Project Ghibli #5: Gauche The Cellist

Gauche The Cellist is another Isao Takahata directed film, still made before the formation of Studio Ghibli. We’re one more film away from the formation of the studio (next week it’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), and I’m looking forward to finally seeing how things progress from the five films we’ve just watched, to a more recognisable Studio Ghibli style.

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Original Release: 23rd January 1982.
Director(s): Isao Takahata.
Producer(s): Kôichi Murata.
Screenwriter(s): Kenji Miyazawa (novel), Isao Takahata.
Alternative Title(s): セロ弾きのゴーシュ, Sero Hiki no Gōshu.

This film was wholly unlike the previous offerings from Takahata. Takahata picks interesting projects – whatever you might think about The Little Norse Prince or Chie The Brat, they were at least interesting. With Gauche the Cellist, Takahata has changed style and story again, and I’m happy to say that it was a beautiful, dreamy, and funny film about a cellist growing into his talent. Based on a poem by Kenji Miyazawa, Takahata wrote and adapted it for the screen.

Gauche is a diligent but faltering cellist, a member of The Venus Orchestra (a small-town orchestra), who also perform at cinemas during films – they are practising for a performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral Symphony). The film is set in the early twentieth century. The conductor of the orchestra is frustrated with Gauche’s performances, urging him to get better or leave the orchestra.

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As a result, we see Gauche return to his rural mill house, determined to practice day and night to improve his playing. Over the course of four nights, Gauche is visited, in turn, by a cat, a cuckoo bird, a raccoon, and finally, a mouse and her baby. Each of them ask him to play something for them, for different reasons, thereby putting Gauche through his paces. Gauche is annoyed and incredulous by these visitations, especially as the animals are anthropomorphised and can speak to him.

However, these visitations soon work their magic and Gauche improves, to the extent that he can finally keep up with the rest of the orchestra. At the penultimate performance, the audience calls for an encore, and the conductor is so impressed with his improvement that he pushes Gauche onto the stage to perform something alone. Gauche, believing that they are all making fun of him, decides to perform the piece he did for the visitation of the cat (Tiger Hunt in India), and everyone is spellbound and impressed. Gauche finally understands that the animals have pushed him to become a better musician, and he is grateful for their lessons.

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The film’s animation style is reminiscent of Takahata’s most recent Ghibli film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya – the colours are washed out and realistic, no bright, saturated colours, and yet detailed, like a fine painting. There is a dreamlike quality infused into the artwork and scenery too, a celebration of nature and the elements. In this film, we can see that Takahata has developed and grown as a director and storyteller, creating a film that is transcendent and soulful.

The film, on first look, seems to be a parable, a story of how to listen or look more closely at the work you are studying or doing, to find the soul and essence of it. In the beginning, Gauche understands the rudiments and the technical aspects of playing his instrument, but the conductor accuses him of not understanding or displaying the emotion within the piece of music they are practising.

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Each of the visitations of the animals has a purpose – Gauche believes he is teaching the cat a lesson when he plays Tiger Hunt in India, rather than the Schumann piece the cat requests. He digs deep down into the piece of music, with wild abandon, frightening the cat with the ferocity of his playing. It is in this way that Gauche begins to connect the music he plays with emotions. His incredulity and gruffness crack, and he begins to listen to what the animals are telling him, and teaching him.

Yet there are many things going on in the film – which is just over 63 minutes long – a look at obsession (Gauche’s obsession to master his instrument, and his slight obsession with Beethoven), at nature and the role it plays in creativity, how important emotion and soul are in creativity, and how sometimes, we need to ask for help. There are some intensely beautiful sequences where the orchestra is playing, and the music becomes one with nature. In one such scene, they are playing Beethoven’s Pastorale, and the walls of the studio melt away, and the music and playing becomes one with the storm raging outside.

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It isn’t a film full of action, romance, or anything that we would expect from a Hollywood blockbuster. This is a beautiful, quiet, meditative piece of film-making. It’s inspiring and full of quiet, intimate moments where we get a glimpse of the inner state of a character. Takahata has truly created a beautiful film here, and unlike the previous film (Chie the Brat), this felt like something he can be proud of.

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There are emerging themes that crop up in later Studio Ghibli films, particularly the pre-WWII focus on idyllic country living and a slower, less hectic pace of life, plus a look at nature and human interaction with nature. There are deeper themes in comparison to previous offerings by both Takahata and Miyazaki, and a developing sense of storytelling. I wholeheartedly recommend Gauche the Cellist, especially if you like Takahata’s later films.

Next up is a pre-Ghibli Studio Ghibli film (!), Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the final standalone film before the formation of the studio itself.

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