I’d been telling my staff always to make films for children and then what did I do?!
– Hayao Miyasaki
She is visibly ill. She coughs and chokes while on a mission with Porco to save a group of school children from air pirates. Then she’s shot, and lays fatal on a sandy beach in the centre of a tropical island. Resilient that she has a heart that will beat again, Porco takes her to Italy in hopes to find someone who can save her. Porco’s seaplane, a red 1/48 Savoia may still have life in her yet. That’s if Piccolo, a specialist mechanic can save her. This is where we’re introduced to Fio, the granddaughter of Piccolo, who has been given the responsibility of repairing Savoia.
Fio is a young woman determined to prove her grit in a world where men have the last say. Porco is skeptical. A woman working on his plane is unheard of. However, with the waging wars ongoing in the world, it’s the women who are keeping the world together. And it’s Fio, who has the talent and skill able to bring new life to Savoia. With the impending arrival of the Italian federal government arriving Porco has no choice but to bring Fio along, to what feels like an infringement of his independent manhood.
And here lies Porco Rosso’s theme: women in the early 20th century, unsung heroes in a world of loud men hiding behind larger than life personas. But first some background:
Porco Rosso was sponsored by a Japanese airline company. The project was taken on as a passion project by Hayao Miyazaki. His love of airplanes is no secret and has been seen in Nauusica, Kiki, and others. His love of pigs is shown with the main character Porco, along with his love for Italy, this is truly the definition of a passion project. With that aside, it was only intended to be a short 30 minute in-flight entertainment. Eventually, the project grew, passion rose, and then politics interrupted and the story became complicated.
In the 1920s, Porco has turned his back on Italy, frustrated at the laws, frustrated at the world around him that appears to be growing backward he rejects everything to become a bounty hunter, free from the restraints of oppressive regimes. This is in comparison to the real life war that raged in Yugoslavia, a country that had been under the oppressive regime of Italy at the time. It’s through these events that a once 30 minute in-flight movie about a flying pig turned into a movie about the political climate of Italy. But then there’s another underlying issue.
‘Women are great! Don’t be such a pig!’
An important question arose when watching Porco Rosso. The way the characters interact with women is very in tune with how we may depict early 20th century men. Which begged the question; is this a sexist film or an accurate portrayal of the time period it’s depicting?
The scenes I’m referring to here are i) when Porco goes to repair his plane in Italy and meets Piccolo and Fio. Piccolo tells Porco, a middle-aged man-cum-pig, to keep his hands off Fio.
- ii) When Porco’s antagonist, the American, Donald has a final one on one the terms of his victory are the marriage of Fio.
The former is an uncomfortable thought, to begin with, but perhaps more of a standard relationship at the time while the later highlights the value on women as property in the early 20th century.
‘Women can’t build planes!’
It’s said tongue-in-cheek, and reflects less on the 1920’s world it’s set in, but the 90’s environment it was released in.
On the surface it’s anti-Ghibli in its values.
On the surface at least.
Porco Rosso allows you to soak in the extravagance on the white males dream of living on a remote island with nothing but their wits, a bottle of champagne and the lust of the next bounty. It goes on to show the strong will of women, the efforts they make in war, the resilience and brilliance of Fio who is both able to design, build, and maintain Porco’s seaplane. Make no mistake, despite it’s best intentions and it’s overall positive message Porco Rosso has sexism throughout, but it is no more guilty of this crime than any other film of its era. Released in 1992, Porco Rosso is well aware of the tropes it’s embellishing and asks you not to root for the men, but the women in the story. Done so in a markedly 90’s fashion.
The way Porco Rosso handles sexism and politics in a way only Studio Ghibli is capable of; elegant and insightful, masked by innocence and rose-tinted nostalgia of times gone by when things were simpler, and yet its feministic empowerment may seem outdated in 2018. Behind the 1920s nostalgia is a social commentary on how poorly women were treated, despite their strengths, how political landscapes shift, turn and ultimately affect the world we live in. Porco Rosso dares to fly in the face of topical issues and shows how to fly above the clouds of everyday sexism.
7 out of 10 Totoros