Since the international breakthrough of his Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, 1997), Western appreciation for the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki has been steadily growing. Initially Miyazaki was known only to a handful of anime and Asian cinema die-hards. Now the most mainstream of publications start furious e-mail campaigns when Disney announces it will release Princess Mononoke on DVD in the US with no Japanese voice track.
For all of Mononoke's popularity, the earlier work of Miyazaki is still relatively unknown outside Japan. Porco Rosso for instance, the tale of a guilt-plagued aviator who has turned into a reclusive pig but continues to patrol the skies against a pirate menace, has to the best of my knowledge received a theatrical release in only one foreign territory, namely France (where Jean Reno provided the voice for the eponymous hero).
Porco Rosso is a fantasy tale that's lyrical to the point of being naive. That's not meant in a negative way, mind you. In fact it's praise. NaivetÚ is after all a legitimate tool with which the artist can express himself. And express himself Miyazaki does. Triumphantly so. What seems like a story of romantic escapism becomes an enthralling, endearing and mesmerising piece of animation cinema thanks to a man who is a master at both his art and his craft.
Yet, Porco Rosso is one of the director's more humble works. Miyazaki's films, as witnessed by for instance Nausicań of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze No Tani No Naushika, 1984) and the aforementioned Princess Mononoke, are often elaborate, epic scale adventures driven by social allegories. It's one of the reasons why his work has received so much praise, both at home and abroad. However, in my view, Miyazaki is at his best when he keeps it simple. The metaphors and allegories are usually thinly-veiled and the films tend to get crushed under weight of their own self-importance. In this overabundance of subjects, subplots and metaphors, much is left hanging, unresolved and unsatisfying.
The simplicity of Porco Rosso is what gives the film its strength. No obvious, spun-out social commentary here. In Porco Rosso, Miyazaki doesn't criticise us for what we're doing wrong, but instead shows us how valuable and wonderful it is to be A) alive and B) human. Same intention, different approach. The tools he uses are those of humour, romanticism and good-naturedness, and by playing at the top of his abilities, both as a craftsman and as a storyteller, he brings us wonder and amazement.
We sit enthralled, not because we're caught in an exhausting hyperactive rollercoaster ride, but because Miyazaki shows us beauty and humanity, and an emotional resonance so sorely lacking in his more epic sagas. Porco Rosso is a wholly positive experience.