Sometimes it is nice to sit down with an old, and trusted, title and just revel in it. Makes me realise that even though I spend a lot of time being critical (ie. negative) at heart I still love the medium. And besides, this review had been needing updating for a long time.
The opening shots of this movie set the scene so well. On a hidden beach, concealed within a Mediterranean island, a man is sleeping. His amphibious red fighter plane floats gently in the water much like a sleeping tiger, containing the potential for violence but for the moment completely at ease. It is also the tool that allows him the freedom to occupy this island. And he is enjoying that freedom, a magazine over his face, a half finished bottle of wine and a radio playing Italian serenades to nobody in particular. The scene is peaceful, and perfect.
It is also shortly interrupted. This man is not truly a man, for one thing he's separated himself from much of the normal world, for an even more striking thing he somehow got the head of a pig.... which makes him stand out even further. He also makes a living taking out bounties on the air pirates who prey on the many ships that sail these waters, making him an enemy of both the pirates and the government who frowns on power being in any hands but theirs. The interruption is a job for him, but this job will lead onto quite an adventure. He'll find a worthy challenger (who is determined to shoot him down), a young ally who will draw him back to humanity and perhaps even a love he overlooked to keep him there. It's dramatic, exciting, and we're invited to come along for the ride.
That was a little bit arty, but just going through the story events would be just as misleading. Don't get me wrong, this title does have a story and it is every bit as strong as the rest of the title. Lots of interesting events generating cool and exciting scenes, and introducing interesting people, at a wonderfully balanced pace. The sort of pace that allows for moments of peace, like the opening, while maintaining a strong progression that has you wondering where the time went. It's a superb piece of story telling and very likable, even the air pirates are likable... in their own way. Although what did you expect really, its a Miyazaki film and the man knows how to tell a story.
There is, however, something even more interesting than the story. And that's the atmosphere and the attitude. This movie has an extremely strong flavor, a laconic and mature view of a world that is based upon our own history but is actually something more. A bit more focused perhaps, a more pure and perfect creation of a place than the somewhat "messy" nature of reality allows. In short this is a very well constructed alternate reality, by a creator who is clearly himself in love with the romance of the time. There are also all sorts of hints, such as the social, political and economic surroundings to the story, which give it firm roots and a great sense of depth. And of course on top of it all there's a strong cast of interesting characters, another Miyazaki strength, whose personalities grow and interact without in any way interfering with the story flow.
An interview on the disc calls it Ghibli's first anime focused on mature viewers, which struck me as sort of odd because I never really considered something like Nausicaa as being aimed at young viewers. It would perhaps be more true to say that this movie is unusual in that its stars are mature, both Porco Rosso and Gina (the owner of an island hotel that acts as the films neutral ground) not being young and having experienced quite a lot in their life. This gives it quite a different, and for me very pleasant, change of focus and mood compared to the typical "fiery youth" anime hero. It also explains the subtlety of expression, both of these people chose their words carefully and leave much of the meaning in the context. Of course there's also Fio, the virtually mandatory Miyazaki heroine, to inject a bit of energy back into the series in addition to being a great character in her own right.
It really is obvious that the creator relished the opportunity to depict these places, people and events. The care, thought and pure craftsmanship of this movie is impressive. And those who know this creator will realise there's another subject close to his heart, and that is the freedom and excitement of flight. Porco Rosso's (the red pig, because his plane is red and he's... well, I think that part is fairly obvious) history and freedom all revolve around his impressive flying ability. The conclusion of the movie (which is naturally enough nicely handled) is fought in the air. So basically there's a lot of aircraft, lovingly depicted and a pleasure to watch. And because the aircraft are from an older period (the years leading up to WW2 I would think) the flight is a bit more intimate... you can see your enemy more closely, the combat is at a short range, and you can even fly close enough to communicate. It is also an age where a craftsman and a small shop could produce an aircraft by themselves. As a result even the flight and aerial combat is smoothly woven into both the story and the character of the show.
So there you are, a much longer review which ends up saying not much more than the one it replaced. That's because the essence is simple, its a wonderfully made film that you have little reason not to see. It has a good story, excellent characters, novel locale and a very interesting ambiance. It is quite possibly the most easy to like, and relaxing to watch, Ghibli film there is.
Ah, one final little paragraph. One of the first questions asked on seeing this title is why (and how) did the lead get the head of a pig. We do get some insight into Porco (or Marco as he was called then) but the actual mechanics remain a mystery. Nor is there really any reason why the plot includes this rather bizarre aspect, indeed very few people in the story make much of an issue of it. The ever reliable Nausicaa.net provides some insight (from a press release for the movie) suggesting it was part of his retreat from humanity after all he'd experienced. This fits somewhat with a story he tells in the movie, although the version of Porco we meet is starting to come to the end of his exile. The result is it doesn't really matter, except perhaps to provide a touch of fantasy and to make it clear the real person is somewhat "masked".
... why do you need to ask? These older Ghibli films might not have the flash and extreme detail that computer enhancement has allowed more modern titles, but the production values remain top notch. Lovely use of color (this is perhaps one of the most attractive, and bright toned, Ghibli movies) gives each environment a great deal of beauty and depth. The characters look great, emote well, and move smoothly. Technical design, which also shows a great deal of research, and the depiction of machinery are very well done and add to the believability of the world being presented. The voices are excellent, well directed, and the orchestral music reached straight down into my subconscious and started flipping switches. If you haven't got it yet the production is great, has aged very well, and is more than capable of supporting the story being told.
A good helping of Aerial jousting over the shining waters of the Mediterranean, but made ever so much deeper through the creators love for this virtual world and his immense skills at balancing character and story. It has a laid back mature ambiance but there's something for everyone, and enough action to keep even those with short attention spans occupied. And being a Ghibli film the production is still impressive.