The only animation filmmaker to match the inventive genius of Disney, Hayao Miyazaki’s mysteri­ous, beautiful works of cinema have become a cultural phenomenon among children and teenagers across Asia, while also being revered by critics for their gentle and sophisticated flights of the imagination.

Porco Rosso (1992), the writer-director’s most personal film, is an anomaly. The story of a 1930s fighter pilot who just happens to be a pig was conceived to be a film for adults that children could also watch, rather than the other way around.

Set around the Adriatic Sea, which lies between Italy and Croatia, the film features a first-world-war fighter ace whose disillu­sionment with humanity – and middle age – has turned him into a pig. Working as a bounty hunter, the forthright Porco man­ages to enrage a group of seaplane pirates and an arrogant American pilot, who join forces with the Italian fascist police to hunt him down. Porco reluctantly enlists the help of Fio, a young Italian girl with a genius for designing aircraft. In doing so, he gets Fio into a scrape of her own.

Although it features an anthropomor­phic character and dizzying flying sequen­ces, the film is straightforward and worldly compared with Miyazaki’s other works. It’s a marvellous piece of filmmaking on all counts, with a ripping storyline, typically eccentric characters, a strong political subtext and delicately layered romances.

Porco Rosso started out as a 15-page manga series called Hikoutei Jidai that Miyazaki published in Model Graphix, a modeller’s magazine. The manga was created in watercolours, which is also Miyazaki’s preferred medium for animated films. Despite a diversion into CGI for his next film, Princess Mononoke (1997), Miyazaki has always preferred hand-drawn animation, saying that no computer can replicate the subtlety of the human hand.

Hayao Miyazaki: Japan’s political shift drew me out of retirement

The manga strip had an unusual path to the screen. Japan Airlines asked Miyazaki to make a film version for its inflight enter­tainment programming, and the movie played on the airline before it was released in cinemas. The manga strip is funnier than the movie; the film was intended to be similar in tone, but the war in former Yugoslavia, which bordered the Adriatic, led Miyazaki to strike a more sombre note.

Miyazaki, whose father owned a factory that manufactured rudders for Zero fighter planes, has said he feels very close to the characters in Porco Rosso. A sequel featur­ing an ageing pig was mooted, but 75-year-old Miyazaki’s latest retirement – his sixth – has led to the project being shelved.

Porco Rosso will be screened on August 14 at MCL Telford, in Kowloon Bay, as part of MCL Cinemas’ Studio Ghibli Animation Retrospective.