Company: Sanrio and Madhouse
Sure it's cute at first, but not for long...
Rather obscure outside of Japan, Chirin no Suzu (The Ringing Bell of Chirin), is one of the most depressing but brutality honest 'children's films' out there. Despite that it is only 47 minutes long, a single viewing of Chirin is sure to stay ingrained in your brain long after being watched due to its extreme mood whiplash and universal themes of revenge and loss of innocence. The film starts out a lot like many other typical family movies. The movie is about a young lamb named Chirin who is very curious but naive about the world. He is given a bell to wear around his neck to ensure that he does not wonder too far from home. Chirin's mother warns him not to go beyond the pasture gate because a fearsome wolf lives beyond it. However, Chirin barely listens and goes off to play with a rabbit.
Even if Chirin had listened to his mother, chances are tragedy still would have struck.
But, one night, something terrible happened which altered the life of Chirin forever. The wolf that Chirin's mother had spoken of bursts into the barn and Chirin freezes in fright. In an attempt to protect her son, Chirin's mother shields Chirin and is killed. In this one horrifying event, Chirin is no longer the cheerful, care-free character that he used to be. The other sheep do not help Chirin. They only watch him in horror and are too afraid to help him or even offer any words of condolence. Chirin becomes torn apart by feelings of anger and vengeance towards the wolf, and is ashamed of the other sheep for being so weak. Despite his clear disadvantage, Chirin sets off to find the wolf in the cold rugged mountains, far beyond the safe pasture he grew up in.
When Chirin quickly discovers that he is no match for the wolf, the movie takes a surprising turn. Unlike a safer or 'Disney-like' cartoon, things get more grim from here on out, with very little comedic relief or 'family friendly' shenanigans. Our hero, or rather anti-hero, decides to become the wolf's apprentice. Chirin is embarrassed by his own feebleness and feels abandoned by his own kind. He wants to become like the wolf not only to eventually avenge his mother's death, but also to become strong enough to defend himself. Although Chirin is frightened by the wolf's hunting, he soon realizes that the world can be cruel and unforgiving. The wolf is only doing what he has to do in order to survive.
Aww, so sweet.
Eventually, Chirin comes to the wolf as a father figure. This may seem strange, but since the orphaned Chirin has no one to turn to and desires strength, he comes to admire and respect the wolf. Likewise, the wolf is surprised by Chirin's well to live and admires Chirin's perseverance and dedication to his training. Chirin's epiphany comes when he attempts to save a nest of eggs from a snake. The snake kills the mother bird. Chirin, in anger, attacks the snake. However, he ends up smashing the eggs in the process. Sobbing, Chirin asks the wolf, "Why do the weak have to die?" After a long talk with the wolf, Chirin realizes the unfair law of nature: only the most ruthless can hope to live in this world.
"Life is not fair Chirin. In order for some to live, others must die."
On a symbolic level, much goes on within Chirin no Suzu's short runtime. Chirin's sorrow becomes his resentment and anger. As the wolf had told him, "Over the course of your life, you will be burdened by grief and despair. But, by overcoming them you will sharpen the fangs of your heart." Indeed, the now semi-adoleseant Chirin does take the wolf's lesson to heart. In a fantastical sequence of dark animation, the once cute lamb grows older. After many hard years of training, Chirin is no longer small or weak. He has become a fully grown ram that bears a shocking resemblance to the wolf.
But the wolf makes a mistake when he takes Chirin back to the barn. Chirin is unable to go in and kill the other sheep after seeing a lamb being shielded by its mother. In desperation Chirin charges the at the wolf screaming, "I was one of them!" The wolf is killed, but is proud to have died during battle with his pupil. The other sheep will not accept Chirin as there own; he has changed too much. The only reminder of Chirin's childhood is the small bell around his neck. Chirin is forsaken and goes off to presumably die alone. Thus, Chirin's own anger and lust for vengeance harms him in the end. He lost everything he hoped to become and is outcast from the rest of society. Was his life a failure? Did he do the wrong thing? If so, what choice did he have?
Chirin becomes consumed by anger and revenge....
....causing him to transform into a beast that is 'neither ram or wolf.'
The art direction of Chirin is simple but works very well and holds up nicely for its age. Although, made for Sanrio (of Hello Kitty?!), the animation was done at Madhouse, which would later become known for making its sophisticated, adult anime. Chirin no Suzu really does an excellent job of contrasting the first half of the film's style with its second half. In the beginning, Chirin is drawn with bright colors and populated with cute cartoon animals. After the film takes on its dark tone, the cuteness is gone and only bleak, washed out colors are used. The film's lyrical music, written by Takasji Yanase and Taku Izumi, is appropriately solemn and melancholy. It should be noted that the adult Chirin was voiced by Akira Kamiya, most famous for his role in the mecha genre, Iago in the Japanese version of Aladdin, and in many other popular anime. Chirin no Suzu's narrator, Hitoshi Takagi, also voiced Totoro.
The world is cruel beyond the shelter of childhood and safety of home.
Wow, just wow. Chirin no Suzu has very little flaws, and remains just as shocking and unsettling as it was when first released. It boldly tackles subjects that most Western cartoons wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. The movie is really a reflection of Japan's post-WWII society. The innocence and simplicity of life has been shattered, replaced by chaos, loss, and sorrow. Chirin can be seen as a boy who became reluctantly pulled into war. A boy who became overridden by feelings of regret and resentment, unable to enter back into society after experiencing such horrors. Overall, Chirin no Suzu is a tragic fable of the fallen hero. It can be a painful experience to watch, because it is so humanly relatable. Not for the weak of heart, but highly recommended for anyone who wants to see an intellectually charged movie that well leave them asking questions about life.
"Chirin come, come and play,
Let your dreams carry you away,...
Run and play in the snow,
For now that's all the life you'll know,
Seasons pass you well see,
That life is not all that free,
Chirin where are you now?..."
*About the Dub: Frankly, it's surprising that this movie got a dub at all, considering how dark and unmarketable it is to the greater American public. The US version of Chirin no Suzu was released over 25 years ago directly to VHS, and has not been in print since. All of the original songs are intact, with lyrics rewritten by the original performers. Most of the songs are good (save for the laughably bad "I am Chirin"), although sometimes slightly off key. The most annoying thing about the dub is the inclusion of 'cute' and unnecessary sound effects or dialogue early on in the film, which ironically, makes the second half of the movie seem even darker. Most of the voice actors do a fine job as well, considering the dub's age, especially for adult Chirin and the wolf. Young Chirin's voice is rather obnoxious, however.