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  Ringing Bell Chirin come and play
Year: 1978
Director: Masami Hata
Stars: Akira Kamiya, Minori Matsushima, Seizo Katou, Taeko Nakanishi, Hitoshi Takagi
Genre: Musical, Drama, AnimatedBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Happy-go-lucky little lamb Chirin (voiced by Minori Matsushima) is orphaned when the big bad Wolf King (Seizo Katou) kills his loving mama (Takeo Nakanishi). Seeking revenge amidst the snow-capped mountains, harsh won experience teaches him nature is cruel and only the strong survive. So instead, Chirin begs the Wolf King to accept him as an apprentice. Either he’ll learn how to be tough and live as a predator, or else willingly sacrifice himself as dinner. Under the tutelage of his mother’s killer, Chirin grows into a strong and fearless warrior ram (much beloved anime voice actor Akira Kamiya), but one final challenge remains. To help slaughter the remnants of his flock…

During the late seventies, Sanrio - the company best known for its Hello Kitty merchandise - launched a determined bid to become the next Walt Disney studio, with a series of big budget, beautifully animated feature films. Many, including Winds of Change (1978) and The Mouse and His Child (1977) were costly failures on the international market, but a few including Little Jumbo (1977), The Sea Prince and the Fire Child (1981) and Fairy Florence (1985) became cult classics, fondly remembered by those lucky enough to see them. So it is with Ringing Bell, which seems like the studio’s twisted take on Bambi (1942).

While the death of Bambi’s mother caused generations of kids a few sleepless nights, Ringing Bell boasts a scenario seemingly concocted by an utter sadist. Heartbreaking and bleak to the point of despair, this weaves a profoundly disturbing message for a kids film, yet earns admiration for its artistry and willingness to go somewhere different. It was based on a children’s book written by Takashi Yanase, creator of Anpanman, the world’s first edible superhero (which is a whole other story…).

As directed by the gifted Masami Hata, who later replaced Hayao Miyazaki on the ill-fated international co-production Little Nemo (1992), features some avant-garde flourishes amidst the cuteness. Sanrio’s animators pay careful attention to detail, from shadows cast by drifting clouds to the lush, beautifully painted backgrounds and vibrant, appealing character designs. Things start off relatively light-hearted before gradually the mournful, melancholy mood is enhanced by Taku Izumi’s affecting score. The wolf’s first attack on the flock is a moment of pure horror, conveyed through screams, shadows on the walls, death rendered as a bolt of lightning and the Wolf King a nightmarish spectre. Its twisted coda being when Chirin snuggles next to his mama’s corpse, unaware she is dead. Cripes…

There are more playful episodes, as when Chirin vainly tries to terrorize a buffalo herd or gets sprayed by a skunk, but the overall sentiments are harsh. “Life deals out pain and from that pain you’ll grow fangs” says the Wolf King. It’s an old school Japanese life lesson and not one easy to applaud, while the tragic story comes across equally claustrophobic as heart-rending. Still there are amusements, including Chirin training to head-butt trees into smithereens in scenes straight out of a Sonny Chiba karate movie, complete with fuzz guitar soundtrack. Twenty-seven years later Gisaburo Sugii made an altogether more upbeat wolf-meets-lamb anime: Stormy Night (2005).

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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