Monday, November 29, 2010

Porco Rosso 1 Meta: conventions, worlds, roles

I’ve got two comments that are ‘meta’ to yesterday’s post on Porco Rosso.

Funny Animals, NOT

Somewhere near the middle of that post I observed that, while talking animals are a convention often used in cartoons, the fact that Marco Pagot appears to be a talking pig cannot be attributed to that particular convention. Miyazaki is doing something else in Porco Rosso and is not calling on that convention. He’s just calling on the normal license of story tellers to include fantasy elements in their stories.

That seemed obvious to me when I drafted it and it remains obvious in retrospect. I note here that that observation didn’t occur to me until I drafted it yesterday, and that despite the fact that I’ve been thinking about this film off and on over several years and had written perhaps 20 or 30 pages of notes and correspondence prior to writing that post.

Why’d it take me so much time and effort to arrive at something so obvious? Perhaps it’s because I simply don’t think of Miyazaki in the context of thinking about “Three Little Pigs” or Porky the Pig. They’re different worlds. As such it simply didn’t occur to me to deny the convention of one world (funny animal cartoons) in the course of thinking about a film in a different world (Miyazaki features). Whatever the reason, I do think it useful to have made the connection and thus to have pointed out that different conventions apply to Porco Rosso.

Imaginative Worlds

My other comment is a bit obscure. It has to do with thinking about fictive worlds, which is common enough. That is to say, it’s common to think about the characteristics of the world invoked in this or that narrative. In doing so we separate the world from the particular narrative and ask: What kinds of things exist in this world? What kinds of actions and events can take place? I’ve done a post doing just that kind of thing for the worlds in most of Miyazaki’s feature-length anime.

I think that can be misleading. In the case of Porco Rosso it led me to ask whether or not it would be possible to have other pigmen in this world, or perhaps donkeymen or foxwomen. Yes, the story we’ve got has only one such creature; but could the imaginative world in fact admit of others? To be sure, I didn’t mention such questions in that post, but I asked them of myself as I was thinking about this film. And I had the sense that somehow they’re beside the point.

This anomalous person, this Marco Pagot slash Porco Rosso, exists not simply as a character in some imaginative world floating around in the imaginative ether, waiting for us to tell tales about it. That person exists specifically as a creature of the tale Miyazaki has crafted about him. As I emphasized in yesterday’s post, that person is THE PROTAGONIST in this story and his anomalous nature is as much a function of that role as it is of the imaginative world. Though the two things can be teased apart analytically – the world, the role – one cannot understand the creature (Marco Pagot slash Porco Rosso) except in the conjunction of the world AND the narrative.

Just why that is so I attribute to the mostly invisible and unknown machinery through which we tell and understand such stories.


  1. I think you're throwing in the towel way too soon with "invisible and unknown machinery." Yeah, we don't have much neuroscience about how we tell and understand stories, but on the other hand we've been doing it for a number of millennia.

    Now, to be sure, Miyazaki didn't write a sequel to Porco Rosso but he could and so could a lot of other people. Those sequels might not equal Miyazaki's film aesthetically, but your point wasn't to say that it couldn't be done well but that it couldn't be done at all. Well, not so.

    For example, we can easily imagine that after several years, Porco left Europe he thought for good, a bitter and disappointed person. But then, what with this and what with that, he met a woman -- a refugee from Czechoslovakia, maybe -- but even so, when the Fascists started up in Spain, Porco left to fight once again, this time as a pilot in the anti-Fascist International Brigade. So he waves goodbye to his wife and their children. What are they: human? Cute little piglets?

    The answer is not "Tim, that is a stupid, stupid, stupid question. MIyazaki didn't make that film!" Not the point at all. If we cannot visualize and imagine Porco as a father, we have not engaged ourselves with Miyazaki's film. We have not seen what it implies and means for questions exactly like the ones I just asked. Now, over on the other thread, also about the limitations of animation, I have been trying to suggest that animation -- indeed, any art -- encounters problems of emergence that cannot be foretold ahead of time, and yet demand an answer. Over on that thread, you haven't engaged yourself, I think, with the thrust or point of my question. The questions I'm asking over there, and right here too, are not issues about details or translation or even of "interpreting" an animated film. But still the question demands an answer: what would Porco be like as a father? What would his children be?

    The answer is not "Miyazaki doesn't tell us, so the question is meaningless." Instead, the question recognizes that stories grow and develop in ways that are not easy for foretell, but that demand that we answer them lest we simply give up on the whole enterprise of trying to understand art, writing, and film.

  2. Let me add something to Tim's comment.

    That's the whole point of fan-fiction. It depends upon the fan's engagement with the creator's concepts and then extending the engagement, projecting it into directions not in the original narrative. This can be done well or badly in terms of quality (however quality may be defined), but the fact is that millions of people create fan fiction for pure enjoyment - since because of copyright reasons, only a small percentage of fan fiction can be commercialized. - Martha Cornog

  3. "Those sequels might not equal Miyazaki's film aesthetically, but your point wasn't to say that it couldn't be done well but that it couldn't be done at all."

    I've neither said nor implied that. I wasn't making an argument about what kinds of stories people could tell using materials Miyazaki supplied. I was making an argument about how to understand the story that Miyazaki did in fact tell. What I said was that "one cannot understand the creature (Marco Pagot slash Porco Rosso) except in the conjunction of the world AND the narrative." That may or may not be true, but it's not a denial of the possibility of telling other stories deriving from Miyazaki's characters.

    Obviously, people make up stories based on characters in books and films. If people make up stories about Porco, yes, I'd be interested in aesthetic quality. I'd be particularly interested in how people handle the ambiguities made possible through his appearance (which I'll get to in another post). I can imagine that one person might make up a story in which Porco returns to his human appearance, marries Gina, and they have human kids. Another person might have him continue his pig appearance, marry that Czech refugee, and have cute little semi-human piglets. These are contradictory alternatives. They can't both be true. I don't think that it make sense to attempt to adjudicate between them. Nor do I see that either of has any bearing on the analysis of the story that Miyazaki himself created.

  4. Nor do I see that either of has any bearing on the analysis of the story that Miyazaki himself created.

    Well, let me try to explain. If we define the functions of criticism and literary scholarship to analyze the story that the author created, then we are not allowed to go beyond Homer's original text (ca. 1000 BCE), or Plato's original Symposium (ca 400 BCE) or Shakespeare's plays ca 1600 CE. You want to discuss modern stage presentations of Shakespeare? You're not allowed to, because those are not the plays that Shakespeare himself created. You want to discuss Sir Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet? You're not allowed to, because the movie was not the play that Shakespeare himself created. And that puts an end to that.

    I am in fundamental disagreement with such views. I believe that we must go beyond the originals, because that is where the action is. By that I mean that the social and psychological realities of art to its audiences exists in the here-and-now of the world we live in, and not in the unchanged originals, whose original effects and impacts are beyond resuscitation. Moreover, it is in the here-and-now of today's readings -- and their creative extensions by fans, critics, and other enthusiasts -- that we understand what the art is now about.

    So I once again ask what will Porco Rosso's children be like? If you are unwilling to go further than the Miyazaki film, then I will demand that you deal with it -- in Japanese, not English, because it was originally created in Japanese. But I suspect that you do not want to do any such (idiotic) thing: it's too limiting even to think about. Now, there's a caveat here: I was implicitly discussing good-faith extensions and commentaries, not stuff invented for the sake of argument, e.g., that Porco's children might be little green Martian jellyfish with tentacles. The answer is that no such thing can happen in the world that Miyazaki created for us, and I am not interested in bad-faith counterexamples.

    Thus, imagine one of Porco's sons after World War II, around 1946, in Europe, a young veteran wounded badly in the war, who decides to find Gina, the Gina his father used to talk about... So we imagine him walking into a restaurant, and Gina sees him. Who does she see, a man or a pig?

    The answer is not "It depends on how the story is written. In some stories, he's a man, in others, he's a pig." That "answer" gets an F -- F for failure -- because it is an effort to avoid the question. It is a bad-faith answer. You must think through the meanings of the two possibilities and decide what they each imply and tell us about the Miyazaki film.

    You will then be able to develop two coherent trains of thought and analysis, one for each possible answer, where each one elucidates and explores the meanings of the film and Porco's identity, or quasi-identity, as a man or as a pig. You will find that you now have an analytical tool for exploring worlds like that in Porco Rosso. This exploration of alternatives is a powerful tool -- if, but only if, we use it in good faith.

  5. Continued

    Perhaps she sees a pig -- he looks rather like Porco, and she experiences a wave of sadness, nostalgia, and hope. Perhaps Porco's refusal to bend to the world -- symbolized by his piggish nature -- means that we can defeat the Enemy...

    Perhaps she sees a man -- he looks like the young Porco, she thinks sadly, wondering what will happen to him. Will he become another Porco, another escape artist, who left no legacies other than her memories of a man who ultimately failed to live up to what he had become?

    Both give us different readings of what it means to be a pig in the original film. Both can be sustained because both are good faith possibilities -- they're not little green Martian jellyfish with tentacles who were invented solely to defeat my reasoning. And both provide insights into the film that complement each other. Neither is simple, and their complexity helps us understand the complexity of the film itself.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Things are back, Tim, and your comments are posted. I'm still working on another post and so don't have time to reply immediately.

  8. I note that you haven’t actually provided two fully realized sequels to Porco Rosso. You’ve provided very abstract suggestions of two possibilities. Given what you’ve been arguing around the corner, it’s pretty hard to say much of anything about either of them. Until they’re realized we don’t even know if either could be made into a compelling story that has more than a nominal relation to Miyazaki’s film.

    Further, one of those alternatives is based on the premise that Pagot’s “piggish nature” represents something, which is certainly how one is tempted to read stories like this. However, just around another corner I’ve begun arguing that what that porcine visage represents (I suggest alienation, but it doesn’t much matter) is rather less interesting and significant than how Miyazaki uses it as a device. And I don’t have any easy why of characterizing that usage, just specific analyses of specific situations in the film. That usage is not so much a matter of the imaginative world considered as that, an imaginative world, is it is a matter of Miyazaki’s narrative technique.

    Would any serious attempt at a sequel have to somehow engage with what Miyazaki does from shot to shot? If so, I can imagine that the question of whether or not Porco’s offspring would appear pig-like or human, that that question would just disappear.

  9. No, I don't have to provide a detailed sequel. It's a tool for analyzing the film, not for going into the animation business. I don't understand your last question -- what does "somehow engage with" mean?

  10. Come to think of it, I don't know what "around the corner" means either. The link didn't go anywhere. While I'm at it, what does "uses it as a device" mean?

  11. Around the 'corner' in one case means to the 'behind-the-scenes' discussion. In the other case it links to my next post:

    There I talk about how Miyazaki use Porco's appearance as something other than an index for some personal essence.

  12. I any event, Tim, it seems to me that what you've done is:

    1) Arrived at two readings of the original film.

    And then:

    2) Imagined two sequels to illustrate those readings.

    I don't see how those sequels tell us anything than wasn't in those readings. They're redundant.

  13. According to the Wikipedia (no reference to a source, alas) Miyizaki is contemplating a sequel set during the Spanish Civil War: Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie. Will the protagonist be Marco Pagot, an old man who spent 15 years of his life with the head of a pig? Or will it be Porco Rosso, who's been a man with the pig's head ever since WWI? If the latter, will there be a scene where someone, a woman perhaps, will see him as a human? Also, will he end the film as a pigman or just as a man? And what about Gina?

  14. In his first comment, Tim mentions another thread where we're discussing the limits of animation. Here's that thread.