Saturday, May 19, 2007

Goshu the Cellist (1982)

Goshu the Cellist (Isao Takahata, 1982)
Japanese Title: Sero hiki no Gôshu

The first few scenes that director Isao Takahata allows us to see in Goshu the Cellist are beautiful portraits of nature and pastoral Japan. Takahata's patient eye can be appreciated as Ozu-like, allowing his audience to partake of the beauty of his animated compositions. Against the music of Ludwig van Beethoven's symphony, the scenes suddenly take a more familiar form, similar to those vignettes in Disney's Fantasia (1940) and the much more recent reincarnation Fantasia 2000 (1999).

The visuals follow the rhythm and the escalations of Beethoven's music. Then we see Takahata's orchestra fervently playing Beethoven's symphony. They are merged, flowed, and flown with the rest of the imagery; the orchestra members take part in the "visual storm" their music has produced. Then, the imagery dies down. The conductor tells Goshu, one of the two cello players, that he is not with the orchestra's rhythm. They try again. The conductor again stops the music, but instead of scolding Goshu, scolds another member. Finally, the conductor gives up and again points at Goshu, telling him that he knows the music, but plays it without any emotions. The conductor comedically leaves the room, the rest of the orchestra follows, leaving poor Goshu alone, and obviously bothered by his conductor's comments.

This gem of a film, made by Takahata long before the creation of the now-famous Ghibli Studio, is refreshing in its simplicity and sincerity. The plot, adapted from a novelette by Kenji Miyazawa, flows with admirable grace. Takahata doesn't merely tell the story of Goshu's dreamy involuntary training by several animal neighbors (a cat, a cuckoo, a racoon, and a mouse) but instead savors each unnatural and surprising encounter for all its worth. Goshu's encounter with the cat and the cuckoo are ripe with both overt physical humor and witticism. Goshu's encounter with the naive racoon and the mouse mother and child is gorgeously painted with subtle emotionality and cuteness (a common trait of all encounters).

Seeing Goshu the Cellist gives you a clue as to Takahata's growing talent in portraying humanity through animation. True, the characters aren't lifelike and the scenarios are mixtures of real events and fantasies. However, Takahata never detaches from the truthfulness of every scenario. For example, when Goshu is forced to play a solo piece as an encore in the concert. He doesn't decide to show-off by playing a gorgeous Beethoven tune. Instead, he is swelled by anger and decides to play a melody he used to torture the cat. That by itself betrays the supposed climax of the film but instead it shows that Takahata's characters aren't merely following the guidelines of artificial narratives. Instead, they breath and react like real human beings --- their needs, aspirations and failures in life are therefore given a greater cinematic weight than those produced by the machinations of a plot device.

Takahata of course improves on this much later on. In Grave of the Fireflies (1988), he livens the tale of two youngsters driven by the war to starvation. These youngsters are directed by their stubborn youthfulness and pride to the tragic result. In Pom Poko (1994), he turns mythical racoon creatures into a myriad of human personalities co-existing in a time of change and dire need. The two later films are gratifying exercises of Takahata's understanding of human psychology; all wrapped up in beautifully created imagery.

This post is my contribution to Joe's Movie Corner: Ghiblog-a-thon.


Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Always good to see that others are discovering Takahata's films like Gauche. It's a tremendous film that is still tragically unknown in the US. Why nobody has bothered to pick up a DVD release is beyond me, but I wonder if the Studio Ghibli/Disney distribution deal plays a part in it (Gauche was re-released in Japan last year under the Ghibli label, which Disney distributes).

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks again Daniel,

I'm really enjoying these pre-Ghibli films. Horus is great and I'm surprised it was made in 1968 --- very fluid animation there.