Julien Neaves, Editor
Context: Back when I was a child (about seven or eight) one of my parents brought home a Betamax video cassette (look it up, young uns) with the “cartoon” Ringing Bell. With its cute lamb protagonist and bright colours I am sure they thought it was a light, sweet, family film that would be appropriate for my prepubescent brain. What they actually brought home was an anime film (the Japanese name is Chirin’s Bell) years before I even knew what anime was. And it was also a deceptively dark film that took such a sharp turn into violent content that it gave young Julien emotional whiplash. It is a movie that stuck with me to this day and as I continue my journey into classic anime, I thought it would be cool to revisit it. With a childhood traumatising SPOILER ALERT let’s break it down in three bites.
Bite #1 Sights and Sounds
The film follows the titular Chirin, a naïve, curious little lamb who lives with his mother and her flock on a farm. He has a penchant for wandering off, so he wears a bell to help his mother track him down. The opening of the film is sweet to the point of saccharine and follows the little lamb as he romps and plays with other animals. The colours are so bright as to be blinding and you would swear you were watching a Disney cartoon. But the haunting, almost hymn-like theme song should have been a clue that this was not going to be a cutesy Disney-esque movie. And get used to that theme because you will be hearing it a lot. And I mean, A LOT!
The vibrant colour palette becomes muddied and much darker to mark the end of Chirin’s carefree existence courtesy of a wolf living in the mountains attacking the farm and killing his mother (more on that later). The Wolf describes his existence as “hell” and the orange, brown and gray hues of his mountainous dwelling do convey a feeling of the underworld.
Bite #2 The Lamb and the Wolf
The 47-minute film features three main characters, Chirin, his mother and the Wolf, also called The Wolf King. Let’s chat about Chirin’s mother first because she does not last very long and is mainly a catalyst for the plot. She’s very sweet and caring, and understandably worried about her constantly wandering son. She shares a heartwarming relationship with him, and this makes her fate all the more impactful. When the Wolf attacks Chirin’s mother uses her body to shield him and is killed in the process. This was years before I saw Simba try to rouse Mufasa in The Lion King and I…was…not…ready! Chirin’s mother’s death is not even bloody or particularly disturbing but the shock of it hit me hard as a child and is still very affecting to this day.
Now on to protagonist Chirin. It appears I had forgotten how grating his voice is. Sheesh! It is very high-pitched and whiny, almost to the point of painful. If I was the Wolf, I would have eaten him just so he would shut up. After his mother is killed, he comes up with the harebrained idea (or lamb brained, I guess) to have the Wolf train him to be strong. The little’s lamb persistence is admirable and eventually the Wolf gives in, despite knowing the feisty lamb intends to kill him one day. Under his tutelage Chirin transforms into a powerful and fearsome ram and joins the Wolf in a ruthless duo of destruction. The older, more morally ambiguous Chirin is a much more interesting character than his younger self. And while he may have been ravishing woodland creatures, he was no longer ravishing my eardrums.
And what can I say about the Wolf? He is just the epitome of cool with his eye scar, constant scowl, reverberating voice and Darwinian philosophy. And I would even argue that he is not the true villain of the tale.
To find out what I’m talkin’ about, read on dear reader. And don’t call me Willis.
Bite #3 A Deceptively Deep Fairy Tale
Of the abovementioned three characters, only two of them act according to their natures: Chirin’s mother acts like a protective mother lamb and the Wolf acts like a wolf. He is not evil and does not attack and/or kill out of any malice or vindictiveness. His nature is to kill prey and to feed, and that is what he does. The odd man out (or lamb, rather) here is Chirin. By allying with the Wolf, he is going against his nature as a lamb. The two even develop a surrogate father/son relationship. But this unnatural relationship and unholy union results in Chirin’s fiery transformation into an unnatural creature, and one that is as vicious as the Wolf, or arguably more so. When he returns to his childhood farm, he slaughters the poor dogs protecting the sheep. It is only the trigger memory of seeing a lamb calling out for its mother that stops him.
This leads to the epic moment of Chirin killing the Wolf, and the latter saying with his dying breath he was glad it was him that did the deed. Instead of being embraced by the sheep, however, he is rejected. Instead of celebrating his revenge, he is depressed at the death of his surrogate father. And he retreats to the mountains, taking up the role of the lone wolf. Chirin is no hero but a tragic figure whose quest for vengeance, inability to accept the natural order of things and unnatural behaviour leads him down a path of self-destruction. He is his own villain in this tale.
Ringing Bell is a surprisingly deep film and one I enjoyed revisiting. But it is not one I will be showing my young children. No way Jose.
Editor Jules’ Score: 8 out of 10
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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an award-winning author. I say things like “13 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.