Sunday, November 28, 2010

Porco Rosso 1: Pig as Protagonist

porco cockpit

Recently I’ve been doing a good deal of thinking about the films of Hayao Miyazaki, re-watching them too, time and again. In the large I’ve been thinking how each film involves its own assemblage of naturalistic and fantasy elements. In some films the naturalistic seems to be a pendant on the fantastic, think of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. In others it’s the reverse, Kiki’s Delivery Service or the film I want to examine now, Porco Rosso, that is to say, The Crimson Pig.

The film’s central conceit is that the protagonist, Marco Pagot, is a man who, at some point in his life, became a pig. That is how he appears in the film. That, and a closely associated aerial parade of dead fighter-pilots in their planes are the only fantastic elements in the film. There are no elixirs and potions, no spells, no semi-divine and / or supernatural creatures, nor giant insects, no dream worlds, no flying about on brooms, none of that. Just a man who looks like a pig, and his memory of those dead pilots, their planes streaming upward. The memory takes but a minute or two on screen, but the porcine visage, that’s constant, from beginning to end.

Given any of Miyazaki’s films one might wonder what would happen if the fantasy elements were eliminated. Do that to Spirited Away and the film all but disappears. Eliminate the fantasy from Porco Rosso and most of the film remains, so much so that one might wonder whether those those two fantasy elements serve any compelling purpose.

I assume they do, but nonetheless find myself compelled to ask: Why a pig? What does Miyazaki accomplish through that conceit that he could not otherwise accomplish? While I find the film compelling in immediate experience, I don’t know how, upon reflection, to rationalize the protagonist’s porcine head.

Isn’t it symbolic?

Isn’t everything?

This is the first of two or three posts in which I examine how Miyazaki deploys this central device. In this post I will examine something that is so obvious that it hardly seems worthy of notice, much less analytic commentary, namely the fact the pig is in the protagonist role.

Porco in port

The Protagonist is a Pig

The pig in this film, Marco Pagot, is the protagonist. He’s not a secondary or tertiary character. The other characters exist to fill-out his story, not he to fill theirs.

By way of examining the obviousness of this fact, imagine the same film, but with Pagot appearing human at all times. Instead, some minor character shows up with a pig head, a donkey head, or a chicken head, choose your animal. Imagine that it’s the bank teller, or the boy who pumps the gasoline when Pagot refuels on the way back to his island. We see this minor character with an animal head. No fuss is made about it, and it’s the only animal-headed character.

How would that go over? It seems to me we’d be forced to think of it as a DUMBASS MISTAKE. What else could it possibly be? We have some being acting the role of a human. All of the creatures acting in such roles are ordinary humans, all of them except this one. If that’s not a mistake, then it requires an explanation.

What kind of explanation could possibly work? Perhaps the person really is just a person, but is wearing an deceptively convincing mask. If that’s the case, then the film has to show us that it is a mask, and must somehow account for that mask. Or perhaps the person really is a donkeyman, or maybe even an extraterrestrial donkeyman. That too must be somehow explained. However this anomalous creature is rationalized, the rationalization will threaten to enlarge the character out of minor status into major status or even . . . even the protagonist slot.

All of which is to make the obvious point: If there’s going to be one, and only one, anomalous character in the story, the implicit logic of story construction demands that that character be the protagonist. Further, the story must account for how the protagonist became anomalous.

Cartoons with talking anthropomorphic animals are ubiquitous. No one wonders why the taking creatures are animals. But those cartoons are pervaded by such animals. They are understood as conventions of the imaginative world in those cartoons. As such, they require no account. Porco Rosso is not one of those cartoons. Pagot’s porcine nature thus does not follow from that convention. It requires a different justification.

Staging a Pig

Anyone who sees this film will come to it expecting a pig; he’s in the trailers and previews and, of course, in the title. Just to make sure, Miyazaki opens the film with a short bit of explanatory text to introduce the film, a common practice. He presents this bit of text in ten languages in parallel rows, one beneath the other: Japanese, Italian, Korean, English, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, French, German. Here’s the English version:
This motion picture is set over the Mediterranean Sea in an age when seaplanes ruled the waves. It tells the story of a valiant pig, who fought against flying pirates, for his pride, for his lover, and for his fortune. The name of the hero of our story is Crimson Pig.
There can be no mistake, this is a film about a pig, a valiant pig.

Still, Miyazaki teases us, as though we don’t in fact know we’re about to watch a film about a pig. The film opens on a small island that serves as Pagot’s base. We see him reclining in a chair on the beach:

Porco reclins

Pagot’s head is obscured by a movie magazine:

porco hidden face

Rossellini’s feet are on a table, where we see a partially eaten apple, a half empty class of wine, and stubbed-out cigarettes:

Porco wine & cigs

The overall effect is one of casual disarray. A pig sty?

The phone rings, Pagot reaches for it without changing his comfortable position, and he starts talking without bothering to sit up or even move the magazine:

Porco talks phone

The voice on the line is from a shipping company that has retained Pagot’s service as a bounty-hunter. He’s told that one of their ships is under attack by air pirates and that it has a lot of gold on board. He’s not interested, too busy. “Well, there’s a group of school girls on board, too.” That gets his interest. Now he removes the magazine and we see that, yes, he’s a pig:

Porco shows face

Now we can relax and watch the pig go to work. Which he does. He launches his plane and recovers the gold and, of course, the little girls – who kept the air pirates on their toes.

That episode runs its course and Pagot makes his way to the Hotel Adriano, which is on the water and accessible only by boat or sea plane. He has dinner alone in a back room and, in time, is joined by Gina, the proprietor. It’s clear that they are old friends.

There’s an old photograph on the wall; it shows several young people in front of a seaplane. One of them has his face scratched out:

Porco photo

That’s Pagot, and he’s the one who scribbled over the face. Gina is the young woman below him. They chat about the photo, and the past, just a bit, enough to signal that there is a story about how Pagot became a pig, and that Gina knows and is somehow involved in that story.

We now 15 minutes into this film that will run for 90 minutes; we’re a sixth of the way through. We know something about how Pagot lives, that he’s cynical, but more readily moved to action at the prospect of rescuing children than recovering gold, he’s a superb and resourceful pilot, and he’s got a past.

Don’t we all?

When we learn what that past is then, presumably, we’ll learn why he’s a pig.

Given that this, then, is a story about a man who became a pig, a story that will, perhaps, tell us how he became a pig, could it be fair to say the Miyazaki is presenting a fable about what it is to be human?


In the next post I’ll discuss some details of how Miyazaki deploys this central device, how he moves in the “space” between word and image.

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