seaplane. The latter, when first introduced, struggles with the ignition. It smokes and stutters as if it refused, or could not, go back to the sky. Similarly, Porco, too, is broken.
As Miyazaki invites us to discover the world Porco lives in, he slowly unveils to us signs of what is going on in the wider world. The fascist regime proudly parades in Italian towns, inflation is at an all-time high, and work has become scarcer. It is never explicitly stated to the viewer, but one would imagine why Porco has grown disillusioned; the country he once fought for no longer exists.
He is apathetic to the song “Le Temps Des Cerises”, a recurring symbol throughout the movie that evokes lost love and failed revolution, but that nevertheless urges to keep those times in one’s heart. The other patrons of Hotel Adriano are mesmerized by the song, but Porco is indifferent. As Porco withdraws funds for the repair of his plane in Italy, in preparation for his duel with Curtis, he is invited by the teller to invest in state bonds to help the economy. He refuses, thus attracting some mean looks from a nearby fascist guard. Porco, again, no longer feels part of the cause that he once defended. He does not explicitly fight the regime, but he does not hold it in his heart. Porco is lost in this changing world, but as he puts it “better pig than fascist” .
Another symbol of this change is Curtis, the young bombastic American pilot that competes with Porco. He is an allegory of the rise of America after the First World War and the changes that it has brought to the world. Curtis is arrogant, shallow, and full of dreams. He believes he’ll make it big in Hollywood and one day become president. He is a critique of America, he may be passionate but he is also shallow, he wants to love Gina and later Fio, based solely on their appearances. He is a self-absorbed and ambitious man that, despite his capabilities, does not seem to understand much of the world. That criticism is made clear when Gina patronizes Curtis by addressing him as if he were a young boy.
The repair of the plane is used by Miyazaki as an allegory of Porco’s reformation. Like his plane, he needs tuning, fixing, and gearing up to face Curtis. The engineer of both these things is Fio, a young girl back from America that works on repairing and upgrading the Savoia. Fio is a strong-willed, independent, and jeans-wearing woman. Porco is initially reluctant to have her work on his plane, he has not yet come to terms with this cultural change. He would gradually ease up to the situation when confronted with the fact that the whole repair would consist exclusively of women, the men having all left to find work elsewhere. The world isn’t as it used to be, things are different and he must accept it.
Fio is a symbol of the changing times and also the vehicle through which Porco emerges from his stupor. Porco is a soldier that has lost friends, nation, and purpose. He suffers from survivors’ guilt and no longer feels worthy of being a man. He could not save Gina’s husband and yet he survived.
However, Fio reminds him that there is something for him to protect when she volunteers to be the prize of the competition between himself and Curtis. It is then that we are given a glimpse of Porco as he was in his ulterior life, as he was when he was Marco Paggot. Fio is the future, she is part of what Porco once fought to protect and the hope that light awaits at the end of the tunnel. This is the only time when he feels like Marco again. The Marco who fought to protect what he believed in.
In the end, we never see Marco in his human form, but we may imagine that he has come to terms with the burdens of his past. As he flies away, we have hope that the war in Marco Paggot’s heart has been quelled, and that he may finally fly to freedom as he embraces the possibilities of the future. The world may not have changed for the better, but hope lives on as long as he believes in the possibilities of a future as vast as the azure skies and as boundless as the seas.