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.

Jack Frost (1998)

He’s Snowboarding On His Flesh

When I was a kid, nothing got me and my friends more hyped up in anticipation than snow. Yep – the glorious white stuff. To us, there were few other activities as fun as playing in the snow. One major problem, however; I grew up in a country in which we only get about 3-4 days a year of significant snowfall in which it would actually settle on the ground. So when there was a significant level of snowfall, we would make the utmost use of it. Snowball fights, sledding, snow angels and of course, making a snowman.

Snowmen were a subject of my childhood fascination. Why? They just have a certain magical appeal. Whenever I would see one in someone else’s garden, I would always have to point it out, “Look, a snowman!” So when my friends and I heard about the movie Jack Frost, in which a snowman comes to life, we were psyched to see it. Although there already existed the 1982 animated short The Snowman which had a similar premise, I believe Jack Frost appealed to us more for several reasons:
-It was a movie more of our generation.
-It was live action and the snowman looks just like a real snowman we could have created ourselves.
-But most importantly, the movie was called Jack Frost. When I was younger, whenever there was a frosty night, we would always say that Jack Frost is out tonight.

So one weekend myself and one of my friends rented Jack Frost on video and we thought it was an absolute blast. However even at that age we thought there were some stupid moments, such as when Charlie is hanging over a wall of snow and he’s supposed to be in danger, yet the drop itself is tiny; or during the sledge chase sequence when two kids just happen to have a snowball the size of a boulder on standby to stop Charlie and Jack. However, the one aspect of the film we found to be the most unbelievable was in how Charlie had not got over his father’s death one year on. The reason for this is that a friend of ours had recently lost his father to an illness, yet was back in school one week later, acting as he normally would. To us, Charlie isolating himself from his friends due to his father’s death one year on seemed far-fetched. In retrospect, however, this view was short-sighted.

Regardless we could only look on in envy at just how much snow this fictional picture perfect postcard town of Medford, Colorado had. In my home country when it did snow our teachers wouldn’t even let us go outside to play in it. Yet in Jack Frost, the kids are able to go into the snow and have trench warfare battle snowball fights. Plus they don’t even wear school uniforms?! You can imagine the jealousy us kids had for our Yankee counterparts.

Several years later, I saw Jack Frost again on TV one weekend and the following Monday in school, it seems half the class also watched it and were all raving about how much we loved it; discussing our favourite moments, talking about the scenes we found to be the funniest. Even my teacher had watched it over the weekend and called it – and I quote – “a wonderful film”.

Now years later with the advent of the internet, I find out that Jack Frost is considered a terrible film and the critics trashed it. However, when watching it again after all these years it still strikes a chord with me as a pool of happy, nostalgic memories coming flooding back. But what I can I take from the film and examine now with an adult perspective?

One of the biggest criticisms I hear against the movie is that the snowman is creepy. Even Roger Ebert criticised the design with its anorexic looking twigs for arms. Well, it’s all in the eye of the beholder I guess. I also liked the design of the snowman as I think not only does he look cute but looks just like a snowman the average kid would make. The snowman was originally designed for George Clooney and I can see Clooney’s face within it. Apparently, the casting change to Michael Keaton caused major problems for the film’s SFX team. Watching my late 90’s DVD copy of Jack Frost, the CGI doesn’t look half bad. Although if I was to ever watch the film on an HD transfer perhaps it might not look as good.

Jack Frost belongs to that breed of film which was everywhere in the ’90s in which a workaholic father can’t make time for his kids. As drawn out as this cliché was in the 90s, it does raise the question – should you even have children if you’re going to dedicate yourself to a lifelong career or venture? Jack Frost does go a step further with this examination of fatherlessness with the character of Rory whom as the movie states, never saw his old man and resents it (“It sucks, it sucks big time”). Any coincidence his character is a delinquent. The father-son relationship in Jack Frost does tug at my heartstrings and yes, that ending kills me.

Many aspects of Jack Frost scream this is a late 90’s movie from those early CGI credits to the film’s emphasises on extreme sports such as hockey and snowboarding. Even the antagonist is named Rory Buck – might as well be called 90’s Mc 90’serson. Even the radio presenter at the beginning of the film states: “we got more music coming from the 70’s and 90’s. No 80’s I promise” (Boo!).

Viewing Jack Frost from a more mature perspective I am forced to suspend my disbelief at my many aspects of the film’s plot. So for starters, does the afterlife exist within the universe of Jack Frost? Where was Jack for the entire year before he came back as a snowman? Was he in purgatory? How did he suddenly find out how to change back to his human self then leave? What’s the deal with the magic harmonica? Does God himself exist in this universe?

Then there’s that whole snowboarding sequence. It’s a blast to watch even though I have to refrain from questioning how illogical it is. I already thought the conveniently placed snow boulders where stupid as a kid but I also notice how snowboards and snowbikes are all conveniently placed. But more importantly, the kids do notice that Charlie is sledding with a sentient snowman? Also, have you considered that he’s essentially snowboarding on his flesh? But who cares, this sequence is a ton of fun and Hey Now Now by Swirl 360 is a tune. That money shot of Jack Frost snowboarding in mid-air brings a smile to my face.

Rock on Jack Frost! Snow dad is better than no dad!