Hayao Miyazaki Has A Poignant Explanation For Why Studio Ghibli Turns People Into Pigs

In the fantasy world of Studio Ghibli, the human form is just another canvas for imbuing reality with the supernatural. One creative genius behind the animation company, Hayao Miyazaki, finds himself drawn to one anthropomorphic form in particular: pigs. In a cinematic universe where anything is possible, why does the creator consistently choose to transform his characters into swine?

"Spirited Away" is one of Miyazaki's most popular films and the most notable example of this tendency. When a young girl named Chihiro and her parents explore an old amusement park, things take a turn for the paranormal when her parents overindulge on food and turn into pigs. It is then revealed that the park is actually a bathhouse for celestial beings, and the only way Chihiro's parents will be returned to human form is if she works there as a chambermaid. In the film, two threats loom: the threat of Chihiro's parents remaining as pigs, and the threat of Chihiro herself being trapped in the spirit realm.

"Porco Rosso" is an earlier and slightly lesser known Miyazaki film that features an anthropomorphic pig as its main character. The titular protagonist is a fearless Italian fighter pilot that was transformed into a pig during World War I under mysterious circumstances. It is never explained exactly why Porco is turned into a pig, though it seems to have something to do with seeing his compatriots die in battle, his loyalty to his nation, and a resistance to its growing fascism.

Pigs: They're just like us

Humans and pigs are closely linked in Hayao Miyazaki's mind. "Toy Story" creator John Lasseter claimed that "Miyazaki-san always draws himself as a pig," per Turner Classic Movies. Lasseter believed that Porco Rosso is actually "sort of like a self-portrait" for Miyazaki, whose sketches of himself closely resemble the portly character.

Miyazaki doesn't only see himself in pigs, though, but people in general. The animator told Midnight Eye:

"The behaviour of pigs is very similar to human behaviour. I really like pigs at heart, for their strengths as well as their weaknesses. We look like pigs, with our round bellies. They're close to us."

He's not wrong, either. Emerging genetic research suggests that certain DNA strands in pigs arguably classify them as primates, the same taxonomic order as humans (via Australian Academy of Science).

But despite the animator's fondness for pigs, he does not typically use them to demonstrate something positive about his characters. In "Spirited Away," Chihiro's parents are turned into pigs as a result of their gluttony. Miyazaki wrote the scene to shed a light on "how the Japanese eat nowadays. I think it's very ugly," he told the BBC. The explanation for Porco Rosso's transformation is unclear, but (spoilers) he is ultimately transformed back into a human through a kiss, suggesting his pig-state came as a result of his alienation from human emotions like love.

Transformation is used as a creative tool

Metamorphosis in general is a running theme in Hayao Miyazaki's work. He finds that it is a good way to "demonstrate the essence" of a character or humanity, he explained in an interview with Julien Marie. The real world and its natural creatures are his favorite sources of inspiration for fantasy elements. "We don't need to go to space to see other worlds," he went on. Drawing from existing animals also creates an uncanny effect in Miyazaki's creatures, like the facially expressive pigs in "Spirited Away."

The animator has suggested a much simpler and hilarious alternative explanation for turning people into pigs. "They're much easier to draw than camels or giraffes," he joked to Midnight Eye. Miyazaki allegedly doesn't think he's good at drawing people and instead is most confident in drawing pigs, tanks, and planes like the ones in "Porco Rosso" (via TCM). This might explain why he is more inclined to draw a piglike form than a human one in his self-portraits.

Whatever the reason, the line between pig and human in the universe of Studio Ghibli is incredibly thin. Being associated with a pig is considered an insult, but Miyazaki's affection for the animal suggests he does not mean to insult his characters by transforming them into pigs. Instead, he draws light on an ugly but endearing quality of humanity — for better or worse, we are extremely piglike.