Gauche the Cellist (セロ弾きのゴーシュ)

(To check out my essay on Isao Takahata’s previous film click here: Jarinko Chie)

The story of Gauche the Cellist is a long one and the review of its production deserves a pretty long space to talk about it. The 1982 film is based on a short story of the same name published by Kenji Miyazawa in 1934. The work was so popular that it was adapted three times before Takahata got a swing at it. The first time was in 1949 when it was adapted as an animated film. Just four years later, it was adapted again. This time as a puppet and doll theater akin to Bunraku. The third time was in 1963 when it was once again adapted as an animated film. So, in 1976 when Oh! Production contacted Takahata about adapting the work, he had to make sure that his version would be the definitive version that could stand the test of time in terms of quality and emotional expressiveness of the animation.

He did just that. And he did by directing his team and staff on the production for six years from 1976 to 1982 when it was completed. The final film was 61 minutes long, which means the animation team took about a year per ten minutes of animation. The key animator, Shunji Saida, took cello lessons himself during this time so he could get the hand animations perfect for when the film’s protagonist plays.

During this time, the staff worked non-stop under the often absent Takahata. He had a fruitful career during this period. In 1976, he worked as series director on 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother and in 1979 he was series director on another long-running anime series Anne of Green Gables. From 1977-78, he worked as a storyboard artist and pick-up director on Monarch:The Big Bear of Tallac, Future Boy Conan, and The Story of Perrine. And in 1971, he created the film Jarinko Chie and began a very long, three-year project developing the manga into an animated series. He was extremely busy, but somehow managed to create another work during this time that should stand the test of time better than any of his previous works due to the sheer force of its beauty.

The story shows the life of a young man, Goshu, who lives alone along a stream a ways away from a small city. His own home is powered by a water wheel and sits tucked on a hill where trees surround and the sounds of nature, of birds, and squirrels, and cicadas can be heard daily. He lives a quiet, reflective life and works for the city’s local band as a cellist. As the film opens, it shows his home and we immediately grasp why the film took so long to make. These scenes, as well as numerous other in the film, are amongst the most beautiful, artistically-minded scenes ever committed to Japanese animation. The grain of wood in his home and on tree’s bark, as well as the lights and lamps at night and how well they emit naturally in the scenes seem straight out of Frederic Back’s playbook. The light is impressionistic in tone and makes the small shack particularly atmospheric and emotionally potent and warm.

We see Goshu leave his shack accompanied by a sound score of Beethoven that will carry on a theme of his work and personage throughout the film, but also links the film to the Western canon of cultural forms, and most notably to the auditory beauty of a Disney classic. When he reaches town, he is late for band practice. His cello is out of tune and Goshu drags behind his fellow players. Nevertheless, the scene swells and the see the influence of phantasmagorias like Fantasia in the scene as well as a striking simplicity in the character designs that is somewhat traditionally anime-esque, but also traditionally French and much like American animator Ralph Bakshi’s character designs.

Goshu goes home dispirited and in a state of self-loathing after a long solo practice at the band space. He turns on the lights of his shack and stares deeply into the eyes of a portrait of Beethoven hanging on his wall, looking mad and challenging him to practice. He does so, but then his pet cat comes into the house and begins to speak to Goshu. The cat realizes that Goshu is having difficulties and suggests that he take it easy for a while and play something easier than Beethoven, like Schumann’s Traumerai. Instead, Goshu plays his own composition: Indian Tiger-Hunt. The work is an avant-garde and abrasive piece, but is actually quite good. The cat responds negatively however and tries to escape the room, but is unable. Goshu uses the song to the torment the cat and in the process learns a bit about expressiveness and the personal joy that playing can bring to oneself, whereas in the past he had played like a journeyman, just going through the motions and with little heart.

There is an interesting psychedelic sequence within this scene that shows Goshu as a tormenting figure from the cat’s perspective who is distorting and waving around like a player in one of Picasso’s works. At this point we see more animals outside in his gardens and the world around them, which looks idyllic and perfect for a moonlight sonata. The animations of animals and of the natural world remind one immediately of John Hubley’s work on Watership Down, not in their brutality or paranoia or crushing sense of ennui, but in the style and simplicity and realism of that style. What is interesting in these parallels to American and Canadian animators is that they were working at roughly contemporaneous times. Hubley’s film Watership Down had to be completed by a different director after his death in 1977, and was ultimately released in 1978, two years after production began on Gauche the Cellist.

Meanwhile, Frederic Back had begun his animation career in the early seventies with the short films Abracadabra, Ion, The creation of Birds, and Illusion. But he did not really hit his creative stride until the late 70s with works like Taratata and All Nothing, which led into his greatest period from 1981-1993 with Crac, L’Homme qui Plantait des Arbes, and The Mighty River. Much of this later work and late 70s work is the stuff I’m comparing Gauche to in this essay. As such, the influence of Back was probably not in effect here.

Finally, with Bakshi, he had created works in the early seventies with character designs that I believe to be somewhat similar in style Takahata’s and Saida’s work here. But the deep grain and somewhat squat figures only began to really solidify as such in 1977 with Wizards, which would lead to a period of intense success with the 1978 follow-up Lord of the rings and 1981’s American Pop.

I think that Gauche the Cellist is a film amongst an unspoken milieu where creative talents in animation were pushing the boundaries of the Disney studio approach worldwide and were attempting to create artistically-minded, realism-driven, and ultimately breathtakingly aesthetically-pleasing visions. The stage was set and even if one of the players was not around to do the work, the work would have still been done by another. This movement is something akin to a poetic realism within animation that is hard-scrabbled as any post-World War works can be, whilst simultaneously re-affirming the harsh lives they reflect through a love of beauty shown impressionistically and hence, postmodernally valid. I dub this period, roughly from the early to mid 70s till the late 80s, APR: Animated Poetic Realism.

I digress, the story of Goshu continues. The next day after his practice playing for his cat, Goshu’s repertory plays at the local cinema in the orchestra pit. The film is a mickey Mouse cartoon (again, Disney is a huge influence on anime’s early creators like Takahata). A real mouse is loose, however, within the theatre and people begin running around like chickens with their heads cut off either in fear of the mouse or in an attempt to catch it. Life begins to imitate art and the orchestra play more enthusiastically and bombastically all the time. Goshu feels great joy in the experience and seems to understand that music is more than a series of notes, but is finally the ability to manipulate other human beings emotionally and to heighten the tension of certain moments.

That night, Goshu receives another visitor who will impart a lesson upon him. A Cuckoo bird appears and wants Goshu to play the Cuckoo scale (really two notes) alongside him for as long as he can. The song is repetitive, but teaches Goshu rhythm and how to get the most out of any two-notes, how any two notes can always be played differently and sound more or less emotively significant at any one time. The next day, a small Tanuki comes with a pair of drum sticks and a parchment containing the musical piece, “The Merry Coachman.” The rhythm and music is fairly straightforward for Goshu to play, but he must match the timing of the drums and eventually learns better how to play alongside another instrument, especially a percussive one. Finally, on the fourth night, a mouse mother and her young child appear before him. The child is sick and the mother pleads with Goshu to heal him with his music, which has apparently been helping many animals who burrow under his home just to hear it. The music is soothing and lifts spirits, whilst the vibrations improve circulation and serve as a massage of sorts for the small mammals. He plays and helps this little mouse and realize that bringing joy to others and helping heal through his music is important as well.

The next day is the 12th Annual Civic Concert where he marshals all of his new skills to perform Beethoven alongside his repertory. The show is a massive success and the crowd is uproarious with applause. An encore is necessary, and the often difficult taskmaster The Maestro or Conductor, asks Goshu to go back out and a play a piece of music. Goshu believes he is being punished, but goes out after being pushed onstage by his fellow players. He plays the harsh, rigid, dark, and abrasive Indian Tiger-Hunt, but with such skill and power that he receives a standing ovation and doubly impresses the already impressed repertory group and Maestro who later congratulate him on all of his progress and take him out to eat.

The film ends on a potent and poetic note with Goshu leaving the table to momentarily peer out from the restaurant to see the day ending, the sun setting, and birds crossing its rays on the horizon afar. The cat watches form a distant hill as the mice leave their homes under Goshu’s home to watch as well. And the little Tanuki and his father in the hills sit and gaze and marvel likewise (an image that surely inspired Takahata’s later film Pom Poko). the film runs the gambit of success through adversity, classical and avant-garde music, intense beauty and gritty realism, and is a singular film that fits not into the anime canon, but into a different world canon unified by particular artistic and philosophical temperaments. Just as the original short story it was based upon is considered generically as a fable, a parable, a juvenile narrative, and a philosophical work, so this work defies single categorization and stands as a testament to the creative power of cinema and animation.


Cody Ward

[Next up: The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals]


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