Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.)
Now, here’s what I’ve been missing...
Not since watching MONONOKE have I gotten the wonderfully hypnotic sense that I was getting a peak at a much larger, sprawling world in one of these movies. TOTORO wasn’t aiming for that, of course, and KIKI’s attempts at such hinting felt languid; gestures given up before they were followed through with.
To this end, I was just ceaselessly impressed by how specific Miyazaki’s vision of this particular alternate history adventure was. Ideas may come a dime a dozen, but it takes a certain caliber of creative mind to spin a yarn about an ace Italian World War I fighter pilot who turns to collecting air pirates’ bounties on the Adriatic Sea during Europe’s interbellum years… and also happens to be a cursed talking pig. Such premises really make anime about secret occult units in World War II look they’re grabbing for the low-hanging conceptual fruit.
Then again, if you’re a child of the 90’s, it’s impossible to miss similarities to Disney’s TALESPIN, here. The show predates this movie, but the manga this is based on predates the show, so there’s not much use in shrieking “RIP OFF!!!” at anybody. One most observe, perhaps, that funny animals flying historical seaplanes were simply “in” at the time. The tone and tenor of PORCO ROSSO’s fantasy world is more Hergé and E.C. Segar by estimation, anyway. Seeing this, I can’t help but think that Miyazaki might’ve been better suited to helm last year’s TINTIN movie; or that he should handle the forthcoming POPEYE revival.
The ingredient PORCO ROSSO has that neither of those cartoonists’ work really possesses, though, is that very European ambivalence which seems all the more sophisticated and pronounced when put next to Americans’ uniquely barbaric naiveté. No lie: the titular pig man’s rivalry with Curtis (a brash Yankee pilot) in the sky and for the affections of a wistful lounge singer, surprisingly embodies the sort of socio-political tensions more often brought up only in AP English discussions.
Describing such large portions of the plot like that makes it sounds like this is an eye-roll-inducing pretentious affair, but the flick finds a deft balance that addresses such themes while still remaining light, entertaining and, quite often, downright funny. Like Porco (or is that Marco?) it conveys an awareness of the world's unpleasantries, but a preference to chortle about them. And, indeed, few sounds are as strangely appealing as the pig-man's gravely, guttural, Japanese-accented gut laugh.
Each Ghibli flick I’ve watched so far has had a particular flavor of nostalgia. This manages to offer a taste of reminiscence that’s, at once, the least sentimental and the most effective. Seeing a pig wax philosophical on economic depression while dodging fascist secret police honestly felt jarring at first - - a little grotesque, even - - but the flick rather sharply goes on to frame the antics between Marco and the pirates as something like a recess game of cops ‘n robbers. Knowing what harsher conflicts are lurking just around the corner, you can’t help but see this back-and-forth of kidnappings, robberies, ambushes, fist fights and dogfights as the sort of harmless roughhousing that becomes so much more preferable in hindsight.
A frequent criticism against Miyazaki concerns his structuring; that he doesn’t know how to start his stories off suitably, nor end them properly. TOTORO and KIKI did both suffer from that. Neither really began with much of an inciting incident, and both just sort-of ended once it came time for credits. Again, by comparison, PORCO ROSSO flies higher, packing the tightest intro and outro I’ve seen in any Ghibli joint outside of CAGLIOSTRO. The opening, where the air pirates kidnap a junior swim team and find the girls are a much bigger handful than expected, is brilliant in its comic timing. The climax, which steadily ramps up the absurdity of Marco and Douglass’ rough and tumble duel for a young maiden's hand, has a wonderfully Chaplin-esque escalation of physical comedy.
What pushes this all up to be more than a mere trifle, though - - and underlines even the most knucklehead-ed fisticuffs with a layer of pathos - - is the scene in the middle where Marco tells a war story to his fledgling sidekick. Riffing on the poetic description of aerial combat as a "war in heaven," his haunting near-death vision has him watch a serene procession of dead pilots parading through the clouds like carp down a stream. Of course, just before he dwells too long in this dreamy nightmare, Marco draws back and insists it's better for the two of them to focus on more pleasant subjects.
The scene doesn't bash you on the head with any message, but it does make you appreciate the rest of the movie's escapism more. Also, it hits on what I described earlier as the unique appeal of Miyazaki's better work - - the sense that the adventure onscreen is just skating on the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There are darker depths lurking beneath PORCO ROSSO's sea, for sure, but you're glad the "red pig" opts to fly (and dip and spin and loop de loop) over it to settle what essentially amounts to a schoolyard dare instead.
There's been talk for a long of time of Porco flying again for another adventure. More so than any Ghibli movie, I'd be more than eager to see a proper sequel and tag along with this unforgettable character once more. As I've said, there certainly seems to be no shortage of places (just outside the frame) to go with him.