It seemed impossible for a sheep to become a wolf.
October 25, 2019 6:17 PM   Subscribe

In 1978, Takashi Yanase, beloved among children for his Anpanman character, wrote a picture book about a lamb who swears revenge on the wolf who killed his mother, and therefore goes to the very same wolf to learn to become a killer himself. Later the same year, Sanrio (yes, the people who make Hello Kitty) adapted it into a 47 minute-long film. "Chirin’s Bell is like if, instead of Bambi being raised by his father after the death of his mother, he sought out the hunters who killed his mother and insisted they teach him how to use a gun. Or if Simba, instead of running from Scar after his father’s murder, decided to join Scar in his conquest of the Pride Lands. Because, that’s basically what happens in this movie!" posted by J.K. Seazer (18 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
This is why Hello Kitty was never given a mouth. She was prepared to rip the throats out of other kitten friends.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:57 PM on October 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

So basically it's Hannibal, if most of the characters were literally sheep. Guess you'd have to change the title, though. Hmm... Oh, hey, I know! How about: Silence of the Lambs!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:37 PM on October 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

This is grim AF. I’m really terrified to learn what (if any) allegory the author intended
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:12 PM on October 25, 2019

I remember reading somewhere that Yanase based it on his experiences in WWII, but I couldn't find any decent source to back that up. However, it is well known that his experience of starvation during and after the war led him to create Anpanman, a superhero with the power of feeding people with his own body.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 10:27 PM on October 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

I found this excellent post about Chirin's Bell on a Japanese blog called "Pedadogical Analyses of Picture Books". What struck me about it was how seriously it sought to examine what the book leaves unsaid: why does Chirin feel unsatisfied at the culmination of his vengeance, and how should he live his life afterward? I translated the post in full below.
How should we confront the absurdities of life?

This is a story of an adorable lamb named Chirin. We see how soft and fluffy he is. Around Chirin’s neck hangs a bell, and with it his mother’s intention that she would know even if he were to fall to the bottom of the valley. "Don’t go off too far. You’ll be eaten by the wolf," his mother says. But one night, a wolf living in the mountain north of the pasture attacks his mother, and she dies. The wolf’s name is "Uo" [also "War" or "Woe"].

Later, the lamb Chirin goes to the wolf Uo, and pronounces, "I want to become a strong wolf like you. Please make me your pupil." Uo is delighted and makes Chirin his pupil. Why does Chirin go to Uo? Because he wants to become his pupil, and become strong. Then, why does he want to become strong? This is presumably in order to kill Uo. To fulfill the end of killing Uo, he chooses the means of becoming Uo’s pupil. Chirin burns with the thought of avenging his mother’s murder. Yet, if this were exposed, he would surely be killed at once. There’s no question that he is risking his life.

From here, Uo’s training begins. A year passes, then two, and after three years, Chirin has become quite the splendid "monster". He has become a completely different person, with no trace of the adorable Chirin remaining. The weak sheep was raised by a wolf, and one day became strong. His gaze is fearsome. Now, all who hear the sound of Chirin’s bell tremble.

The same being who once was a cute lamb turns that fearsome eye to look down from the top of a hill. It is an impressive figure—one that carries strength and ferocity on the surface, while clinging in the bottom of his heart to the cry of grief that is his love for his mother. Perhaps, to forget his sadness, he turns his heart to ferocity. "Gentleness" and "strength" are in some ways opposed. "Gentleness" is that which holds such small worlds as the swaying of our emotions and our individual breaths to be important. "Strength" is that which ignores small worlds and crushes giant walls. It seems this lamb has cast aside "gentleness" in order to obtain "strength". But even to the bitter end, Chirin never removes his bell. Why is this? I think that his love and gentleness for his mother, that which from the bottom of his heart makes him Chirin, has been firmly preserved.

At last, on a fiercely stormy night, Chirin and Uo decide to attack a certain pasture. Precisely then, under cover of darkness, Chirin runs Uo through. A blue flash of lightning illuminates the terrible and magnificent figure of Chirin, who volunteered himself as Uo’s pupil in order to become strong, who had waited for this moment when he could avenge his mother and kill the wolf Uo, this moment when he fulfilled his deepest wish. However, at the last instant, Uo leaves behind these words: "I had long ago accepted that such a time might come. It’s good that you killed me. I am happy."

What on earth is this? We are surprised because not only did Uo predict this, but he is happy to be killed by Chirin. Even after killing Uo, Chirin feels no relief. Why is this? Chirin approached the wolf with the feeling that he would destroy an evildoer, but that logic now no longer holds. What reaction from Uo would Chirin have accepted? Perhaps Chirin was expecting Uo to spit out something like "You’re the child of that sheep from back then, aren’t you! You tricked me, you villain!" and die suffering. It’s a strange way of putting it, but it would have been better if Uo had been an evildoer through and through. Then Chirin’s vengeance would be fulfilled. But in reality, that was not the case. Uo knew that, because he attacked the mother sheep, he might be hated by her child; that is, the wolf had perfectly normal feelings.

All at once, Chirin reconsiders; Uo had become something like a father and a teacher to him. What has happened here? What sort of psychological state is he in? In his private thoughts [honne], he wants to avenge his mother, and has a mental state of loving his mother. On the other hand, he wants to be with the wolf Uo, and has a mental state of loving Uo. This is his social mask [tatemae]. This is acting, not his true feelings. His affection for Uo is no more than acting, not his true self. However, when one continues to live under a fictitious guise, a soul is born there. He is slowly drawn to Uo’s strength and attractiveness, like an actor absorbed by the world of their performance who loses sight of their original self. I think that as Chirin shares his life with Uo, he lives with two personalities.

Chirin says, "I can no longer return to being a sheep." What does this mean? In the end, he has piled tragedy upon tragedy. The culminating act of his drive to relieve his bitterness over the murder of his birth mother was to murder his adoptive father. Compared to a wolf attacking a sheep, this is a far more brutal and inhuman act. If he had merely avenged his mother, he could perhaps have gone back to being a sheep after some time had passed. But to murder one’s adoptive parent reveals that one has become a terrifying being. Afterward, Chirin lives quietly and inconspicuously, without attacking anyone, carrying the dual burdens of his feelings for his mother and his feelings for the wolf.

How, really, ought Chirin to live? Some people might think something like this: He should have unhesitatingly avenged his mother. He should not form a bond with Uo. He is a wolf, and Chirin is a sheep. Wolves are the enemy, and he must not forget that a wolf killed his mother. He should avenge his mother without fail, and relieve his resentment. Does the fact that he did not find relief mean that his love for his mother had wavered? He shouldn’t worry about that, and just report to his mother in heaven, rejoice in his victory, and return to living as a sheep.

However, other people might think differently: Chirin should have recognized his gratitude and love for the wolf sooner, and from that moment lived alongside the wolf. The wolf can’t be completely evil, after all. Of course his love for his mother is important, but even if he avenged her, she would not come back. Rather, once he had met this important person, who was like a father and a teacher to him, would it not also be important to forgive the wolf’s past, give up his quest for vengeance, and open up to the wolf? Although he is already dead, Chirin should bear his regret toward Wo, and live as a wolf.

From now on, Chirin will not know whether to live as a sheep or as a wolf. If he chooses one path to be legitimate, the other will lose its legitimacy. It is an extreme contradiction. How should he handle this contradiction? It is sad that his mother was killed, but good that he met the wolf. Because both events are linked, he will have difficulty if he tries to draw a single conclusion. However, it occurs to me that there is no need to force these events together. "I loved my mother"—"I respected Uo"—both of these feelings are correct. I think that what exists at the very end is only the solemn fact that "I lived this way", and the intermingling coexistence of happy and sad feelings about that fact. Behind such treasures as "joy" and "happiness" cling "sorrow" and "unhappiness". This sort of thing happens all the time, where one is tempted to rip off one side and keep only the other, but it never goes well. One always encounters such absurdities if one lives seriously, such as a parent dying just as one decides to start acting filial toward them, or building a happy life for oneself at the expense of the friends one has kicked aside. We can do nothing but confront and negotiate with these various absurdities as we live our lives. After all, we cannot live without getting our hands dirty. If we live seriously and with all our strength, we must face such absurdities. We may not know it at the time, but we will surely recognize it looking back given more time living. Indeed, those people who think they live with their hands clean simply aren’t looking back at their own lives.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 1:12 AM on October 26, 2019 [86 favorites]

Thank you for sharing and translating that blog post. That last line is incredible.
posted by affectionateborg at 3:05 AM on October 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Purely coincidentally I've just finished writing a Laundry novelette in which Bob is confronted with Hello Kitty and Friends.

Serendipitous timing, or what?

(And now I feel a gratuitous impulse to remind everyone of the existence of Usavitch (felonious rabbits! KGB pandas!).
posted by cstross at 5:23 AM on October 26, 2019 [18 favorites]

From one angle, Chirin's Bell is about toxic masculinity being a death trip. From another (and probably sounder view), it's a tragedy about having no good choices and being driven by one's character.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:59 AM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Maybe it would be easier to enjoy if it was positioned as a parody of some other story, e.g. Ramlet, A Mutton of Solace, Merino Unchained
posted by droro at 7:00 AM on October 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think tragedies offer a sort of enjoyment which isn't common these days, and I can't say I fully understand it-- it's got something to do with the high being brought down by their character traits, but it's a dignified thing rather than schadenfreude.

I do think Chirin's Bell is some sort of parody of martial arts movies, but it's supposed to have the surface story work emotionally. Chirin's story is sad, not ridiculous.

I'd have a lot more context for this if I were more familiar with martial arts movies.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:40 AM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Well, this has consumed my entire morning and appears to be the "new thing" that I'm going to obsess over for the coming month.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:57 AM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I do think Chirin's Bell is some sort of parody of martial arts movies, but it's supposed to have the surface story work emotionally. Chirin's story is sad, not ridiculous.

This is the sort of thing that TV Tropes refers to as "deconstruction", where the basic assumptions of a genre or trope are allowed to play out to their realistic conclusion, instead of relying on cliches that have built up over the years. I find it interesting to consider the different reactions that adults and young children have to this story. I think that Chirin's Bell sticks in my mind because it subverts so many of the genre trappings that I've come to expect from a lifetime consuming fiction. I don't expect grim fables about the folly of revenge from picture books and cute animated short films, after all. But the story's intended audience of young children has no such context, and is more inclined to take the story's logic at face value. It's surprising to us that Chirin becomes the pupil of his mother's killer, but it makes sense considering that the entire universe of the book has only three characters: Chirin, his mother, and Uo. For Chirin, Uo is the only figure of strength from which he can learn to be strong himself, and for Uo, Chirin is the only source of companionship with which he can relieve his isolation. Likewise, it's surprising to us that Uo quietly accepts his death instead of lashing out at Chirin with his dying breath like the bad guy he is supposed to be, but if Uo were nothing more than a bad guy, he would have just eaten Chirin immediately instead of taking him in as his pupil. The simplicity of the story, and Yanase's commitment to that simplicity, is precisely what draws it forward to its natural conclusion. Yet, for some reason, we adults find that conclusion surprising.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 3:53 PM on October 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

Or there is no wolf. The boy returns to kill the thing that could not save his mother to balance the scale of his remorse.
I mean, the dogs are important.
I'm never going to be able to stop thinking about this film.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:11 PM on October 26, 2019

Thanks for this post. I watched this film many times (I think on beta?!) as a teenager after finding it in the children’s section of my local video shop. My friends and I debated the morality of the story so many times. I love showing it to people with no preamble or preconceptions. The comments here have all been fantastic to read
posted by saucysault at 7:15 PM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's 11 p.m.ish!
I'm old (old, OLD) and tired!
I'm still re-watching this movie and drinking scotch!

I am going to continue my research.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:43 PM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I learned about this from this post and went to read the book and then watch the film.

I think the movie changed the structure of the story for the worse. In the film, Chirin confesses to Woe both his secret plan and his newfound respect, and then agrees to attack the pasture under the explicit explanation that it is his birthplace, but when he is confronted with a frightened lamb that reminds him of himself, he turns on Woe in a moment of high emotion and is subsequently disappointed when the sheep don't accept him back into the (literal) fold. This turns the bittersweet complexity of warring affection/respect described in that very cogent explanation above into the same old bullshit about strong men who learn to fight being needed to protect the "sheep" but who are themselves above/apart from the "sheep" and must manfully go be alone being manly men or whatever the fuck. It turns the story from a thought-provoking tragedy about love and connection and layers of personality into yet another Western/Samurai film about the antihero vigilante whose pain is so so deep.

I think it's extremely important to the theme that Chirin not realize the depth of his respect for Woe until after he has fulfilled his plan to avenge his beloved mother; if he acknowledges the conflict beforehand, then his actions afterward cheapen both feelings and leave us with just the material effect of his actions.
posted by Scattercat at 3:18 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is fascinating. I'm not sure I have an opinion. . . which is a sure sign that I've been shown something genuinely new. Thanks!
posted by eotvos at 10:40 AM on October 28, 2019

(I am sure I have an aesthetic opinion about painting obviously human faces onto lambs. But, I'm not sure it's relevant or interesting.)
posted by eotvos at 10:42 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

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