We’re back after a brief hiatus with a change of pace yet again from Director Isao Takahata. Where before we had the bawdy humour of Chie the Brat, and the childlike innocence of Panda! Go, Panda!, Gauche the Cellist is a serious yet whimsical tale with a small, intimate cast. Originally a children’s tale by Miyazawa Kenji (1896 - 1933), the story has seen several adaptations but Takahata’s is the most beloved.
We’re introduced to a simple Cellist player, Gauche, who is practicing for a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 - the Pastoral Symphony - with the town cinema orchestra. Despite tireless practice, Gauche struggles to meet the expectations of the orchestra conductor who constantly berates him for letting the rest of the orchestra down.
It takes a series of visits by some anthropomorphised animals - a calico cat, a cuckoo, a racoon-dog, and a couple of mice - each asking him to play for them and offering their opinions on his technique, to help Gauche develop into a brilliant musician. While initially resistant, he eventually recognises the fruits of the advice he has received in his performance.
The film looks stunning, with beautiful watercolour inspired backgrounds, thanks to Kenji Matsumoto, and superbly detailed animation of the musicians’ performances. Lead Animator Shunji Saida actually took Cello lessons to ensure he captured Gauche’s hand movements effectively. Director Takahata himself is known for being the ‘Director who doesn’t draw’ since he didn’t come from an animation background, so the visual impact of the film, at least, is thanks to the team behind him.
What I really love about the film are the little domestic touches such as Gauche’s vegetable garden and the water barrel and ladle he drinks from. He lives a simple life - it’s clear music dominates his waking existence - and his home reflects this with few embellishments.
I couldn’t talk about Gauche the Cellist without mentioning the musical soundtrack. I fear I can’t really do it justice, being neither musical nor knowledgeable of classical works, however the combination of the visuals and soundtrack make for a thrilling experience for all. Beethoven’s 6th symphony permeates the film and comprises most of the soundtrack, even when not being overtly performed by the onscreen orchestra.
The early, sweeping, cheerful movements of the Symphony sit well with the simple country life of Gauche and the animals, while one of the opening scenes sees an energetic performance of the later Thunderstorm movement. Crashing thunder, streaks of lightning and a fierce wind roaring all around dominate while Gauche and his colleagues battle furiously throughout the maelstrom, their instruments giving life to the storm. Seeing the storm woven through the music without knowing if it’s real or imagined is a joy, all the more so when all collapses as Gauche’s timing slips, much to the frustration of the conductor.
During his practice sessions, Gauche also plays other works, including a vengeful playing of Tiger Hunt in India for the calico cat, and a good-natured duet with the racoon dog of The Merry Master of a Coach Station. There’s also a hilarious cat-and-mouse like sketch as the orchestra play in the local cinema, while a fight in the audience ensues around them following the discovery of a mouse. Another period touch of the 1920s since Japan continued to provide accompaniment to silent cinema long after the rest of the world had moved on to synchronised audio tracks.
Gauche the Cellist is a wonderful film, little known outside Japan, and another that I had to import, thankfully with subtitles included this time. Like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony - itself a love letter to nature - the story of Gauche the Cellist showcases Miyazawa’s empathy for the environment. Takahata successfully combines the two in a beautiful moral tale exploring our relationship with nature and the benefits of coexistence. If you have but a passing interest in music or animation, I would highly recommend this film.
You can read Liz’s thoughts on the film here.
Next up, we’ll be looking at a film many recognise as the birth of Studio Ghibli, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, albeit technically still pre-Ghibli. If you can’t wait until next weekend, however, one of my favourite bloggers - Jaysen of Jaysen Headley Writes - has already started his own Ghibli project with Nausicaä that you can find here.
More environmental themes and our relationship with nature, for good or ill, in the next instalment