The most euphoric moments I have ever felt when watching animation have come when it is paired beautifully with music. Examples that spring to mind are The Nutcracker Suite sequence in Fantasia (1940), Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart’s Begone Dull Care (1949), Len Lye’s Kaleidoscope (1935), Mirai Mizue’s Fantastic Cells (2001), and watching Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) with its original Wolfgang Zeller score (I have not yet been lucky enough to hear it with the new Arun Ghosh score).
I can now add to this list Isao Takahata’s 63-minute adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa’s popular story Gauche the Cellist (セロ弾きのゴーシュ/Sero Hiki no Gōshu). Set in rural 1920s Japan, young Gauche (Goshu-kun), plays the cello in his local orchestra. The orchestra are rehearsing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 for an upcoming competition. Beethoven famously loved taking walks in the countryside, and much of his music is inspired by the natural world. Symphony No. 6 is known as the Pastoral Symphony because of its close associations with nature.
In the opening scene of Gauche the Cellist, the orchestra are rehearsing fourth movement, “Gewitter, Sturm” (Thunderstorm, Storm) while a real storm rages outside the practice hall. At its climax, it turns into a kind of dream sequence with the musicians being swept away by the storm as they play. This dramatic sequence comes crashing to a halt when the conductor becomes displeased with Gauche’s playing. He berates him for being out of tune and lacking musicality and emotional depth.
Later, at home in his small cottage, Gauche follows the conductor’s advice to do better by staying up late to practise hard under the watchful eye of a rather stern-looking portrait of Beethoven. Over the course of several nights, he is visited by four animals: a cat, a cuckoo, a tanuki (raccoon dog), and a mouse with her sickly child. Each animal/spirit teaches Gauche something that will improve his performance.
Unlike in a Disney film, where a talking animal is greeted with delight and wonder, Gauche greets his visitors initially with annoyance and dismissiveness. He resents having his concentration interrupted and is perhaps suspicious of their motives. Such talking animals in Japanese culture are not just for the kawaii factor, but would be recognized by a Japanese audience as being spirits / supernatural creatures. Tanuki in particular are known for their shapeshifting abilities and can be mischievous, so Gauche’s ill-humour is not out of place.
Unlike most anime directors, Isao Takahata (高畑 勲, b.1935) does not draw and did not work as an animator before becoming a director. As such, the distinctive look of Gauche the Cellist is due to the talented animators at Oh! Production. Two names that deserve particular mention are Shunji Saida (才田俊次, b. 1949), who influenced the look of the film greatly as not only the key animator and character designer but also the director of animation. Saida, who also did the key animation for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988), was so concerned with the accuracy of the film that he even took cello lessons in order to accurately draw the movement of Gauche’s fingers when playing. Kenji Matsumoto (松本 健治) played an important role in conceiving the background art which is for both exteriors and interiors beautifully rendered in the style of watercolour paintings. These backgrounds lend the film its moody atmosphere. Matsumoto has done background art for a wide variety of Toei Animation projects since the early 1970s. Read more about him at Anipages.
Gauche the Cellist won the Noburo Ofuji Award for 1982. The story had already been adapted as animation at least twice. Shorts were made by Yoshitsugu Tanaka for Nippon Eiga in 1949 and Matsue Jinbo for Gakken in 1963. I have not been able to track down any images from these two films, but it seems likely that the Jinbo piece was done with puppets. I have also heard that Kenjiro Morinaga directed a puppet drama of Gauche the Cellist in 1953 but information about this film is also scarce online. Studio Nova has posted this photograph from the making of this adaptation.
Considering the popularity of Studio Ghilbi, I was surprised to discover that Takahata’s Gauche the Cellist is not widely available on DVD outside of Japan. It is currently out of print in not just in North America and the UK, but also France and Germany. The Japanese release is worth every yen. It not only has decent English subtitles, but it also has lots of extras on it. Unfortunately for non-Japanese speaking collectors, the extras are not all subtitled, but other than that it’s the usual high quality Studio Ghibli DVD with storyboards synched to the soundtrack on Disc 2.
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011