Trailer for Gauche the Cellist (1982)
One of Studio Ghibli's antecedents, Gauche the Cellist was written and directed by Isao Takahata in 1982. Takahata, one of Hayao Miyazaki's frequent collaborators, would join his oft-time partner as one of the studio's founding fathers. Under that label, he would go on to produce some of the company's more subtle and emotional films, such as My Neighbors the Yamadas, Pom Poko, Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies. Ironically, despite these successes, Takahata is not himself an artist and has never illustrated a single frame of animation. He is a director from start to finish, recognizing the potential of animation as an artistic and a storytelling medium.
Gauche the Cellist was one of the last projects he worked on before co-creating Studio Ghibli. It is also one of his best-remembered, easily in the same league as his television work on Heidi, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother and Anne of Green Gables. A mere 63 minutes long, the film took six years to make. This adaptation of one of Kenji Miyazawa's best-loved stories was itself a true labour of love.
This fairy tale set in early 20th century Japan revolves around young Gauche, or Goshu, a mediocre cellist in a town orchestra. Their primary employment is at the local movie theatre, adding the live score to silent films. However, this Venus Orchestra has a big show coming up. In a week they will be taking centre stage to perform Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral. Always lagging behind the melody and hardly expressing any emotion through his play, Gauche is given a week to shape up and learn to play the right way.
Each evening, as Gauche practices fruitlessly, he receives a unique set of visitors. The first is a tortoiseshell cat who offers him the gift of his own tomatoes from his own garden, in exchange for a request to play Schumann's Träumerei. In revenge, Gauche locks the cat in and forces it to endure the cacophonous modern piece Tiger Hunt in India. The poor beast escapes, but the next night Gauche is visited by a cuckoo bird who would like to hear Gauche play scales... not do re mi fa sol la ti do, but a repeating series of cuckoo cuckoo. Further and further into the exercise, Gauche gets the impression that the bird is teaching him. Angry, he scares the bird and barely manages to break his window open before the cuckoo rammed headlong into it.
The next visitor is a tanuki, the Japanese raccoon-dog. This young tanuki comes bearing a pair of drumsticks and a sheet of music he would like Gauche to play. He breaks into The Happy Coachman on strings as the tanuki begins beating the drum of the cello. Then the tanuki notices that the second string is always a little slow, but has to leave before they can fix it. Lastly, a mother mouse comes with her ailing child. It seems that Gauche's playing has a curative effect, which is unfortunate now that he's stopped. The previous evenings and the stress of the upcoming performance have been too much. Still she petitions and Gauche relents, playing as he never had before and curing the infant.
The day of the performance arrives and all take their seats. And at the end, the crowd erupts in applause. Everything was so perfect that the crowd demands an encore. Though bullying him ceaselessly, the conductor pushes Gauche onto the stage to play. Thinking he is being mocked, he breaks into Tiger Hunt in India, which he performs so aggressively and masterfully that the audience erupts again. Gauche realizes that the four animals were teaching him to play with passion.
As a labour of love, the result is spellbinding. Gauche the Cellist's animation quality wavers, as one would expect for a film made in 1982. The scenes, however, are magnificent. During the initial practice of the Pastoral Symphony, the room fades away and the orchestra begins to swirl into the air, carried aloft on the stormy melodies. A scene not in the original story has a slapstick comedy break out to Offenbach's The Infernal Galop (more famously known as "The Can-Can"). Each animal gets its own scene, from the chaotic cuckoo to the nostalgic mouse.
Perhaps it is the shared use of Beethoven's Sixth, but this films bears comparison to Fantasia. Each musical selection is played beautifully by the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Nippon Chamber Music Ensemble and cellist Mitsuo Yashima. The film in turn makes delightful use of each episode, adding a dimension that merely reading the story lacks. Miyazawa lists each piece as Gauche's visitors request them, but the effect is lost without a ready knowledge of classical music. Takahata's film adds those in, building on them and crafting it into an enchanting, multidisciplinary work of art.