It might be surprising to learn the company behind Hello Kitty once branched out into dramatic filmmaking. And early into this short-lived venture, Sanrio produced one of its most notable films to date. Masami Hata’s 1978 adaptation of Takashi Yanase’s Ringing Bell (Chirin no suzu) found its way to the U.S. in the early ‘80s thanks to RCA/Columbia Pictures. The 47-minute film looks to be a garden-variety cartoon about a lamb, based on the promotional art. However, viewers of this animated obscurity can all agree looks are deceiving.
Ringing Bell starts off in an idyllic, mountainside grassland somewhere in America. As winter comes to an end, a local herd of ewes gives birth to and raises the next generation. This includes Chirin, who is voiced by Minori Matsushima in the Japanese version, and Barbara Goodson in the English dub. Because of Chirin’s habit of wandering off to unsafe parts of the pasture, he wears a bell around his neck. This way his anxious mother (Taeko Nakanishi, Alexandra Kenworthy) can always find him.
Ringing Bell’s cheery demeanor and picturesque scenery fade when the sun goes down, and the sheep’s most feared predator, the notorious wolf Woe (Seizō Katō, Bill Capizzi), pounces on the herd. The merciless hunter quickly finds a meal, but he takes one more life before disappearing into the night. Unharmed and unaware, Chirin crawls out from beneath his mother, who shielded him during the attack. He slowly comes to realize what happened after Woe set his eyes on him. Distraught and furious, Chirin then takes off in search of his mother’s killer.
Chirin decides the only way to defeat Woe is to become his student. The wolf brushes Chirin aside until he witnesses something so bizarre in a world where every action is predetermined. Chirin tries to save a nest of bird eggs from a snake after the mother is killed, but his efforts are in vain. Woe then shares a cold hard lesson with Chirin: some must die for others to live. He proceeds to ask the lamb why he wants to be like him in the first place. Chirin says he does not want to be helpless like the other sheep who stay in a place knowing very well they will be fodder at some point. The wolf is finally convinced to take Chirin under his wing.
Characters becoming the thing they hate is a common idea in storytelling. Chirin is indeed active in his own undertaking, but like so many others in a similar position, he does not consider the full weight of his actions. Nevertheless, Chirin trains day and night with Woe in hopes of achieving power and strength. His body is made tougher to match his new temperament. Chirin’s change is astounding given the adorable, carefree lamb seen earlier. What he ultimately loses in the process, though, is something he may never get back.
The wolf has also put himself in a precarious situation; every day he edges closer to death as he teaches Chirin his ways. Surely he could have avoided everything to come had he just devoured the lamb like nature dictates. An easy explanation for why the wolf instead mentors Chirin is the fact that animals live to further their species; he is acting on a biological desire. There are no other wolves in these parts, after all. Something else to ponder is Woe’s morbid curiosity. Being the apex predator here, a creature such as himself has little if nothing to be afraid of. He takes down bears twice his size with ease, and prey is more than plentiful. Life for the wolf is as simple as it is predictable. So the strange proposal Chirin sets forth would seem intriguing if Woe wanted to shake things up and feel challenged.
The day comes when Chirin achieves his ambition of being as powerful as the wolf, if not more so. His sharp horns have fully come in, and his hooves are as hard as rocks. The demonic ram has only one last test to complete his transformation; he has to destroy his birthplace. Chirin unhesitatingly slaughters a pack of guard dogs before he descends on a herd of helpless sheep much like the one he came from. He is prepared to kill them all until the sight of a lamb crying out for its mother brings him to his senses.
Animation has always acknowledged death in some form or another. Vintage Looney Tunes shows dying is only a temporary setback, seeing as characters regularly walk away unscathed after falling off a cliff, coming in contact with explosives, or succumbing to the weight of a comically large rock. Meanwhile, the more permanent depictions were found in cinema. From classic Disney to various Don Bluth pictures, Western animators of yesteryear broached death, yes, but they often applied an almost mystical gloss to the event. There was also the assumption that things would improve once the shock and pain wore off.
On the other hand, there is no perceivable silver lining to death in Ringing Bell. Chirin experiences loss at various times in the film. Although this story shares elements with Disney’s Bambi, it goes the other way in terms of death. Bambi recovered in a healthy way, whereas Chirin skipped the mourning period altogether in a bid to avoid the unavoidable. He thought becoming a predator like Woe would save him, but his vengeance quest only left him more alone. Chirin spent so much time fighting the concept of death he never took the time to live his life.
Ringing Bell is a brutal watch at any age, especially today when cultural attitudes and standards regarding children’s media have shifted. The nightmarish imagery and psychological horror are startling. This being a story for kids, though, there is presumably a lesson to be learned. Is this a reminder to maintain one’s social station? Or is it a warning about seeking vengeance? Maybe this is another “be careful what you wish for” narrative. The goal here is not too clear, and adults will have a hard time breaking everything down for younger viewers. As bleak as the conclusion is, the open-endedness is what stings the most in an otherwise daring, darkly beautiful, and unique film.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.