Gauche the Cellist (2005 Review)

<March 5, 2005

What a moving, entrancing movie is Gauche the Cellist. It is another sterling example of the very best Japanese animation has to offer. At its core, this movie is a love letter to classical music and pre-war rural Japan, but is so much more. I've often wondered what it would be like if Isao Takahata made a movie like Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. I think he has.

Gauche is an adaptation of the poem by Kenji Miyazawa, one of Japan's most beloved storytellers. It tells the story of a young, musician who belongs to an orchestra in 1920's rural Japan. He struggles to keep up, but only frustrates the conductor, who scolds and berates him in front of the other musicians.

He can hit the notes, but he lacks the necessary passion. He can listen to Beethoven, but he can't hear him. So Goshu spends evening alone in his humble home, practicing and playing again again. It is then that he hears a scratch at the door.

And so begins a series of encounters, comic, surreal, and moving, with a number of forest animals. Each come to Goshu with their own requests and suggestions, usually asking him to play his cello for them. In each encounter, he believes he is teaching the animals (or in the case of the cat, teaching him a lesson), but at the story's end, he discovers that he has been the student all along. They have taught him how to hear the music.

Gauche the Cellist is a film of remarkable grace and beauty. The art style is unique among Japanese animation. People are rounded and carry weight, slightly pudgy. It's neither the lean look of the later Studio Ghibli films nor the bug-eyed, cupie doll anime style. Animation is fluid, but the directing is sparse and clean, with minimal camera movements.

The background artwork is simply spectacular, and it sticks with you in your head for days. Everything is drawn in richly saturated tones, and carries a weepy melencholy. You feel as though you are watching memories of long, lost rainy days projected on the screen.

Takahata had already long since mastered his style of natural realism, firmly in the style of Ozu and Renoir, and I find it a tremendous joy to watch this great artist in full command of his powers. He is also blessed with the talents and skills of animators and artists who spend several years creating this movie as a labor of love (the lead key animator, Shunji Saida, took cello lessons so that he could accurately capture the finger movements).

A good indication of this devotion is the remarkable way the music is integrated with Miyazawa's story. Beethoven's Pastorale comprises most of the score, filling this small, peaceful world with soul. Gauche is as much a film about Beethoven's symphony, a celebration of the transcendent power of music.

Gauche the Cellist carries a lightwieght, dreamy realism, blessed with the same flights into imagination that brought a mythic romanticism to Anne of Green Gables and later in Omohide Poro Poro. Unlike Miyazaki, who also masterfully fuses fantasy and realism, Takahata's fantasy sequences have a special intimacy; hallowed moments where you share another person's heart and soul. It's intensely personal, and there has never been another filmmaker, animated or otherwise, who does it better.

I think this is an astonishingly beautiful movie, perhaps because of its unique qualities, perhaps of how many details are crammed into its 63 minutes. There is a scene, almost a throwaway scene, when the orchestra plays at the local theatre for the silent movies. What does this have to do with the overall plot? Nothing at all. It just feels like a snapshot of life, and then quickly becomes wickedly funny as the cat-and-mouse cartoon on the movie screen is interrupted by a real mouse. The women are in a panic, and the children are cheering with abandon.

The movie climaxes with the orchestra's recital at the music hall in front of the town. Notice the sheer dedication to the music here. Observe how carefully the movements of the musicians are captured. For his encore, Gauche performs alone with "The Indian Tiger Hunt," a very complex and intense piece of music. The audience in the hall is silent, captivated, awed. So are we.

After the symphony, the normally gruff conductor is so awed by the cheers of the audience that he abruptly runs into the bathroom. He is overcome with emotion, and we are given a moment to pause and share the tears. Takahata brings out more pure emotion in his animated films than nearly every live-action filmmaker who ever lived.


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