I give this seriously dark kid's movie...a 94/100!
I had never heard of this movie before 2009, and the only way I heard about it was through Anime News Network, via this article here. I really liked reading the Buried Treasure columns on there, as it introduced me to anime that I adore to this day, Ringing Bell being one of them. Unfortunately it has since been abandoned. But my curiosity was piqued, I tracked it down on YouTube, and watched the English dub, as it was the only version available back then. Wow, Ringing Bell is seriously one of the darkest, most mature kids movies I've ever seen. It's full of mature life lessons most kids movies today refuse to even touch upon, and I'm sure something like this would be reviled at today. But I actually love it for its maturity and refusal to dumb itself down for its audience.
The story is very simple. A young lamb named Chirin loves playing in the farm and being with his mother, even though he doesn't always listen to her. But one day, a wolf breaks into the farm and kills some of the sheep, his mother included. Chirin doesn't understand why his mother had to die, or what they did to deserve this. Consumed by a lust for revenge, he leaves the farm and goes after the wolf. But he's too weak to take on the wolf on his own, so he takes another option: become the wolf's apprentice so he can learn how to be a wolf just like him so he can kill him in the future. Needless to say, the path to become a wolf is a merciless, cruel one.
If someone had watched this without any knowledge of anime, I wouldn't blame them at all for not knowing that this movie was animated in Japan, because this movie has a very Western cartoony look about it. Chirin's face when he's a lamb almost looks humanoid, kind of like something you'd find in an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and none of the animals have the kinds of overly round designs you'd find in most anime nowadays. But even by seventies standards, this movie is surprisingly well animated. There are still frames here and there, but movement is smooth when needed, and the movie has very good in-between animation, especially when the wolf appears on screen. Lip flaps are fully animated, the backgrounds are seamlessly integrated with the character animation, and the only real shortcuts on display are used to allude to but not completely show graphic violence. This could have easily been one of those Hanna-Barbera esque movies that had no budget, but it's clear the animators put a lot of effort into this...and want to know the most jarring thing? The company that animated this was Sanrio. Yes, Sanrio, the people who made the cutesy-wootsy Hello Kitty and Aggretsuko, a show that's part slice of life funny animal comedy and part existential horror based on working life. My mind was blown when I first found out that Sanrio worked on movies like this back in the day. It helps that the movie has a great sense of tone and atmosphere. It manages to keep a balanced tone throughout the movie, with the cutesy parts staying in the first 15 minutes, while the rest of the movie is fairly dark and grounded, but still having some subtle comedic moments peppered throughout. The movie still manages to keep said comedic moments subdued enough to not completely feel jarring. (Take note, Demon Slayer!)
The music isn't much to write home about. On one hand, I absolutely love the theme songs and insert songs, all of which are sung by the same singer, who unfortunately weren't credited (I know the English version is sung by The Brothers' Four, but there is literally no info on the internet about the person who sang the Japanese version and all the other songs). That said, the movie is heavy on the orchestrated pieces and trumpets typical of Western animation during that time period, along with a few electronic numbers mixed in. It's very easy to tell that this movie was made in the seventies, and the soundtrack is full on seventies here. Now, the English dub of this movie is more well known to people who have seen it, and while some voices are genuinely well cast, the acting can get rather hammy at times, detrimenting scenes that benefitted from being more subtle in the Japanese version. There's also added dialogue and sound effects, probably done in an effort to make sure kids don't get bored and get rid of completely silent moments. Granted, they at least don't try to shoehorn in dumb jokes like Saban does, and the soundtrack is kept the same, though the songs are dubbed and are rather...off-key. Though I do have to question why the Japanese version calls him Woe when the English dub's name for him, Wolf, sounds much better. I do wish someone would release the soundtrack for this movie, because I love all the songs on it!
But let me tell you exactly what makes this movie so great: To quote another one of my favorite anime bloggers, this is a movie dedicated entirely to character development. It's a character study first and foremost, showing Chirin changing significantly over the course of the movie because of his circumstances, both those that are beyond his control to the ones born from his own choices. Every action advances not only the plot, but Chirin's own development, and sometimes, character development isn't always positive. Some may question the fact that after a few years with Wolf, Chirin refers to him as his father, but one, I always assumed it was a sort of self-induced Stockholm Syndrome considering Chirin sought him out willingly, and two, in taking Chirin under his paw, Wolf kind of does become the only sort of parental figure Chirin has, considering he not only took him in but also taught him how to hunt for food and stuff. It's a gray area, and it helps that Wolf, while depicted as genuinely menacing and threatening, isn't shown as inherently evil. He just hunts for food like any other wolf does, and after injuring a bear, he lets the bear escape. This kind of subtle characterization is paramount in making sure he isn't shown as completely evil, and I think the movie does a great job on that one.
For anyone wondering, this movie doesn't end happily ever after, and I think it's all the better for it, because without spoiling anything, ending it any other way might have been a cop-out. But I think what makes this movie even better is its history. Ringing Bell is based on a children's book by one Takashi Yanase, who many may know created the Anpanman franchise. The book that the movie is based on was actually based on Yanase's experiences surviving World War II, as the only reason he became a children's book writer and illustrator is so he could cope with his PTSD. On its own, Ringing Bell is a cautionary tale about revenge and how pursuing it can leave you feeling empty and giving you nothing, but based on the history of its author and the book, it can also be interpreted as an allegory on the effects of war, such as Wolf representing war, Chirin's mother representing innocent civilians killed during it, and Chirin representing children or war orphans who lost friends and family members. With that information in mind, both the book and the movie can be seen as an anti-war work, even though the movie itself is about a sheep and a wolf, thus making it Yanase's most personal work to date. As you can no doubt tell, I absolutely love media with a rich, varied history like this, and I respect it and the people who work on it for not only daring to push the boundaries that are put on kids' movies, but for refusing to dumb themselves down for their audience and strive to tell the stories they want to tell no matter what. I only wish more of those could be made nowadays, though thankfully, the idea that animation is just for children is starting to die out bit by bit, so who knows?
Should you decide you want to watch this movie in a legal fashion, you're in luck! In 2013, the wonderful people at Discotek Media announced they licensed it, and a year later, they released it on DVD, with both the English and Japanese tracks intact. But if you don't want to fill your shelves with a physical copy, it's also available to stream on Amazon Prime for a fee, and for free on the new website RetroCrush. After being out of print for decades, it's back in circulation, and deservedly so, in my humble opinion, as it's one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, just behind Dog of Flanders. Ringing Bell isn't for the faint of heart, but it's still an absolutely wonderful, haunting movie that will stay with you forever, and I highly recommend it!