Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Porco Rosso 2: What's a Pig?

What then do we make of the fact that the protagonist in Porco Rosso is an anthropomorphic pig? We might say that, well, it’s symbolic, it’s a metaphor.

Of what?

Let’s review the opening scene, which I discussed in my opening post. Even before we see the protagonist’s head, before we know he’s a pig, Miyazaki leads us to believe that his protagonist is lazy – sleeping on the beach in mid-day – and slovenly – cigarette butts, etc, lying around. In short, that he’s piggish, as that notion is understood. When we see that, yes, he IS a pig, well . . . just what are we being told? We’ve already seen that he’s piggish. We don’t need to see a pig’s head in order to know that. We know it from his attitude and actions. But perhaps the appearance provides an account of that behavior: he’s piggish because he’s a pig. It betrays the protagonist's essence.

Later on in the film he’s chatting with Curtis in the bar of the Hotel Adriano. Here’s a bit of that conversation:
Porco Rosso: That's the plane that beat an Italian boat at the Schneider cup, two years running.

Curtis: It's not only fast, it's good in aerial combat. I hear that a pig named Porco Rosso has quite a reputation around here.

Porco Rosso: If you make a deal with the air pirates, watch your tail, young'un. They're a bunch of penniless cheapskates. They stink 'cause they don't bathe.

Curtis: Yea... that's for sure.*
Now we have Pigman criticizing others for a failure to bathe. Given the conventional implications of piggishness, that would seem to be a bit hypocritical, no? Yet, while the pirates overhear the remark and bridle at it, there’s no suggestion that Pigman stinks. He appears to be well-groomed, and even a bit of a dandy, with a white scarf around over his flight suit. Maybe he isn’t such a pig after all.

The fact is, as Tim Perper pointed out to me in private discussion some years ago, Pagot does not, in fact, act like a pig in this film. Yes, as Patrick Drazen has explored in “Sex and the Single Pig: Desire and Flight in Porco Rosso” (Mechademia 2, pp. 189-199, 2007), Pagot has a reputation as a rake, and there’s no reason to believe that he doesn’t deserve that reputation. But we don’t see him womanizing in this film. In particular, he refuses to respond to Fio’s overtures, however tentative they might have been. The Pagot we see in this film is a brave, resourceful, and courteous man. Not a pig at all.

Consider another incident. Resplendent in a white summer suit and white fedora, Pagot goes to his bank in Dubrovnik. He makes a deposit and pays off the loan on his plane. The bank suggests that he buy “some patriotic bonds to contribute to our nation.” Porco Rosso responds: “I’ll let the ‘humans’ do that.” The fact that he is a pig, or course, differentiates him from the humans and so does duty as a reason for not buying bonds.

Note also that that particular reply would not be available to him if he were an ordinary human, not a pigman. If he were an ordinary human he would either have to refuse without offering any reason at all, or offer some other reason other than that bond-buying is for humans. In the current political climate, that might be risky.

What’s going on is that the authoritarian regime is gearing up for war; we’ve seen soldiers and tanks in the street. Pagot wants nothing to do with this. His refusal to buy bonds is a refusal to participate in a authoritarian government and his way of stating the refusal – “I’ll let the ‘humans’ do that” – is, in effect, a way of denying that he’s an authoritarian. And yet he doesn’t have to say so explicitly. We get the point.

Is this the behavior or a pig, even a symbolic pig?

When he leaves the bank, Pagot goes to his gunsmith to pick up a gun for his plane and asks for some ammunition as well.
Porco Rosso: Things are getting wild out in the streets.

Gunsmith: Oh, yeah? Looks like we're in for a change of government. If so, people like you will be outlaws.

Porco Rosso: "Country" and "law" don't mean anything to a pig.

Gunsmith: You're right, Mister. Same goes for us moles.

Gunsmith's Apprentice: Just the usual? We have a new supply of high capacity incendiary and armor piercing ammunition...

Porco Rosso: Hey kid. I'm not going to war. See ya.
Notice Pagot’s statement that “country” and “law” don’t mean anything to him. That’s not a statement grounded in swinishness; it’s something else. He’s outside society. And when the apprentice asks if he’d rather have some particularly lethal ammunition, he refuses, as though he has a sense of proportion about his activity. He’s outside the law, but there are still boundaries and norms that he respects. That’s a theme that will be picked up an deepened in his combat with Curtis.

This has nothing to do with piggishness as ordinarily understood. It makes little sense to read Pagot’s porcine appearance as a symbol or metaphor of (inner) piggishness. Yes, Miyazaki plays on those connotations in the opening scene where we see Pagot lazing about on the beach. But then he sets about systematically disabusing us of the notion that this odd creature is piggish. If Pagot’s appearance has an consistent meaning or significance, it is of alienation. This man has withdrawn from ordinary human intercourse and lives outside ordinary human society. That’s not piggishness.

I’ve suggested that it marks Pagot’s alienation. Let’s accept that for the sake of argument. But Pagot’s alienation is obvious from what he does and says. Miyazaki doesn’t need to underlie that with some symbol. Rather, he’s using Pagot’s appearance as a device for achieving various effects in different scenes, including manipulating audience expectations about the conventional connotations of piggishness, which seem to obtain in Japan as well as in America. But he’s doing much more with that device. And what he does with this device is more interesting that whatever that porcine visage might be said to represent.

In the next post I’m going look at a crucial scene in which Miyazaki uses a subjective camera in a way that would have little point if Pagot appeared as a human.

*I’m quoting from the 1993 translation by Koji Ono, which is posted online at GhibliWiki (aka Nausicaa Net). According to Patrick Drazen (in Mechademia 2, 199, 2007) it is more accurate than either the subtitles or the spoken lines in the Disney release of the film.

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