dir. Miyazaki Hayao

Some friends of mine have been Miyazaki freaks for a long time but I don’t envy them their familiarity with the older films because encountering them for the first time each means a freshness that I can savor — the joy of repeated viewings will come as it does. Now that Disney seems to have gotten their act together in rolling the Ghiblis out (at least in fits and starts), the temptation to break down for one of those bootleg sets is now happily gone — admittedly it doesn’t hurt I’ve now picked up four of the reissues for essentially $5 (hurrah for gift money!).

But enough of that — Porco Rosso, which I’ve seen mentioned before as many folks’ favorites of all his films. It’s easy to see (and hear) why, of the films I’ve seen so far it is in ways the most outrageously inventive and stop-on-a-dime in terms of what it gives a viewer. The switches in tone and disparate elements that draw together and then fly apart again remind me of nothing so much as the brilliant Jet Li effort from the early nineties Fong Sai Yuk, which was a parody of martial arts costume epics that at the same time was often surprisingly moving and heartfelt as well as action-packed to an incredible degree. The approach is different here — it’s a serious film with comic moments — but the comedy is immediate, interwoven and never far away, from the young hostages at the start who pretty much proceed to run rampant in their kidnappers’ plane to the transformation of a climactic air battle into a bare-knuckle boxing match complete with bookies, a referee and a bell.

The seriousness isn’t simply in the artistry brought to bear — let’s put it this way, I was already planning on visiting Italy this summer and now I KNOW I want to see the Adriatic while I’m there. The amount of blink-and-you-miss-it moments of sheer delight in the colors, the backgrounds, the camera angles seems endless, from the impossible blues of the ocean to the surging power of a seaplane roaring under the bridges of Milan. But the setting of an impossible 1930s Italy also becomes key — like the same way that Castle in the Sky is of a Victorian time that never was, so too does Porco Rosso give us something like and yet unlike. Fascism and war and damage lurk in the background, though for all the bullets that fly during the course of the movie the only ones who die do so in flashbacks to another time — perhaps one of the most serenely jarring moments of the movie is a WWI-era dogfight where planes roar around each other and crash out of the sky, but to a patented Joe Hisaishi soundtrack of calm reflection, setting up the movie’s most haunting moments as the lead character glimpses what a pilot’s heaven — or hell — might be.

And then of course there’s Porco Rosso himself, a pig in a human world, a pig who was a human once, cursed for something by someone — but that just becomes something never explained and not needed to be explained, an open story just as much as the conclusion of the movie brings no exact resolution to everything (consider the end of Spirited Away as a compact example of the same principle). The relationship between himself and Gina in the film is shot through with depth and emotion, background and unspoken thoughts, that the small amount of time they spend together on-screen resonates to the very end — and it wouldn’t have been the same if he had just simply been ‘himself.’

Astonishing stuff, really. Always nice whenever something lives up to billing.