Last time, I teased that the next column (this one, incidentally) would be about Isao Takahata‘s 1981 film Chie the Brat. Well, as luck would have it, every way I could think to find the movie to watch was foiled by it not being readily available in any legal way in North America. I feel like this is actually telling for a lot of anime made prior to the formation of Studio Ghibli. Takahata worked for quite a number of years on projects that aren’t as well known outside of Japan—or Asia at most—largely because there isn’t a name attached to it. So, for this one, I’m going to talk a little about Chie (as little as I can) but mainly discuss Takahata’s 1982 film Gauche the Cellist, which I did get to see and really enjoyed.
From everything I’ve found about it, Chie the Brat might be more accurately called Chie the Angry Young Girl. It was written and directed by Takahata, based on a manga written and illustrated by Etsumi Haruki. It’s a slice-of-life comedy about a village of people, one of whom is the titular Chie who is dependable to her troublesome father who is trying to run a small tavern but is failing. She visits her mother (who left them years ago) and attempts to reunite them, but not until her father gets a job. That said, it is important in Takahata’s career; it was the final movie in his long relationship with Toho Studios, with whom he started his animation directing career all the way back in the ’60s. It was also evidently pretty well received and eventually led to a 64-episode anime series, in which Takahata himself was not at all involved.
His next movie would be his last prior to the formation of Studio Ghibli and would be another very highly acclaimed offering from the director.
Takahata again wrote and directed the film, based on a short story by Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa. That story was first published in 1934 and is considered one of the writer’s best. It tells the story of Gauche, a hardworking young cellist in a small village. He is diligent and tries to be great, but just isn’t. His taskmaster of a maestro berates him in front of the small orchestra because in a few days, they’re set to play Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (also known as the Pastoral Symphony) for everyone in town. A nervous and downtrodden Gauche goes home to practice.
In four successive nights, he’s visited by different anthropomorphic animals, each one a fan of his playing. First it’s a cat who enjoys when he plays “Traumerei” by Schumann, but Gauche gets annoyed and begins to play “Tiger Hunt in India,” a very percussive, very avant garde piece of cello music (which the cat hates and eventually runs away). On the second night, a cuckoo bird visits Gauche and asks to practice scales. He allows it, but gets jealous that the cuckoo sounds better than he does and chases it away. (The poor bird hitting its head on the window as it leaves.)
On night number three, Gauche gets a visit from a Tanuki, a Japanese raccoon dog (an animal which Takahata would base an entire movie around in the next decade), which wants some help with his drumming and his father said Gauche could be of assistance. Despite not wanting to help initially, Gauche does and the Tanuki begins drumming on the base of the cello as Gauche plays. The two part on good terms. On the fourth night, a frantic mother mouse asks Gauche to help with her sick child. Gauche says to take the young one to a hospital, but the mother mouse insists his playing will help. He places the mouseling in one of the holes of the cello and plays, and he does pop up afterwards, right as rain.
All of these interactions with the animals help Gauche see the power of music and his true talent for the cello—if he’d only believe in himself. It’s a great message explored beautifully by the use of cello music. And the film took so long to make because the attention to detail on animating the musicians was obsessive. The lead key animator, Shunji Saida, took cello lessons just so he could accurately capture finger movements. Movies just don’t do that very often, especially not animated ones, but it gives the film a fullness, and a richness in texture.
There’s a really lovely sequence toward the beginning of the movie during practice of the Sixth when we see the imagery change to fit the power of the music. Suddenly, the orchestra has moved outside and thunder and lighting flash as the musicians play. The Maestro gets more and more animated with huge gestures, and this is then broken when Gauche messes up and it all comes back to reality. This is echoed slightly in the final performance, when everything goes great, but we stay with the orchestra in the performance hall, and it’s the action of the musicians and Maestro who create the fireworks by being amazing.
And that was the last picture Isao Takahata made before forming Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki in 1985. I think it’s interesting to look at these movies because it shows the talent and the imagination of a guy with no formal training in art or animation but who can still convey so much and still understands character so much. And things would only get more impressive when Ghibli was formed.
Next week, we’ll talk about Takahata’s first film as director with Ghibli, and it immediate separated him from Miyazaki in terms of depth of storytelling and what kind of stories can be told through animation. The supremely moving, deeply tragic Grave of the Fireflies is next week.
Images: Toho/Oh! Productions
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!