Gauche the Cellist - A Look at Another Isao Takahata Masterpiece

Since Isao Takahata has secured his first Academy Award nomination for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to show off some of his other masterful films, many of which have only been seen by the most diehard of fans outside of Japan. Here is one of his very best, the hauntingly beautiful and wistful 1982 animated film, Gauche the Cellist.

Gauche the Cellist is based on the writings of famed Japanese poet, Kenji Miyazawa. His life was cut too-short, like so many brilliantly talented artists, but he crafted a body of literature that would stand the test of time. We could only hope to be so lucky ourselves. This story concerns a young struggling musician who is visited nightly by animals who live nearby. Gauche, the cellist, is gruff, dismissive, frustrated by his inability to master his craft. And some of the animals, especially a sharp-tongued feline, give as much as they get. Eventually, Gauche's defenses weaken, he begins to listen, and grow.

In the hands of most Western animators, a story such as this could become hokey or preachy, or just plain silly. Takahata expands the story's original scope, as he very often does. The setting, 1920s rural Japan, is deeply nostalgic for the pre-WWII years. Its depictions of daily life, of growing vegetables and turning waterwheels, of children and musicians alike's a meditative tone. It's a glimpse into a Japan that became lost in its Westernization following the War, and it quietly questions modern values. These themes, in fact, are one of the most dominant in all of the Studio Ghibli movies, and it goes to the very heart of what makes an Isao Takahata or a Hayao Miyazaki tick.

And then there is Beethoven. Paku-san is always known for the masterful musical scores in his films. Gauche the Cellist revolves around Beethoven's 6th Symphony, so much that Ludwig qualifies as a major character. Observe how the Pastorale is used to realize the imaginations of the musicians in the orchestra. The strings roar, the horns flare, the drums rumble, all inside their studio, as a thunderstorm rages outside. Suddenly, the walls of the studio melt away, and the orchestra becomes one with the storm itself. The conductor directs the thunderclaps, and everyone is carried away by the winds.

We are brought into their minds, and this is one of Takahata's greatest gifts. He is the master of psychological cinema, and that he achieves this through animation is astonishing. And he achieves this by breaking nearly every facet of the Walt Disney paradigm. It's taken me years to understand and appreciate the depth of this psychological realism, the use of silence and stillness, the fusion of character and expressionist backgrounds to reveal the inner mind. Here lies Exhibit A for why this director is hailed as a genius.

Gauche the Cellist is little more than an hour, very short. This makes it very accessible for new viewers, especially those who are still intimidated (if not outright terrified) of Japanese animation. This movie doesn't even "look" like anime, but storybook illustrations. The background paintings were drawn by Kenji Matsumoto, and all the key animations and character designs were drawn by Shunji Saida (he famously took cello lessons so that he could accurately portray the movements of the players). Isao Takahata wrote the script and directed, but he is not an animator. He is known in Japan as "the director who doesn't draw."  He is also hailed as "the grand master of animation." I think either title fits.

You can't find this movie in the states (a DVD was released in France some years ago, but it now out-of-print), but Studio Ghibli in Japan released a DVD that includes English subtitles. More importantly, Gauche the Cellist will be included in the new Isao Takahata Blu-Ray box set that will be released in Japan this month.

Somebody - GKids Films, Discotek Media, heck, even Disney - ought to bring Gauche the Cellist to our shores.

More screenshots follow below the jump break:


Jonathan Walmsley said...

For whatever reason, I was not very into this movie. Whilst it had its moments (the opening orchestral rehearsal for instance), its talking animal characters and Gauche himself came off as weird and strange to me but in an off-putting rather than charming or intriguing way like other unusual elements of Ghibli films tend to do.

Not even its use of Beethoven particularly stirred me visually speaking, and believe me, he's my favourite composer/musician period, so there wasn't much to this film that I enjoyed. Still I'll give it a re-watch one day, see if a second viewing helps.

By the way, I'm glad this blog is back, I'd almost given up hope you'd vanished for good after such a long period of inactivity, but I'm glad you didn't; this is one of the few places to get a 'ghibli fix' online not to mention your own insight is always interesting.

A. said...

I have just finished watching and I think it's one of the greatest films I've ever seen. Everything is just beautiful, the art, story, and setting.

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