Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 31st 2014
Chirin is a little lamb who lives in a farmyard, ones who has as much energy as the rest of the lambs combined. For that reason he wears a bell so that his mother can find him. Naturally he doesn't pay much attention to his mother's warnings about staying inside the fences since the “king of wolves” lives on a nearby mountain and loves to eat sheep. Ultimately, though, he does not need to wander outside the fence to get into trouble, because eventually the wolf Woe comes calling to his barn, and his mother is one of the casualties as she tries to protect him. Chirin cannot reconcile how utterly unfair nature is, so he chases off after the wolf, and when he cannot beat Woe he instead seeks to become a wolf himself so that he will not always be at the mercy of others in the “kill to live” cycle of the world. That takes Chirin down a dark path from which there can be no return.
The 1978 movie version of Ringing Bell is based on the children's book Chirin no Suzu by Takashi Yanase, whose vastly more famous creation (at least in Japan) is Anpanman. It was produced during the animation heyday of Sanrio, the company responsible for properties like Hello Kitty and Jewelpet, and in keeping with that pedigree it was clearly intended to be a family film. However, the very harsh approach it takes turns it into something rarely seen in animation (not just anime!) meant to be fully accessible to children: it is a straight-up cautionary tale, one done in the spirit of the darker-edged classic European fairy tales. And that is just one of the factors that makes it stand out as one of the gems of its era.
In many respects the story plays out in a manner similar to many a shonen action series that followed in ensuing decades. Driven by great loss, a youngster strives to be stronger so that he will no longer be at the mercy of others. He finds a reluctant teacher and through perseverance manages to convince that teacher to take him under his wing (er, paw). As a result, he gets kicked around at first (sometimes literally!) but he eventually gets strong enough to be able to stand even against the mighty foe who once killed his mother. Unlike most shonen action series, though, the story does not just stop there. It goes on to show that the very act of making oneself stronger, and of seeking to take vengeance, can backfire in a nasty way if one is not exceedingly careful to avoid losing oneself in the effort. Chirin is not and suffers the consequences for it. The result is a sad, even haunting ending of the kind one might associate more with a hard-edged action or horror story rather than one which starts out with a little lamb cavorting around a meadow while playing with assorted animals. (In truth, though, from the beginning the movie never quite gives the impression that this is just going to be a cute little happy story. The tone is just a little too ominous.) It is an ending which can leave an indelible impression on a youth about the dangers of giving into rage, while also sending messages about how nature just isn't fair. Given that Yanase lived through World War II and its aftermath, this was doubtlessly intentional.
The other thing which stands out about the movie, especially compared to other anime titles, is its animation. This is not the cheap, cost-cutting work typically seen even in anime movies; this is full, rich, 24 frames-per-second animation, and the difference in quality is immediately noticeable in the fluid movements of Chirin, Woe and the other animals if one has been watching regular anime lately. Lip flaps are fully-animated, quality control is flawless, and background integration is perfect. Shortcuts are only used as necessary to quell visual graphic content, although some scenes are still edgy enough that parents may want to preview the movie before showing it to younger children. (And letting younger children watch it the first time without an adult present is not recommended.) Woe, with the red scar across his left eye which is sometimes his only clearly-distinguishable visual feature, makes a striking impression as the mighty hunter, while Chirin looks positively cuddly as a lamb and positively fearsome as a ram. Other animal designs look like they may have been borrowed vaguely or directly from certain Disney titles. Background art is less refined, but it conveys well the stark contrast between the pleasant meadow and the much less hospitable wilderness inhabited by Woe. The age of the production and the lack of modern digital coloring give the visuals an overall softer look, but in some respects that makes what is going on in the story seem even sadder.
While not exactly a musical, the roughly 48 minute play time of the movie is nonetheless steadily supported by a highly-active soundtrack which includes numerous vocal arrangements using a male chorus. Mostly it consists of orchestrated pieces of a style typical of Western animation at the time, with occasional electronic numbers mixed in. Anchoring it are various variations on the soulful, somewhat melancholy opening theme “I am Chirin,” which also serves as the closer.
Ringing Bell has been released before in the States on dubbed VHS, though it was out of print for nearly 24 years before finally being picked up by Discotek for release under its Eastern Star label. Hence this marks its first-ever release American release on DVD and thus its first-ever dual language release. Included on the disk are both the original Japanese dub and an English dub that was made at some point in the '80s, which also dubbed all of the songs into English. At least one of the English dub voices will be quite familiar to long-time anime fans: Barbara Goodson, who voices Chirin as a lamb. Bill Capizzi, the voice of Woe, has done a handful of other anime or anime-related roles (most notably Frigimon in Digimon and Galactor in G-Force), but the others have live-action acting credits or have done voice acting for American animation (Gregg Berger, the voice of Chirin as a ram, is much better-known as the “voice” of Odie in the Garfield cartoons, for instance). They were clearly cast with an ear to matching voices as close as possible to the original performances and give perfectly fine performances in that regard. The script gets some major adjustments, with extensive patter being added in during what were originally musical interludes, but essential meaning is never changed. The English language track does sound a little crisper in the audio than the Japanese track does. Extras include the English opening and ending from the original VHS release (this one retains the Japanese versions), a limited image gallery, and a full-length commentary by ANN's own Mike Toole, who tosses in various tidbits about the creator, director, production company Sanrio, and the process of bringing it to screen.
Ultimately Ringing Bell is an aberration in anime history rather than any kind of trend-setter, as nothing that comes after it (and certainly nothing done by Sanrio) looks like it or much resembles its combination of tone and status as a tale accessible to children. Hence it is more a curiosity than an important part of anime history, but it is an impressive one, and the impressions it leaves can be powerful and lasting.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Top-rate animation, sells its main points quite effectively.
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