Sanrio showed its horrifying dark side in this children’s film.
Picture a story that starts with the idyllic and carefree childhood of a young boy named Chirin, suddenly cut short when his family is attacked by a murderer who is literally named Woe. Chirin survives thanks to his mother, who shields him with her body, dying in the process. Full of despair and wracked with survivor’s guilt, the boy follows his mother’s killer, swearing revenge–however, not only is he unable to kill Woe, he can’t even survive out in the world on his own. Cursing his own weakness, Chirin begs Woe to make him his student and teach him to be strong, following him until the killer finally gives in and agrees. “Living means knowing sadness,” Woe says. “Use that sadness to sharpen the fangs of your heart.”
Oh, and it’s by Sanrio, creators of Hello Kitty, based off a book by the guy who made the beloved children’s character Anpanman.
While this isn’t the only time Sanrio has tackled more serious themes–2018’s Aggretsuko was about dealing with the soul-crushing stress of working life, after all–this is on a whole different level. Chirin no Suzu–translated sometimes as Chirin’s Bell and sometimes as Ringing Bell, since “chirin” is the onomatopoeia for ringing–is a short OVA released in 1978. It is also a fine entry into the time-honored genre of “fucked-up talking animal cartoons” alongside the likes of Watership Down and The Plague Dogs. Of course, unlike those movies, there’s nothing immediately apparent in Chirin’s Bell to suggest it’s a dark tale of revenge and cycles of violence. The cover art is innocent as can be, and the first ten minutes or so consist of an adorable little lamby frolicking in a meadow. And then Woe appears–a gaunt, scarred wolf that looks like death incarnate–and things get real very quickly. While there are odd bits of slapstick now and again, the rest of the OVA generally follows the tone set by this shocking scene, and it only gets bleaker as it goes on. It’s very emphatically not a movie for children–at least not young ones.
For folks who won’t be instantly traumatized, though? It’s kind of amazing–and not just because of the inherent entertainment of seeing lines like “This world is Hell itself, with death always waiting to pounce” in a cartoon by Sanrio. The bleakness and violence of Chirin’s Bell isn’t just for the sake of shock value–it’s in service of a narrative that’s surprisingly deep and complex for any hour long OVA, let alone one about a lamb.
After his mother’s death, Chirin’s frustration with the powerlessness of his kind comes to a head, and he swears rather than remain a weak sheep who can only wait to be killed, he’ll become a wolf. He’s so shattered by the violence he witnessed that the only way he can see to escape being a victim is to become a killer himself. And he does–under Woe’s tutelage, he turns himself into a monster. It’s only when Chirin–told by Woe to kill the sheep of the pasture where he was born–sees an ewe protect her child like his mother protected him that he realizes the mistake he’s made. He finally takes his revenge on Woe, but it brings Chirin no peace–only more suffering and isolation, having lost the wolf who was a teacher and father to him. The other sheep fear him as a terrifying creature that is neither sheep nor wolf. In the end, the strength Chirin sought brought him nothing but more pain. Pretty serious stuff for a kid’s cartoon.
On top of that, it’s just gorgeous. While young Chirin is clearly a cartoon, animated in a loose, bouncy, unrealistic style, most of the other characters are depicted with an attention to anatomy that one rarely sees applied to animals. The backgrounds are painterly and impressionistic, creating the feel of a timeless fable–one closer in line with the original bloody cautionary tales than what we’d think of as a fairy tale. There’s a real eye for imagery as well, whether it’s the use of shadow and silhouette to obscure violence while making it all the more gruesome through implication, the flames that engulf Chirin as he grows from a weak lamb into a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or the countless beautiful, lonely compositions. While the production values aren’t on par with something like Studio Ghibli films–and how could they be–it’s undeniably striking.
Taking this into account, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Chirin’s Bell has a cult following–and a respectably sized one at that. YouTube is filled with video reviews and even AMVs, and it’s a mainstay on lists of overlooked anime films. It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say it’s one of the most popular–if not the most popular–of Sanrio’s animated films. While it’s hard to know what went on behind the scenes in terms of production, something this far from the norm of children’s animation must have been quite the risk–and yet it paid off in spades. Rather than something safe, harmless, and ultimately disposable, like so much of children’s media unfortunately is, it was a groundbreaking work that’s still remembered today. It’s available on VRV, both dubbed and subbed, so there’s no reason not to watch it–just don’t put it on for little kids.