In Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso (1992), the striking red plane flown by the main character, Porco, allows him to defeat pirates while soaring through the Adriatic skies, as well as allowing him to accomplish a more mysterious and restorative form of travel: connecting to a bygone past, to his memories of those he lost. In the animated film, Porco lives in a time of tumult and creeping authoritarianism, as Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government consolidates power in Italy and the Adriatic becomes increasingly restricted and surveilled. Afflicted by profound guilt because he survived World War I, Porco flies alone. He cynically views patriotism and honor as hollow shams as he mourns his fellow pilots who died in that war. Yet the act of flying his red plane creates a psychic bridge to the past, to the more innocent and communal world that shattered during the war (see figure 1).
An animation pioneer and Studio Ghibli co-founder, Miyazaki has expressed a deep fascination with planes since his childhood, emphasized by Susan Napier (2018). Along with environmentalist themes and active, self-possessed female protagonists, airplanes are one of Miyazaki’s foremost trademarks as a filmmaker. From the insectoid planes in Nausicaa (1984) to the myriad of fantastical airships featured in Castle in the Sky (1986), Miyazaki has crafted lushly dreamlike worlds filled with flying machines. As Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc (2009) write, aviation “offers a freedom unrestricted by gravity and allows the animator to work in a completely uninhibited environment” (22). From this viewpoint, flying creates an unbounded world, amplifying the malleability and enchantment innate to animation as a medium. Animation has the potential to make an environment animistic, infusing material, inanimate objects with a conscious vitality. Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1988) identified this connection between animation and animism, writing that animation depends on “the triumph over fetters of form”, continuing to say that this form thus revolts against, “spiritual stagnation and greyness” (4). Animation, as shown in Porco Rosso, breathes energy and imagination back into a disenchanted, mechanistic world, and the whimsy of flight increases that freedom.
On one hand, Miyazaki revels in this utopian ideal of animation as a playground for freedom and mystic vitality. The Japanese animistic practices known as Shintoism suffuse Miyazaki’s work, demonstrated most notably in Princess Mononoke (1997). On the other hand, Porco Rosso also depicts the act of flight as a method of reforming lost connections. As a bounty hunter, Porco flies his plane for practical reasons, but his flight also has a ceremonial significance, helping him remember a more cohesive and less melancholy age. What matters to Porco is not just flying in general, but his particular plane, which is the reason why he devotes such extensive energy to repairing it, even when his mechanic explains how much it will cost. When he flies that plane, he knows who he is. Flying returns him to when he was young and still capable of love, when he could feel tenderness without being haunted by his past. His flying machine is also a time machine.
Miyazaki does not, importantly, have a utopian idea of flight. The animated film depicts how the aerial dogfights of World War I claimed the lives of Porco’s friends. Miyazaki knows well the cost of human lives that lingers beneath the wonder of flight. Odell and Le Blanc (2009) reference how his father ran the company Miyazaki Airplane, which made airplane parts during World War II. A staunch pacifist, the younger Miyazaki loved airplanes but loathed how governments that cared nothing for the science or poetry of aviation exploited them to oppress others. Porco constantly has to escape from the Fascists, whom he steadfastly refuses to join.
Porco perceives the course of history as one of increasing disintegration and upheaval, but aviation helps alleviate his malaise. Flight in Porco Rosso exists at a series of boundaries: between the present and the past, between the ground and the heavens, and between the ordinary and the mystical. As Odell and Le Blanc (2009) write, Ghibli films “evoke the notion of worlds that exist within our own but of which we are oblivious” (26). The most animistic, mystical moment of the animation occurs when Porco reflects on a moment during the war when he in his airplane floated above the clouds, only to see the planes of deceased pilots float above him and join a celestial tunnel of planes gliding near the distant zenith of the sky. Ethereal music plays, and the planes appear to be moving by themselves. Porco, who does not join them, lives. In this way, Miyazaki links together remembrance, mysticism, and aviation. Though melancholy, this moment has a healing quality, as Porco relates this moment to the young engineer Fio, who assures him that he is a good person.
Fio embodies a different and more optimistic image of the future. Through her encouragement, Porco finds peace and escapes the shame of being alive that he has carried since the war. Fittingly, the two meet because she masterminds the repairs on his plane. Aviation provides a conduit to memories of warm, peaceful days, but it also provides the foundation for new bonds. As Martin Heidegger (1968) writes, remembrance is not merely the neutral recall of memories but an act through which “the heart gives thought to what it has and what it is” (141). Flying his crimson plane is for Porco a heartfelt act of remembrance, an active recalling of bygone days that repairs, at least partly, the rift between past and present in Porco’s life. It pierces through the alienation of a fractured, lonely age while creating the foundation for a brighter future.
Eisenstein, Sergei. On Disney, translated by Jay Upchurch. Seagull Books, 1986.
Heidegger, Martin. What Is Called Thinking, translated by J. Glenn Gray. Harper, 1968.
Napier, Susan. Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art. Yale Univ. Press, 2018.
Odell, Colin, and Michelle Le Blanc. Studio Ghibli. Kamera Books, 2009.
Joshua Fagan is a graduate student at St. Andrews, specializing in American and British literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a particular focus on shifting conceptions of history and science. His current project centers on literary uses of Darwinian ideas of time and flux in response to the impermanence and overstimulation of the fin-de-siècle world. He has published on William Morris and Mark Twain, and his writing on the relation between the premodern and naturalistic transcendence in Robert Frost’s poetry received the Lesley Lee Francis Prize from The Robert Frost Review.