NOTE: Although this Japanese Import DVD is NTSC, it is coded for playback in Region 2 only. In order to watch this disc, you'll have to have either a player coded for Region 2 or a Region Free DVD Player.
Because Hayao Miyazaki has been the most public face of Studio Ghibli, many often forget that he's not the only creative force at work within its walls. Director Isao Takahata has also made several features, including the acclaimed Grave of the Fireflies and the underrated Only Yesterday. In 1982, before Studio Ghibli was formed, he made an hour-long animated film based on a classic Japanese story by Kenji Miyazawa called Cello Hiki no Gauche (Gauche the Cellist). 2006 was the 110th anniversary of Miyazawa's birth, so Cello Hiki no Gauche has been re-released in Japan as a double-disc DVD in the Studio Ghibli collection.
Gauche (or Goshu, as he's referred to throughout the film) is a cellist who plays for both a small-town orchestra and in the local cinema. His group is preparing for a recital/competition, and Gauche continually has problems keeping up during practice. Over the course of four nights, as he labors under the scornful gaze of his Beethoven poster, four animals visit him. First is the wily cat, who initially taunts the musician but is soon run off by Gauche's performance of "Indian Tiger Hunting," a rhythmic piece that forces the feline into all sorts of humiliating dance moves. Second is the cuckoo who wants Gauche to teach him about scale but ends up showing the cellist a thing or two. Third is the young badger who asks Gauche to accompany him so he can get in tune with his drumming. Finally, a mother mouse brings her sick son to Gauche to ask him to play a song and heal her child. Apparently, all the woodland creatures gather around Gauche's home so that his playing might soothe them.
Though Gauche initially thinks these night visitors are a nuisance, when competition time comes, he discovers that he has learned a lesson from each of them, and once applied, they lead him to even better playing.
Cello Hiki no Gauche predates what would become the signature Ghibli style. Takahata has a rougher line here, but his grasp of movement is already a sight to behold. The cat character in particular is animated fantastically, the artists capturing feline mannerisms and attitudes down to the tiniest detail. The best parts, though, are when Gauche and his fellow musicians are playing and the world around them alters to express the music visually. In one scene, the entire orchestra floats into the air and rockets through space on the back of their symphonic melody; other times, Gauche goes abstract, expanding in size and changing color. When he's really in sync with his animal friends, his house disappears and the whole world becomes a beautiful forest. My favorite scene for music and image coming together, however, is when Gauche is playing in the cinema for a crowd of children watching an old-style black-and-white cartoon of a cat and a mouse. The animated characters behind the orchestra zoom around their self-contained screen, and then real life mimics art when an actual rodent is let loose in the theatre. It's a sly conceit, showing the interaction of film, music, and the natural world all in one tight little frame.
But that's exactly the kind of special film Cello Hiki no Gauche is. I'm so happy that Ghibli has rescued Cello Hiki no Gauche from its relative obscurity, because Takahata's film is definitely a charmer. It's a feel-good movie that doesn't contrive its emotions, and the classical score is an integral part of the storytelling rather than a quick shortcut to the audience's heartstrings. Like so many of the Ghibli films that followed it, there is nothing to compare Cello Hiki no Gauche to. It stands alone as a unique artistic expression, and it should be a welcome addition to any animation library.
There are English subtitles on the movie, and they are well done. Like all of the discs in the Ghibli collection, foreign consumers can buy safely.
Disc 2 continues the tradition of the Studio Ghibli releases coming with a second disc that presents the entire film in storyboards. Using the angle button on your remote, you can switch between the pencil version and the fully animated version, comparing the planning stages to the final outcome. Handily, there is also a scene selection menu where you can pick a particular scene and choose which format to start playing it in. There are no subtitles here either, but it's not as big of a deal since the main attraction is the storyboards themselves; you can watch the main disc for the story.
Also contained on disc 2 is a 41-minute feature about the background of Kenji Miyazawa, his original story, and the music that inspired him. According to Nausicaa.net, it's entitled "Kenji and Music and Iihatobu - The Sixth Symphony Kenji Heard," and it's not subtitled either--which is only partially a problem. While information is presented in Japanese text superimposed over the images, the audio for this feature is actually Beethoven's sixth symphony. So, you can watch the beautiful images and listen to the music and forget that background text is passing you by. There's some neat stuff to check out, including a monument to the author and his famous tale, footage of various natural landscapes, and archival photos from Miyazawa's life.
Finally, rounding out the disc is a series of trailers for other Ghibli releases, including the new short film based on a Miyazawa play called Taneyamagahara no Yoru, their 2006 theatrical release Tales from Earthsea (oh, man, I can't wait!), and a cool looking French feature directed by Paul Grimault called Le Roi et l'Oiseau (The King and the Bird). This appears to be a 1979 remake of another film by Grimault that was a big influence on Hayao Miyazaki.
The packaging contains a couple of physical bonus items, as well. One is a detailed map to the Cello Hiki no Gauche DVD printed in Japanese. The other is a sturdy flyer for Tales from Earthsea. Printed on cardstock, the outside is a faux mosaic of a dragon. Inside, there is a picture of one of the characters from the movie, as well as a fake postage stamp with the same image.