The fourth installment of my series tracing the vagabond’s travels “beyond the boredom and bondage of village life” continues with a dream essay on Studio Ghibli’s contribution to the hoboeuvre, Porco Rosso. Marco Porcelino is forced to play the tramp- he is the soldier abandoned by his country after the war is over.
What is it to be a tramp? The wanderer’s tale goes as far back in history as there are civilizations to walk away from. Our modern incarnation, the vagabond, has this role thrust upon them by society, civilization’s response to so long as there are prices, there will always be people who can’t afford things is the same as every other atrocity it can’t handle being held accountable for- by making it invisible, pushing it outside. Vagabonds are ghosts everywhere in the world but stories. In stories, the tramp still plays the teacher, the outsider who brings wisdom, the fool, Lucifer’s fall from grace. A little applied astronomy will tell you that Lucifer “the morning star” is Venus, or Love. And since Venus is the morning star and the evening star, Lucifer is more a verb than a noun in the sense of being a pair of people coming together to bring light. The pair of the Little Tramp and the Gamin getting by in Modern Times is made more explicitly romantic in the Luciferian transformation Pépel and Natasha undergo to become Renoir’s Lower Depths- and Love is the sad dream the thief and the gamin lose in Kurosawa’s Lower Depths. Hayao Miyazaki’s love letter to the fighter ace, Kurenai no Buta, shows the heights that can be reached when the two halves of Venus are united. The plucky female counterparts of the previous movies in this series were the inspiration that gave their men direction and focus. Something you will never see from Hayao Miyazaki is a woman who is merely a means for a man to achieve something. Fio Piccolo is no exception, not just the inspiration but the agent for change in Porco Rosso. She is the nurse whose technical expertise rebuilds the fallen hero. Marco is stuck and it is because of Fio’s passion for what she does that allows him to carry on into the future and still remain himself.
Flying is the ultimate fantasy of the vagabond. The beat feet on the road, ground down from carrying water from the well to the house every day, sore from a long shift standing on the assembly line. What poor bum doesn’t dream of flight? The vagabond carries the weight. Think of the spirit imprisoned in the body- flying represents freedom. To cut loose our connection from the material world. The wanderer freed from the exhaustion of walking everywhere has more time to hone their ability to stay afloat. Porco Rosso could have been dreamt by Pépel in that field of his, one where he rises from the lower depths after being remade by Natasha.
Porco Rosso plays on one of the great hobo secrets- natural wonder is as pleasing to the eye as any structure ever built. The Mediterranean is as gorgeous as any fantasy setting. Shooting on location is stunning done in either a low budget film or a blockbuster because of the intrinsic beauty of the natural world. The “real world” setting has been long absorbed into the mainstream of moviemaking (once it was a rebellious statement to shoot on location- to think shooting in just some place somewhere could ever yield a better film than one produced on a Hollywood sound stage was madness), but as far as Miyazaki goes, the specific, real world-ish setting of the post-WWI Adriatic Sea is very different from the high fantasy films that make up most of his career. Also atypical in tone is the film’s frank discussion of death and depiction of the cost of war, as well as some borderline racy humor involving just how old Fio really is. Which is complicated given the precedent set in this series. I want romance between the Little Tramp and the Gamin and am indulged in this in Les Bas-Fonds to a degree that makes me more flustered than I would generally care to admit. Porco Rosso’s contribution of way lots of weird is she old enough humor further confounds things. There is a Takahata flavor, the audience being addressed isn’t ageless so it can play out some scenes with a more realistic severity than Miyazaki is known for. Princess Mononoke has someone sucking blood out of a wound, sure, but it’s a wild child and a giant two-tailed wolf. Howl’s Moving Castle has some scary real Blitz stuff but its all fire and bombs and no bodies. Sickness is an offscreen threat in My Neighbor Totoro and it is the focus of Grave of the Fireflies. Takahata makes the Studio Ghibli films Disney doesn’t talk about. Don’t get me wrong, Porco Rosso is equally frequently wacky and the acting on the voiceover is downright ludicrous, which for me contrasts nicely with the sombre noir seriousness about the post-war war going on around the characters. Porco Rosso is a problem play like Donzoko, not a comedy, not a tragedy, but both taking turns and mixed together.
Marco the pig leads the same quasi-tramp lifestyle as Pépel the thief. Marco’s skill set is so that he can turn down work during a Depression, he works as much as he likes and lives how he wants because he is top gun. But his little shack in paradise is a touch on the squalid side. His stuff is all in disrepair, his seaplane is the only thing of value he has and it’s on its last legs. Marco has become comrade to criminals to get by. He’s a displaced vet. Being turned into a pig isn’t exactly typical as far as physical disfigurement from battle goes, but war does its true damage to Marco the way it gets all soldiers- a war hero ultimately fights for peace, to make himself obsolete, and the government that doesn’t honor that sacrifice lets them slip through the cracks, makes them vagabonds. In Porco Rosso, government subverts the talent of the pilot and turns them from a flyer into a killer, then brands them as such once the killing’s done. “Change of government- if that happens, you’ll become a villain overnight!” gleefully declares grampa underground arms manufacturer. The failure of the War to End War to end war. Doesn’t matter that Marco was battling for what is right, the victors of war still become the fascist police force pursuing the pig. The military-industrial complex capitalizing on death was the end of Knights and Romance. “Goodbye forever to the free and easy days of play in the Adriatic ocean.”
Metaphorically, look at the plane’s engine. Hot shit bloop gun muscle car seaplane engine. No good for idling, only good for burning in the red. Those days of pushing the needle to the right have been left behind, now it barely starts and then when it should burn it kicks off and gets Marco shot down by the American asshole. But he is rebuilt by the Piccolo family’s top engineer, the patriarch’s granddaughter, Fio. The gamin has it much better in this one- Fio Piccolo is lucky to be able to follow in the family’s footsteps. With the opportunities Goddard’s Gamin was denied, Piccolo is able to put that spark they share to work and- coincidentally at the age Marco started flying- is as able a designer as Porco Rosso is a pilot. She and each woman in this movie is talented, smart and able. Even the “kidnapped” little girls from the beginning outfox the Mamma Aiuto pirate gang. It is moving forward with the times that allows Marco to remain classic. Make no mistake, the showdown between Porco Rosso and the American is the competition between the old school and the new, but OG Porcelino’s victory is ushered in by the new guard- women/equality. If flying is the tramp’s dream then the plane represents the body that houses the vagabond spirit. Porco Rosso’s post-humanism isn’t a guy turned into a pig, it’s his plane, shot to pieces. The brain- Marco- survived, and the original shell is intact but the heart/motor is replaced, the wings are replaced and even updated a little bit, begging that Masamune Shirow question of how much can you take away from a person and what you can replace it with to still have the same thing at the center. He may be a pig, but his plane is the body that suffers the real soldiers’ plight of physical mutilation. Loss of limb, a busted engine that only works in overdrive.
Non-metaphorically speaking, it is a thrilling movie to behold. The dogfights are high adrenaline and lovingly directed, it is essentially a hot rod movie without roads. Gearhead stuff for old wooden seaplanes, diving into specificity gives a particularly unique flavor to the movie already made quite rich by its badass execution of aforementioned dogfights, details etc. Sunlight reflecting off the wings, speeding along a canal in lieu of a runway, how much a seaplane weighs. The dream immerses you in the private environment of the pilot, not only the experience of flying but the perspective of being inside the cockpit, the levers and pedals you manipulate that make the flying stunts possible.
If this is theater, where you watch and you’re there at the same time, then Porco Rosso, like Donzoko, has a drunken chorus, and they are the Mamma Aiuto Sky Gang. But the sky pirates I am familiar with are the ones lost to Disney’s acquisition of the Studio Ghibli catalog. Porco Rosso was commissioned as an in-flight film for Japan Airlines in 1992. Disney did a dub 11 years after Porco’s release, but it was not the first, and facts about the original English version are even more scarce than those on the “Troma” version of My Neighbor Totoro (RIP 1990-2005). In 1995 JAL had an English dub of Porco Rosso made for trans-Pacific flights by company unknown. That’s all the dirt I have been able to dig up on it so far, other than who didn’t do it. This is an especially painful itch to be unable to scratch, as the strident silly weirdness of the 95 JAL dub is similar to the sound of cartoons at the time, weird mutant X-Men voices, demented Liquid Television shorts, stuff I have a history with, that my ear recognizes. Maybe they’re a bunch of nobodies, but the French dub got Léon the Professional for Marco, I feel in my guts the 95 JAL cast are voices I have heard elsewhere. Whoever they are, they really knocked it out of the park. The direction is a little more get it done than the reverent production of the Disney Dubs but the raw talent of the crew more than makes up for it. There is less sound in the JAL version, less dialog, less background noise- less production, less budget- more pauses for emphasis, more room for the dialog to breath, more chances for the film to go quiet and you to go quiet and meet somewhere racing through the clouds. All that sparse makes the movie feel more like the era of film it is a dream from. And it being off-Disney means the script is allowed to follow the film into the same hardboiled aesthetics. It’s fitting that if the visuals can show a column of ghost warplanes rising into the ether like Dore’s rendition of the heavenly host, the dialog can speak openly about buying explosive penetrating bullets and crack wise about how Fio’s hips are broader than you’d expect (yikes!). Miyazaki plays the sexual tension off by making the gamin-tramp combo the most partnership of the movies so far. At one point, Fio offers to kiss Marco to see if that will lift the pig curse from him. Marco snubs her- they’re partners- but folk tale aficionados know it’s Vassilisa whose kiss turns the frog into a prince, not Natasha.