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an anthropomorphic pig in a plane
The titular Porco Rosso.
Image: Studio Ghibli

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Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso is a fairy tale without a fairy-tale ending

Hayao Miyazaki mixes reality with fantasy to stirring effect

May 25-30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.

The world of Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso strikes a delicate balance between reality and fiction. The story, which takes place in the aftermath of World War I, heavily features airplanes rendered in loving detail, and a setting where the time and place are so clear that the unfolding events can clearly be pinpointed in history. The main character, a, Italian bounty hunter named Porco Rosso, even quips that he’d rather be a pig than a fascist, referring to the rise of fascism in Italy at the time. That historical faithfulness is juxtaposed with a curse that turned Porco into an anthropomorphic pig, and a brush with the afterlife.

With the addition of sky-pirates and a star-crossed love story, Porco Rosso feels more like a fairy tale than historical fiction, in spite of its realistic trappings. But as Porco Rosso reaches its conclusion, the scales tip in a more bittersweet direction. The film’s denouement is happy but uncertain, forgoing the usual happily-ever-after in favor of something more subdued and realistic. It’s a fairy tale without a fairy-tale ending.

a woman in a white dress and hat
The glamorous Gina.
Image: Studio Ghibli

One of the big questions hovering over the film is whether the curse that turned Porco (formerly “Marco”) into a pig will ever be undone. It’s implied that his new visage is what keeps him from expressing his love for Madame Gina, who he’s known since childhood. When Curtis, an American pilot recruited by the sea pirates, attempts to woo Gina, she rebuffs his advances by telling him she only has eyes for Porco, and that she waits every day in her garden for him to come take her away. The easy conclusion to that love story would be for Porco to vanquish Curtis, regain his human form, and visit Gina in her garden. The Beauty and the Beast-esque structure is perfectly in place, but Miyazaki veers away from that seemingly inevitable finale.

The “happily ever after” he offers instead is one that treats the characters as though they were real people: Their lives are their own business, and the audience has pried enough already. Viewers aren’t owed a clear answer as to whether Porco and Gina end up together. Though the sight of an empty garden suggests that Porco finally confessed his feelings to Gina, there’s no explicit confirmation. Rather, the closing narration tantalizingly refers to the outcome of Porco and Gina’s back-and-forth as “their secret,” and leaves it at that.

Rather than lessening the power of their romance, Miyazaki’s resistance to fairy-tale storytelling conventions actually strengthens the film’s ending. The horror-movie principle that an unseen monster is scarier than one clearly depicted onscreen has its romantic corollary in Porco Rosso, as the romance of Porco and Gina’s story no longer stems from whether they did or didn’t get together, but from the imagined love affair that stems from speculation.

many battered planes flying together
Thousands of planes flying together.
Image: Studio Ghibli

The same goes for whether Porco manages to return to his human form. Fio, Porco’s frequent air-mechanic, catches a glimpse of his real face after he tells her a story about his experience in the war. It’s a moment of honesty from Porco, who spends much of the rest of the film adopting a roguish, carefree attitude and willfully ignoring the fact that the people around him care about him. But the change is temporary, which raises the question of whether it will be more permanent when a shocked Curtis briefly seems to catch sight of Porco’s human face in the film’s final moments. Viewers are left to guess Porco’s fate for themselves. But Gina clearly loves Porco, pig snout or no, so what matters isn’t the cosmetic change, so much as the attempt to overcome the survivor’s guilt at the root of Porco’s curse.

Porco Rosso emphasizes personal change: We don’t need to see a physical change so much as recognize that there’s been an internal one. It’s not so much a fable about inherent goodness (like Cinderella) or learning a moral (like The Tortoise and the Hare). It’s about these characters’ specific journeys. For the most part, Porco Rosso is rendered with such loving detail that it would be easy to mistake it for an animated version of a true story. Even though it stars an anthropomorphic pig, it ends in a realistic way, at least when it comes to emotions. Miyazaki forgoes easy answers, focusing instead on internal changes that can’t be so easily shown, and inviting the audience to draw their own conclusions rather than handing them easy solutions. It’s a bold approach to a story that seems like a fairy tale on the surface, but ultimately becomes a stronger, more affecting story.

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