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This week on Anime Monday, brings another Isao Takahata film. Almost instantly, I think most will recognize that today’s film is very different from the rest of the films we have talked about so far on Anime Monday, due to it never really receiving a proper release in the U.S.. Takahata's Gauche the Cellist is a much smaller film on almost every level, in comparison to his other works. The scope is confined to just one week set in a small, turn-of-the-century Japanese village. The budget is noticeably smaller too, which translates into a more minimalist animation style. Aesthetically, it has its own set of charms and beauties that sets it apart from the visual confetti characteristic of other anime. The story about Gauche and his musical ambition is also neatly contained. All these elements combine to make a film that is extremely easy on the eyes and ears, like a gentle sigh. Minimalist through and through, this film conveys plenty without having to do or say much.
As you might have guessed from the title, Gauche the Cellist is about a man named Gauche who plays the cello. He’s having a bit of a rough time with the conductor of the village symphony. Hell bent on musical divinity, the conductor externalizes all his frustrations on his poor musicians. He digs into Gauche for failing to emote anything through his cello. When the rehearsal continues to go awry from his lofty expectations, he flat out loses his temper. Everyone else giggles after the maestro’s exaggerated exit, but Gauche is genuinely upset. He returns to his tiny, sparse cottage to practice before a picture of Beethoven. Now imagine his frustration when a cat waltzes in and disrupts his practice. Not only did the cat bring in a “gift” of unripe tomatoes from Gauche's OWN garden, he demands that Gauche play Schumann's "Träumerei." How dare he criticize Gauche of lacking in feeling? Little does he know this is just the beginning. Night after night, animals visit Gauche seeking his musical assistance, all the while helping him polish his skills.
I personally love when filmmakers make movies about another art form. As artists themselves who understand the joys and pains of creating and perfecting a craft, representations of other artists are usually handled with aplomb. Take Gauche’s second visitor, a bird that needs vocal coaching. He has to sing the same two notes (cuckoo cuckoo) over and over again. It’s a huge burden, and if Gauche could accompany him with his cello it would ease his troubles. Gauche dismisses the bird for such a seemingly inane request. The bird explains that even though he only sings two notes, each repetition of the two-note scale is unique. Musically, it’s a basic skill any decent musician must learn to acquire. Perhaps it might seem a little antithetical in today’s uber-repetitive choruses and dance beats, but you’re taught that if you’re going to repeat musical phrases, then it’s not as simple as playing the same notes again. What’s the point of making your audience listen to the exact same thing? Emphasis? Then you’re going to play it louder the second time around. Surprise? Then maybe you’ll make it staccato and up the tempo. The point is, they’re the same notes and rhythms, but you have to make it unique or else everyone, performer and audience alike, is going to get bored.
Film at one of it’s most elemental levels, works very similarly to music in this way. Movies are made up by a series of shots. If the animator had chosen to make all of Gauche the Cellist in close-ups, they all would have been slightly different. Some might have been a close-up of Gauche’s fingers as he plays the cello. Others could have been a close-up of Gauche from the bust up. Same type of shot, but not quite. Much more realistically, uniqueness is obtained through the variation of long and medium shots, etc. We can all agree it would have been pretty horrible if anyone chose to make a whole film in close ups (looking at YOU, Tom Hooper). Music too recognizes this, and that’s why even when a bird can only sing two notes they’re never quite the same. (And this is also why I love movies about art/artists because the parallels allow me to make everything about movies/movie-making even when it isn't.)
Bringing it back around to the movie at hand, Takahata’s Gauche the Cellist is the perfect movie to follow up the heart-wrenching. venture that was Grave of the Fireflies from last week’s Anime Monday. There are no high stakes, a bevy of cute talking animals, and relaxing classical music. Actually, Gauche does yell at the poor animals a lot, and there is one dissonant, arrhythmic monstrosity. But it’s all good. It’s just a man and his cello, discovering the beauty of self-fulfillment and growth through music.