Littlest Warrior, The
“The Littlest Warrior” (“Anju to Zushio Maru/ Anju and Zushio”) is an 83-minute movie from 1961, directed by Taiji Yabushita ( “Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke” ) and Yugo Serikawa ( “Wanpaku Oji no Orochi Taiji”, “Cyborg 009” ). Based on the short story, “Sansho the Bailiff”, by Mori Ogai (the same source as Kenji Mizoguchi’s socially conscious 1954 film), it’s Toei Studio’s 4th animated feature, and part of their series of classic children’s adventure films.
The story follows Zushio and his sister, Anju. Their father, Masauji Iwaki is a posted officer of the Mikado, and dutifully protects the Emperor’s forest in Mutsu from harm. He and his family live in peace in an estate within the woods. However, the local ogre-ish lord, Onikura, is infatuated with Iwaki’s daughter, the young, innocent and pure Anju. To protect his daughter, Iwaki refuses Onikura’s wedding proposal. In retribution, Onikura hunts in the Emperor’s preserve and burns down part of it, then sends a letter to the Mikado accusing Iwaki of these misdeeds. Their father is tried and found guilty, and his post and estate are transferred to Onikura.
The siblings and their mother flee their home, planning to travel to Kyoto to plead their father’s innocence. But on the road, the family is tricked and separated by slavers. Anju and Zushio are sold to the richest man in Yura, Sansho. A wicked man, Sansho uses his slaves to continuously build himself a larger estate, and keeps them under the controlling whip of his slave master, Gonroku. Sansho’s two sons, the cultured, upright, principled, Saburo; and the evil and vile, Jiro, both take notice of Anju. Jealous of the attention Anju pays to Saburo, Jiro talks with his father and Gonroku to inflict harder work and stricter punishments on the two enslaved children. Fearing for her younger brother, Anju helps Zushio escape to a local temple. In punishment, Jiro threatens to burn Anju with a hot iron rod if she doesn’t yield to him. Saburo rushes to save Anju. As the two brothers fight, Anju drowns herself in a nearby lake. Her spirit becomes a white swan to watch over Saburo, and Zushio.
With the help of the temple priest, Zushio receives an audience with an advisor to the Emperor and learns that his father was exiled and died of illness. Sympathetic to Zushio’s life of woe, the advisor takes Zushio in and teaches him reading, culture, and the martial arts, so that someday he will be able to reclaim his family’s standing, and his father’s position.
“I can see something again. It looks like a beautiful white bird.
Zushio, I think, perhaps, today she is happy again.”
Definitely the prettiest of Toei’s classic animation films, “The Littlest Warrior” looks like a painted shoji screen come to life. Anju’s character seems to embody the Japanese aesthetic of ephemeral beauty (or possibly a universal love for the self-sacrificing female). However, the tone of the movie flips wildly between fun, childish fantasy adventure, and painful, realistic human tragedy. One minute, we’re seeing children enslaved, or a girl threatened with rape, the next, we’re with anthropomorphic animals, or fighting a giant spider monster.