Goshu The Cellist

Isao Takahata, a founder of Studio Ghibli along with Hayao Miyazaki, continues to be an impressive figure in Japanese animation, even if his name is not as recognized in the U.S. as his counterpart's. Nevertheless, many of his films, including Pom Poko and My Neighbors The Yamadas, have had recently released through Disney. One that hasn't been seen much in the States is Goshu the Cellist, a film he completed shortly before his masterful Grave of the Fireflies. Goshu is a short piece, about an hour in length, which combines classical compositions, woodland creatures, and a hard-pressed musician in an enjoyable tale. It's very much a film for the whole family, and though its artistic style is cartoony, the great music and simple but friendly story make it an anime that has aged surprisingly well.

Goshu is hard at work trying to learn the cello part for a difficult Beethoven symphony. It's just a week or so away from the performance, and he's just always a little behind the rest of the crew. He keeps practicing, but he's convinced that he's never going to get it down. What makes it worse is that he doesn't get much time to actually play Beethoven...why? Because in the little shack out in the country where he lives, there are a bunch of woodland animals who want him to teach them about music. Yes, they can talk, and Goshu doesn't think twice about it. He's more concerned about how much they divert him from the task at hand. Yet as the story progresses, Goshu learns why his music is so important to the critters in the fields near his home and why their distracting ways might just be a help to learning the symphony after all.

Although the film, released in 1982, doesn't show off much in the way of flashy animation techniques, it is fun to watch. There is actually a lot of subtle animation on display, primarily in the playing technique. Anime has a nasty habit of making musicians look like they're doing anything but actually playing their instruments. Goshu doesn't make that mistake. As a guitarist and bass player, I can say with some reasonable certainty that the fingerings the musicians in Goshu use are not particularly accurate...but so what? For once, the musicians look like they are really involved, right down to their fingers. Not even live-action films always get that right. As for the rest of the animation itself, it looks a little aged, but it's still colorful. If you can watch Bambi without thinking the animation has aged too terribly, you can watch this without fear.

The music is a real draw into this show. I've never been a huge fan of classical music, though I certainly appreciate it. However, the pieces on display here are accessible to even the musical novice, and the "Tiger Hunt" cello solo is amazing. The music participates in the story, and the choices are impeccable. In an age where annoying pop music qualifies as a soundtrack, this film reminds us how a film's music can be artistry in its own right.

Goshu doesn't have a big story, but it doesn't need to. The visits he receives from a cat, bird, tanuki raccoon dog, and mouse family are barely interconnected, but each one explores a different musical concept. The music involves dance and movement, but it's not like Disney's choreographed extravaganzas. Instead, it flows out of the nature of the tunes themselves. Each one has its own charm without getting repetitive. Although there are a couple of things that aren't sweet -- Goshu isn't particularly gracious to the animals, and he even strikes a match on the cat's tongue once -- for the most part, we see Goshu growing through these encounters. We see the payoff of practice and hard work. Goshu's not a perfect performer, but he is a dedicated musician who pulls it together with a little help from his friends and a lot of sweat...not a bad lesson.

What I appreciated about Goshu the Cellist is that it is truly a family piece. I would show it to my almost-three-year-old son without a reservation. Unfortunately, the market for anime in the US lies within the age ranges of 10-25, and so I don't know if such an old film will ever get an official release. Frankly, a film like this does need a dub; children who would appreciate it couldn't read the subtitles. However, the music and visuals would still captivate many a youngster who doesn't demand everything spoon-fed to them.

If you're a fan of the Studio Ghibli works or just appreciate a good film for families, then Goshu the Cellist is one to watch for. Not only does it show the maturation of a great director, but it has charm to spare and a soundtrack worth listening to on its own. It may have a little roughness around its edges, but that contributes to its rough-hewn hidden gem status.

Goshu the Cellist -- nothing objectionable (except short comic mischief) -- A