Title: Ringing Bell / Chirin no Suzu / Chirin’s Bell
Length: 1 x 47 minute movie
Year of release: 1978
There’s quite a few pieces of media that aim to shock you, quickly, with disturbing dissonance. Ringing Bell is one of the most ostentatious displays of clashing imagery, though you also get the feeling it could go further. The opening 5 minutes tell the story of a lamb, who is more than happy to live his days on a farm in peace, singing merrily about the ease of it all. And then the wolf breaks into the sheep pen. Considering the existential depravity that the movie goes to, I’m surprised there wasn’t more, or really any blood as Chirin’s mother is brutally slain – pushing forth Chirin to overcome his fear of living life waiting to be slaughtered. It’s a similar plot setup to Bambi, except if a nihilist ripped up the second half of the screenplay, and began writing depressing philosophic allegory in its place. Ringing Bell is that sort of movie.
It’s a poor display of credibility for Wor, the big bad wolf, as he merely ignores the lamb that follows him up the mountain with nothing but anger and a motive to kill. Wor is hagged, aged, and unfeeling, but is surprised by Chirin’s determination to ‘become a wolf’. Eventually, Wor decides to bring Chirin and his flimsy motivation under his wing, putting the tragedy of power into motion. Ringing Bell is a distressing movie, illustrating the helplessness one must have to, ironically, access power. It’s a Nietzschean quote, in fact, ‘when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you’, and the entire movie’s premise is a showcasing of this ideology, colliding with the metaphor of a ‘sheep in wolf’s clothing’ to become something darkly profound. The movie is loaded with quotes that would make any up-and-coming Übermensch giddy, too, such as ‘Living means knowing sadness. Use that sadness to sharpen your fangs’.
Lambs can grow horns, in case you were wondering how this adorable little creature became such a capable, violent predator in the absence of fangs or claws. He joins Wor on hunting trips, chasing after dear and other creatures across the fields and mountain, using his trained legs, sharp horns and sheer determination to become ‘a wolf’. Wor’s character is gradually exposed as surprisingly lonely, being the only mountain wolf left in the area, and it’s this loneliness that causes him to take on an apprentice. Speaking biologically, this sort of thing makes sense; apex predators tend to be in short-supply because of energy loss as you travel up food pyramids – but speaking more philosophically, this works, too, because with power comes a loneliness that can’t be described too easily. Chirin and Wor have sold everything to buy power, and now they have nothing, and the bond that forms between them is almost touching. I say almost, because Ringing Bell is a short movie, with the timespan largely dominated by scene-setting montages which, while effective, leave the characterisation to be rather hazy.
Chirin, then, will eventually embrace that loneliness, too. While the final climax is drenched in melodrama, it’s effectively juxtaposed to the rain. Ringing Bell seems to lose itself near the end, and it becomes apparent that there’s many more dank corridors that this dark and dreary movie is too unwilling to crawl down. Not only is the finale, as Chirin enters his old farm, lacking a visceral touch, but it also lacks a narrative punch. Chirin’s characterisation throughout the movie is only just strong enough to pull off the twist, but the opportunity for a more circular, and more fulfilling, philosophically apt finale is rather clearly missing. It’s a shame that Chirin himself didn’t take an apprentice, and continue the tragedy of power, or that the ultimate destiny of the sheep becoming meat for humans was never addressed.
Ringing Bell is full of dread, using cute imagery to try and exaggerate its soul-crushing message. But all too often, it feels rough around the edges; narratively; in characterisation; it’s even a little unnerving how many sound effects are simply not recorded, with characters ‘floating’ more than trudging in the recycled animation. It’s very extreme, and very simple, but not quite strong enough to be a firm mainstay in a nihilist’s library.