Two years ago I wrote three posts (see links at the end of the post) around and about the fact that the protagonist in Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso (that’s him in the white suit above) is a man with the head of a pig. The general idea was to account for that fact without laying it off on symbolism. I still think avoiding a symbolic account is a good idea.
It’s time to take another look, this time with a comparison from a very different film, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (GITS2: Innocence).
But let’s not go there yet. Let’s meander a bit. Here’s a frame from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away:
The girl with her back to us is the protagonist, Chihiro, while the seated creatures are her parents. Just moments ago they were humans. Now they’re all but pigs. The next time we see them they’ll be naked, on the ground, and looking pretty much like the other pigs in the pen with them. As far as anyone can tell, they have become pigs.
How did this happen? Well, the family happened up what appeared to be an abandoned theme park. In the course of exploring it Chihiro’s parents smelled some food. So they followed their noses, saw the food, made an attempt to find out who was offering it for sale and, when that failed, they started to eat.
It turns out that this wasn’t an abandoned theme park at all. It was something else, a bathhouse for spirits. But Chihiro and her parents didn’t know that and by the time Chihiro had learned, her parents had become pigs.
Now, we could, I suppose, argue that becoming pigs symbolized something about her parents. But is such symbolizing doing anything above and beyond what we can actually see in their actions? No, it’s not. Those actions speak louder than any words.
Why then the transformation? (1) Well, we could moralize and say its punishment for being greedy. And it IS something like that I suppose. But there’s something else: It gives Chihiro a problem. (2) Now she’s got to try to get her parents back while freeing herself from this world as well.
Not only are those two different explanations, but they’re different KINDS of explanation. The first is pitched within the logic governing actions within the story world. If you take food meant for the spirits and you get turned into a pig. If you ask the old witch for a job, she’ll give you one, but she’ll also take your name from you. THAT’s how that world works.
The second explanation is pitched at the level of story craft. The protagonist has to have challenging tasks to perform if the story is to be at all interesting. That is, whatever the story-world logic is, the story, in order to be interesting, must exploiting it in a compelling way. Restoring her parents to human form is one of Chihiro’s tasks.
Getting back to Porco Rosso, about two-thirds of the way through the film we learn of the incident during which Marco Pagot acquired the head of a pig. It was during the war and he was the loan survivor of a vicious air fight that took the life of his best friend. But the story’s vague on just how or why that incident gave him a pig’s head. It just did. The connection is not so clear and as the connection between Chihiro’s parents’ actions—eating food not theirs—and the consequence—becoming pigs.
As for the second level, that of story craft, that’s really where my question lies. It’s a device. It allows Miyazaki to do something. But what?
Well, it allows him to tell THIS story. That’s what I think. But I’m not sure why.
So let’s consider my other example, that of Batou, the protagonist in Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Here’s his face the first time we see it:
Here he is in the last scene, holding his beloved dog:
What does he have in common with Marco Pagot? He’s different from just about everyone else in the film. Just as Pagot is the only character in Porco Rosso with the head of a pig so Batou is the only character in GITS2: Innocence with blank eyes. They lack the normal iris-pupil structure.
Given the importance of the eyes in how we perceive and interact with others—the eyes as mirror to the soul, that sort of thing—this feature of character design is every bit as disconcerting as a pig-headed man. If Pagot had been only one of a bunch of animal-headed humans, that would have been quite different, just another cartoon with talking animals, or animal-humans. But this story world isn’t like that. In this story world Pagot’s unique, as is Batou.
The story-logic, though unstated, is obvious. The film is set in a future world where just about everyone is hooked into the web and has some artificial body parts. Batou is verging on having a completely automatic interior. But his brain, which is in constant electronic contact with the web, is natural. So those blank eyes are simply one aspect of his cyborg reconstruction.
Now, Batou is not the only one in the Ghost in the Shell expressive franchise with such eyes (the franchise also contains the originating manga by Masamuni Shirow, two TV series, an all-text novel, and a video game). In addition to Batou, there’s a high government official with such eyes in the first Ghost in the Shell film. But Batou’s the only such character in this film.
Almost. There’s this guy:
Those odd eyes aren’t the only strange thing about him and their oddness extends well beyond the eyeball. But he’s a bit player, only on screen long enough for Batou to obliterate him in hand-to-hand combat.
And then there’s this guy:
His eyes have an iris-pupil structure; but they’re oddly colored. He’s considerably more important to the plot than the hulk in the previous image and he gets more screen time. This is only one of the two appearances he assumes. He has normal eyes in the other one.
So, we’ve got two films in which the protagonist is odd about the head. One has the head of a pig, the other has blank eyes. There’s something else they share, something I’ll call distant love, if only for the moment.
Let’s start with Batou. In the first Ghost in the Shell film he was second in command to Major Motoko Kusanagi. Just as he’s a fine hunk of a man, so she was a babe and a half. Like him, she was almost completely cyberized.
He was deeply attached to her, though the nature of that attachment was not clear. While she valued his friendship and loyalty, she was distracted by a creature of cyberspace known as the Puppet Master. When the film ended she left her body and joined the Puppet Master in cyberspace.
And that’s the situation at the opening of GITS2: Innocence. Batou misses her deeply. He longs for her presence. And she does show herself to him, first by giving in signals through the web and then, at the end, by assuming the body of a female robot and fighting with him. When she first shows up he tenderly drapes his vest over the robot body she’s entered. We recognize the gesture as one of affection, but what does it mean to a robot? To THAT particular robot and ghost (that is, mind) probably the same thing it means to us. But the question’s out there. When the fight’s over, Kusanagi leaves the body and is once again enveloped in cyberspace.
Now, to Marco Pagot. Not only is he the only such figure in Porco Rosso, so far as I know he’s the only such protagonist in Miyazaki’s feature films. In private correspondence Tim Perper tells me that Miyazaki did a half dozen episodes of the anime series, Sherlock Hound, and the premise of that series is one of humans with dogs heads. That is, all the talking characters are humans with dog heads; the protagonist is not singled out for special treatment.
He is in Porco Rosso. And it soon becomes clear that there is a strong bond between Porco (that is, Marco Pagot with a pig’s head) and Gina, who is the owner of the Hotel Adriano and a long-term friend of Porco’s. That best friend of his who died along side him in the war? He’d just married Gina before that fatal mission. Gina’s clearly and obviously and love with Porco now, and he keeps dropping in at her hotel to talk with her. But . . . the film ends with a strong hint that he’s regained a human head and has accepted Gina’s love, but we don’t really know. We can only guess and hope.
In this context, in comparison with Batou's blank eyes, Porco’s appearance makes sense to me. We have two odd male protagonists and they are coupled with two women who are at the same time psychologically close but physically distant. In Porco’s case he keeps Gina physically distant. In Batou’s case, physical distance is written into the premise of the story.
As I say, that whole pattern makes sense. By which I probably mean nothing more than that there’s a pattern there. What that pattern’s about, I’m not sure.
In those old posts about Porco Rosso (listed below) I spent some time asking myself what would change if Marco Pagot had a human face for the entire film. A certain amount of dialog would have to be written, and one crucial scene would have to be changed, the scene where Porco’s telling the story about how he became a pig. We’re in his cave hideout and he’s telling the story to Fio, the young woman who’d designed and directed the refit of his plane. There’s a moment there where she looks at him and sees, not a pig, but a man:
Fio also kisses him, having mentioned the fairy tale in which a princess kisses and frog and it becomes a prince. But in this case nothing happens, for this is no fairy tale, is it?
If Porco weren’t Porco but merely Marco, that business would be lost. Is that an important matter? Sure it is, otherwise it wouldn’t be in the film. Moreover, would having a human face change his relationship with Gina?
In GITS2: Innocence I suspect that the counter-factual isn’t about what kind of story we’d have it Batou had eyes but rather: What kind of a story would we have if Motoko Kusanagi were there in the (cyber)flesh? I’m not sure, but it would be a very different one.
And that’s rather the point, isn’t it? It WOULD be a very different story. For then she still would, presumably, be his commanding officer. And that would put a damper on his thoughts of romance.
But enough. I’ve laid out the issues as best I can, for the moment. Who knows, maybe they’ll work themselves out.
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Old posts on Porco Rosso:
Porco Rosso 1: Pig as Protagonist
Porco Rosso 2: What’s a Pig?
Porco Rosso 3: In the Minds of Women