Miyazaki’s underrated work deals with guilt, disillusionment and the power of perception.
Porco Rosso is a film with firm developmental roots in the perceived past. The film’s protagonist, Marco, is a skilled free-lance pilot, former WWI war-hero, and former man, now cursed to assume the form of an anthropomorphic pig. His deformity, however, is strangely accepted by Marco himself as well as the Italian citizens who admire his dogfighting skills against the seaplane pirates of the Adriatic Sea. Marco is famously known as Porco Rosso, the Crimson Pig, by the residents of the Adriatic. The one person who still seems to wonder whether Marco’s curse might be lifted one day is Gina, the gracefully melancholic singer of the Hotel Adriano, and Marco’s childhood friend.
It isn’t until later in the film that Marco’s acceptance of his curse is revealed to stem from his haunting guilt. A former member of Italy’s Air Force, Marco watched as three of his closest friends died in service of Italy’s fascistic regime during World War I. This, in combination with his own enduring survivability, caused Marco to detach himself from his society. He would rather stay a stubbornly individualistic pig than consider himself a part of the same fascism that led to the deaths of the people he cared about, so Marco’s appearance is implied to be a self-imposed physical manifestation of his internal affective state. Marco’s self-dependent attitude has the simultaneous side-effect of distancing Gina, who had successively married and lost the same three pilots that were Marco’s friends. The connection between Marco and Gina is rooted in the same sense of loss, but the way the two deal with that loss is very different. Gina attempts to heal her grief by extending her love to Marco. She waits for him every day under her sun-lit garden, hoping that he shows up so she can tell Marco that she loves him; unfortunately, he only visits her at night when she sings in the Hotel Adriano. Marco keeps Gina and his society at a distance, using his disillusionment as a way to avoid confronting his emotional guilt and, by extension, Gina.
It isn’t until Marco is knocked down a peg that he is able to allow some sense of optimism for the future of his country to shine through his cloudy perception. Through a combination of ambush and engine failure, Marco is shot down by Donald Curtiss, a skilled, glory-hunting American pilot hired by the Adriatic’s seaplane pirates to gain a bit of an edge. Marco takes his destroyed plane to his old friend and mechanic Piccolo in Milan for repairs and enhancements, and is unexpectedly introduced to Fio, Piccolo’s innovative, mechanically inspired granddaughter. Fio wants to design the enhancements to Marco’s plane, but Marco is originally hesitant because of Fio’s youth (17) and gender. She is eventually able to turn him around through a combination of enthusiasm and “inspiration”, qualities that Marco shared at Fio’s age.
Fio is, like Miyazaki’s other female characters, intelligent and skillful; and because she is representative of the burgeoning female force that took charge during The Great Depression, Fio is even more confident and self-assured than those characters. As Fio designs the augmentations, it is the women of Milan who actually build the plane because their husbands are absent; searching for work in the socioeconomic climate of the Depression. Though Marco initially perceives Fio and the women through the same misogynistic preconceptions typical of the 1930’s, the combination of Fio’s inventiveness and the women’s efficiency and vigorous work ethic allows Marco to see beyond his surface perceptions and value the help he receives from them.
Marco’s developing empathic perception is mirrored by Fio later on when she briefly sees Marco, not as a pig, but as a man under candlelight. The moment is a visual dramatization of both characters’ ability to see past surface appearances, and leads into Marco sharing with Fio the story of the death of his first friend, Bernini, during the war. Fio’s intelligence and drive are qualities representative of a brighter future that Marco can place his faith and trust in, qualities that combine with the trans-surface perceptions of both Marco and Fio to break through his cynicism and open Marco up to communicating his guilt over Bernini’s death.
Whether Marco is able to bridge an emotional connection to Gina in a similar way that he is with Fio is ambiguously left open by Miyazaki. There are, however, three hints at the end that suggest the true conclusion of the film: the first is the final shot of Marco’s character, a medium-close shot that purposely omits his face. The second comes at the beginning of Fio’s ending monologue, “Porco (the pig) never showed up again…” The third is a shot of Gina’s garden kissed by sunlight; Marco isn’t there, but neither is Gina.