That critically acclaimed animator Isao Takahata fails to draw the same level of attention and popularity as his much more famous business partner and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki is no less unfortunate for being understandable. While Miyazaki is a prototypical auteur, creating a body of of work immediately recognizable as his own at least as far back as Nausicaa, Takahata has been much more a collaborator through his no less impressive career. While Miyazaki's work has been marked by a consistent approach Takahata has been much more restless, shifting styles and approaches from project to project with a variety of design and animation styles adopted to suit the needs of the project and skills of his collaborators. It's an approach that may make his work less recognizable than his more famous peer's but it is no less vital or impressive, a fact only reinforced by the recent Japanese DVD re-release of his early hour long feature Gauche the Cellist.
This early film is a masterpiece of simplicity. A film about the power of music it tells the story of a young cellist, the titular Gauche, struggling with his craft as he prepares for an upcoming symphony performance. The weak link in his orchestra Gauche is berated by his conductor with only days to go before his performance and sets off for home, beset by doubts and determination, to try his best to prepare. Over the next several nights he receives help in his preparations from an unlikely source: a series of animals who visit him drawn by the power of his music. First there is a playful cat making a series of requests, then a bird who wants help learning to cuckoo, a badger-percussionist, a mother mouse hoping Gauche's music will heal her sick son, etc. With every successive visit Gauche learns something new about himself and the power of music until he is finally prepared to perform.
Takahata's work is no less subtle than Miyazaki's, the surface simplicity concealing a surprising amount of depth in the character touches and atmosphere. Though many of the support characters appear only in short bursts Takahata nonetheless presents them as fully fleshed humans living in a richly detailed world. The interactions ring astoundingly true thanks to the master director's eye for detail and subtle mannerisms. Though the animation here is more simplistic and primitive than in his later, better funded work, the power of his imagination is no less and the film succeeds admirably thanks to this.
This new Japanese DVD release features a new transfer of the film in it's original 4:3 aspect ratio with English subtitles offered on the feature only - the extensive extra features are Japanese only. The transfer itself is quite crisp and clear, though the source print does show some evidence of wear in the occassional fleck and speck of dirt.