Porco Rosso [Kurenai no ButaPorco] (1992)

Bringing Home The Bacon

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Combining elements from CasablancaOnly Angels Have Wings and A Matter Of Life And DeathPorco Rosso is Studio Ghibli’s romantic, swashbuckling cocktail. Porco Rosso (Italian for Red Pig), real name, Marco Pagot is an ex-Italian World War I fighter pilot turned bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea. Porco is a Bogartian figure with his cool detachment, political apathy and romantic distance, but his most significant character trait is that derived from his physical appearance. Porco has had a curse put upon him turning him into, well, an anthropomorphic pig. Why is the film’s protagonist a pig? The two most apparent interpretations being firstly a reference to the saying “when pigs fly” and the cultural perception in the west (as well as in faiths such as Judaism and Islam) of pigs being dirty animals (keeping in mind the film is set in a western country). A common reading is that Porco put the spell upon himself out of survivor’s guilt when the rest of his comrades died in battle. He views himself as swine – self-loathing and unworthy of living. It’s only through the validation and the friendship he shares with the character of Fio that comes to cure him of this affliction. How someone possesses the supernatural ability to turn into an anthropomorphic animal is never explained nor does anyone in this world question why there is a walking-talking hog existing among humans. Still, the film has enough going for it to overcome this suspension of disbelief (Porco is even a hit with the ladies despite his appearance so I guess looks aren’t everything). The film’s ending indicates the curse may have been lifted but ultimately leaves the question unanswered. 

Porco Rosso is one of the few films directed by Hayao Miyazaki in which the historical and geographical setting is clearly defined and gives the director a chance to indulge in his Europhilia with the film’s picture postcard scenes of Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Academic Chris Wood states in his article “The European Fantasy Space and Identity Construction In Porco Rosso” that the film can be understood as a representation of wakon yōsai (Japanese spirit, western learning) – a tendency, since the Meiji period, for Japanese artists to paint Europe in a spectacular manner, while simultaneously maintaining the distance necessary to preserve a distinct sense of Japanese identity. Chris Wood states, “[In Porco Rosso] Europe is tamed, rendered as a charming site of pleasurable consumption, made distant and viewed through a tourist gaze“. So yes, Hayao Miyazaki is a European otaku. If there is a scene in the movie which captures this beautifully then it has to be the flashback to a young Porco (or Marco as he would have been known before his curse) and his longtime friend Gina lifting an early seaplane into the air in this display of pure unabashed nostalgia which captures the human desire to fly (thanks in large part of the enchanting music score by Joe Hisaishi). Likewise, one of the film’s most striking scenes has to be the flashback to Porco’s near-death experience and the origin of his curse. In this otherworldly sequence following a battle near the end of the war, Porco found himself in what the film describes as cloud prairie (I can’t find any reference to this term outside the movie), in which fighter planes from other nations rise above him into the sky as if there are entering heaven. The scene has similar vibes to the stairway to heaven from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life And Death while the use of synthesizers in the music score really makes it all the more captivating and eerie.

Porco Rosso is set during the final days of the roaring twenties and upon the onset of the Great Depression (“Farewell to the days of fun and freedom in the Adriatic”). The film’s setting also partakes in alternative history in which the wider Mediterranean Sea is beset with air pirates (albeit highly incompetent air pirates as reflected in their comical, circus-like theme music). From a romantic point of view it’s sad to say that air pirates are not real bar one incident in 1917 in which a civilian Norwegian schooner named Royal was boarded and captured by a party flying a German Zeppelin L23 – is the closest we’ve ever come to having steampunk fantasy become reality? As far as coinciding with actual history, Porco Rosso takes place during the days of Mussolini’s Italy as marchers in the street wave blue & green flags with bankers wearing the same design as armbands (this flag itself is fictional and was never an actual historical Italian flag). Porco is put under pressure from a former WWI comrade to join the state’s military to which he responds with the line “Better a pig than a fascist”. More sinister is the scene in which Porco pays off a loan at the bank and the teller asks him if he will invest in a patriot bond which of course, is only voluntary (wink wink). Despite its backdrop, Porco Rosso remains a largely apolitical film but if anything it shows that even under authoritarianism, life goes on.

The semi-love interest of Porco Rosso comes in the form of the pure feminine grace that is Madame Gina, of whom every flyer in the Adriatic is in love with as Fio claims. A longtime friend of Porco and his now deceased comrades, the film presents her as being “one of the guys” while not sacrificing any of her womanly demeanour. She will quickly run to a boat in a feminine stride but will make an epic and lengthy jump off the boat back onto the pier if required. Gina will dress to exemplance, even when in private and I do have to question if any particular Golden Age Hollywood actress is modeled after her? I am getting Mary Astor vibes myself. Gina occupies the island hotel known as the Hotel Adriano although it’s not made clear in the original Japanese version if she actually owns the establishment however, in the English dub, she refers to the place as “My restaurant” and the private garden as “my garden”. Regardless, the establishment is where all the hotshot flyboys of the Adriatic hang out where they kick back, relax and listen to Gina sing songs of lovers long lost. Like Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, there is an unwritten truce between all men. In the clouds, you may be enemies but at Gina’s place, everyone is your buddy. In her introductory scene, Gina shows little emotion in relation to having been told the news earlier in the day that her third husband had died in a flying accident, which as seen in films like Only Angels With Wings, was the norm in the early days of aviation. Porco and Gina share a “beauty and the beast” romance in which they never verbalise their feelings towards each other but you can tell there is a deep affection between the two. The other major female presence in Porco Rosso is the young Fio Piccolo, the counterbalance to Porco’s bleakness (and whose grandfather appears to be related to Hans Moleman). Porco doesn’t trust her to design him a new plane due to her being young and a girl says she understands this and doesn’t take offence. Rather Fio is aware that she needs to prove herself to him instead of just dismissing him as a sexist, well, pig (“Forgive my sins of using women’s hands to build a warplane”). However, it is somewhat odd the film concludes with narration from Fio’s point of view when this never happened at any other point in the film.

Porco Rosso does have one of the better Studio Ghibli English dubs, especially with the casting of Michael Keaton as the titular swine whose voice talents perfectly capture the world-weary cynicism of the character. I also enjoy Brad Garrett as the dopey pirate Capo while the announcer aboard the cruise liner as its being attacked by pirates adds some great deadpan humour to the proceedings. The sound mix of the dub is inferior when compared to the original while the lack of any reverb on the voices during the flying sequences is slightly jarring. Gina’s cover of the French song Le Temps Des Cerises is also re-recorded although there was no need to do so and I do consider the vocal performance on the original to be superior. Be that as it may, it’s Cary Ellwes’ southern drawl for the Errol Flynn-esque Donald Curtis which really add extra character to the dubbed version (in the Japanese version he is from Alabama whereas in the dub it mentions he is from Texas). The quasi villain of the picture, Curtis is a Hollywood actor who on his down time like Frank Sinatra, appears to converse with outlaws, while his delusions of grandeur thinking he will become President Of The United States with Madame Gina as his First Lady does make him somewhat endearing. Curtis does attempt to kill Porco by taking out his plane only to later discover his attempt was unsuccessful, eventually leading to the picture’s finale in which the two men sort out their differences through some mono e mono (in which Porco doesn’t even remove his glasses). I understand the psychological aspect of men making amends and even becoming friends after engaging in hand-to-hand combat, but Curtis did literally try to murder Porco earlier in the film, but I digress. Porco Rosso is another breed of artistic excellence from Studio Ghibli, you uncultured swine.

Whisper Of The Heart [Mimi o Sumaseba] (1995)

I Don’t Think There’s Any Artist Of Any Value Who Doesn’t Doubt What They Are Doing

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Whisper Of The Heart is Studio Ghibli’s love letter to creatives and a picture which contains great insight into the uncertainty derived from growing up and the role of education in this nostalgic coming-of-age tale. Fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima is the cheerful and infectiously optimistic protagonist of the story. She manages to find the joy in the mundanity of everyday life from something as simple as the sun coming out to seeing a positive message on the side of a blimp. Just observe the pure joy she gets from finding a quirky antiques store in a suburb (perhaps a bit too much as she nearly gets hit by a car while running across the road and never realizes it). The eccentricity of Japan is even on subtle display from the fact that a pork pie hat can be worn in common parlance and a girl can pursue a chonky cat for quite some distance just for the fun of it. It’s this aspect of Whisper Of The Heart which really makes you want to cherish life’s little moments.

Whisper Of The Heart is set over the course of 1994 (as indicated by Shizuku’s calendar), with a number of subtle indications for the passing of time throughout the film. The most noticeable of these being the seasonal variation of Shizuku’s school uniform with a white top for spring/summer and a navy-blue alternative for fall/winter. The initial catalyst of the story is set into motion when Shizuku’s father informs her that the local library is going through a transition from the old-fashioned book card system to a barcode system, much to her disappointment (I can recall my local library still using book cards in the early 2010’s). Goddammit modernity, sometimes the old ways are just better! It’s this tradition which ignites the film’s romance as Shizuku notices someone by the name of Seiji Amasawa has been taking out all the same books as her in this variation on The Shop Around The Corner formula re-imagined for the 1990’s. Shizuku and Seiji themselves aren’t too dissimilar to Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy with Seiji’s initially jerky behaviour and Shizuku’s bookworm personality (unfortunately, when I was off this age any expression of a desire to read was social suicide – sad but true). 

As is a common recurrence in Studio Ghibli’s films, Whisper Of The Heart is the story of a young, teenage girl forced into a position of maturity (it does make sense that the female sex tends to be the focus of these stories as research has shown that girls on average mature faster than boys). One major interlocked aspect of Whisper Of The Heart is the classic conflict of education vs. hands-on/real-world experience. Shizuku is attending middle school (aka junior high school) and is studying for her high-school entrance exams. Her love interest Seiji on-the-other-hand opts to attend a trade school in Cremona, Italy to further learn the craft of making violins rather than attend high school, much against his parent’s wishes (high school is not compulsory in Japan). This disapproval highlights the lack of respect one can entail for a practical hands-on profession over a more middle-class, so-called “real job”. Part of Shizuku’s impetus to embark on her writing of a novel comes from the insecurity that Seiji is far more developed in his own art form. Her focus on writing begins to affect her school grades, feeling that her need to write a first draft of her novel within two months before Seiji returns from Italy is more important than her school grades. Unlike Seiji, Shizuku doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future. She asks her older sister Shiho when she decided on her future, to which she responds with the dubious answer, “I’m at university finding that out”. This quote is particularly prevalent from a UK-centric point-of-view, when official figures state in the year 2017/18, 50.2 per cent of English 17-30-year-olds had participated in higher education, 20 years after the New Labour government set the target of having 50% of young people attend university (with these degrees often being of a useless nature and provide no stepping stone to a future career). From a personal point of view, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was 14 and it’s self-evident very few people of that age either have any idea. Seiji’s oddball choice of profession as a violin maker is an appropriate one at the end of the day as his character is an outlier of a person in their teens who has a definitive idea of what they want to do with their life. The film doesn’t take a position on the question on the role of higher education but does raise many a thought-provoking point as to its effectiveness. Come the film’s end, Shizuku returns to studying for her entrance exams. I can however relate to Shizuku’s unwillingness and nervous disposition to tell the rest of her family about her writing project even though they are aware something is occupying her time, to which her understanding parents sympathize and don’t question her on it any further.

Seiji’s grandfather and owner of the antiques store Shiro explains how artists or writers develop and grow in their talents with a simple metaphor – “The rough stone is inside you. You have to find it and then polish it”. Shizuku holds intense self-doubt about her work, disagreeing with anyone when they praise her work. This intensely self-critical manner and strive for perfection overtakes her and leads to overpowering anxiety when she shows Shiro the first draft of her novel. To quote filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, “I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they are doing.” – It’s this which really drives at the heart of Whisper Of The Heart. The picture showcases the highs and the lows that can be endured by creatives and parallels between the feeling of falling in love and the thrill that comes with creative pursuits. That scene in which a band has an impromptu performance of Country Roads as Shizuku sings her little heart out and gradually falls for Seiji (still unaware he is the boy on her book cards) combines these elements in a wonderfully corny scene. Whisper Of The Heart does hold parallels to fellow Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service with protagonists succumbing to stress, burnout and depression (also is Shizuku’s older sister a recycled character model of Ursula?). Whisper Of The Heart is after all set in a country in which death by overwork is so tragically common that it even has a name – Karoshi (“You doctor yet? No Dad I’m 12. Talk to me when you doctor!”). The ultimate irony of this is that the Whisper Of The Heart’s director Yoshifumi Kondo would pass away 3 years following the film’s release from an aneurysm brought on by overwork. Whisper Of The Heart would be his only directorial feature, with Kondo joining the likes of Charles Laughton or Walter Murch as directors who have helmed only a single film, but what a film it would be.

My first viewing of Whisper Of The Heart was somewhat marred by the film’s misleading (albeit still beautiful) poster, giving me the false assumption that Whisper Of The Heart was going to be a fantasy film in the vein of a picture like Labyrinth. This lead me to wonder when this non-existent fantasy element was going to kick in during the film’s first third, only to then realize it wasn’t that kind of film. The fantasy sequence inside Shizuku’s head which inspired the poster in which Shizuku and an anthropomorphic cat known as The Baron fly Superman ’78 style is a beautiful combination of fantasy and reality as those giant pillars (which do remind me of the backgrounds in Super Mario World) raise high into the sky above the suburbs of Shizuku’s world of West Tokyo. It’s easy to sound like a broken record when talking about the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli’s films, but god, this film is just so beautiful to look at it puts a smile on my face from the eye-popping colour of suburban Tokyo to those urban night-time landscapes. Even the film’s more mundane subjects such as the apartment block in which the Tsukishima family resides would be ugly in real life but has a certain beauty to it in the animated form. Correspondingly, the music score by Yuji Nomi is one of great variety from the whimsical nature of A Hilly Town to the Aussie outback vibe from The Cat Chases and even medieval-themed compositions with the track Engelszimmer. These pieces of orchestrated beauty make for a welcome contrast with the film’s urban setting however the film does also provide some more in-tune accompaniments to the Tokyo landscape with its use of electronic sounds and synthesizers as heard in Taking The Train and Starry Night Sky. Furthermore, I can’t help but notice similarities between the track A Hilly Town and the piece In The Evening Midst from the oddball, Japanese horror movie House, while these two aforementioned pieces of music surely must have influenced Michael Giacchino’s piece Married Life from Pixar’s Up (is it just me or do these three pieces of music work extremely well when listened to in tandem?). Whisper Of The Heart is also a rare instance of Ghibli film to feature licensed music with its recurring use of variations with John Denver’s Country Roads, including a real humdinger of a cover during the film’s end credits in which it is given the city-pop treatment. Correspondingly, like many a Japanese film, the always reliable sound of cicadas increases the atmosphere of anything tenfold.

Whisper Of The Heart concludes with a very sudden marriage proposal from Seiji to Shizuku. In the original manga from which the film is adapted, Seiji only says “I love you” but the film’s screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki changed the line to “I can’t say how soon it’ll be, but would you marry me?“. To quote the big man himself in defending this position – “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen”. Putting aside the oddity of receiving and accepting a marriage proposal when neither are of legal marrying age, I do agree this sense of commitment coming from these characters gives the film’s conclusion greater emotional weight (although I will say the film ends very abruptly and could have done with a few seconds to let the viewer take it all in). The Japanese and English dubs have different lines of dialogue in this final scene. In the Japanese version, Seiji makes the aforementioned proposal to which Shizuku nods and Seiji asks if she’s sure to which she replies “That’s exactly what I wanted.” However, in the English dub, their discussion of marriage is more tenuous. Seiji asks, “Could you see us getting married someday?” to which Shizuku nods and they agree that his question was corny. It feels like those responsible for the picture’s English dub had a lack of faith in the source material and outright disrespected it with said changes. Regardless, I am a sucker for a good story of hopeless romantics and this impulsive love present in the original Japanese version of Whisper Of The Heart defiantly delivers on the desired level of swooning.