After their father quarrels with local military men, Anju and Zushio are forced to flee, but they are captured and sold into slavery. When their mother dies, they are sold to Sansho the Bailiff, a cruel man who subjects them to hideous torments.
While Anju falls into a lake and is transformed into a swan, Zushio escapes and after being adopted to a nobleman grows to a young man. He will then fight to defeat the evil Dayu and free all the slaves.
'Anju to Zushio Maru' is Toei's 4th film, released in 1961. Anju to Zushio Maru contains much of the tell-tale signs of an early Toei film; such as the art style, the sound, and the talking animals. However, there's something radically different with this film. Toei decided to adapt the Mori Ogai short story 'Sansho the Steward'. Written in 1915, and deeply influenced by the seppuku of General Maresuke, Mori's 'Sansho the Steward' is a tragedy set in the Heian period containing the forced disintegration of a stately family, suicide, imperial mis-decisions, and slave trading. Certainly a brave decision by Toei as Anju to
Zushio Maru was ultimately a film solely aimed at children and perhaps their parents.
Toei has surprisingly kept much of the storyline of Mori's work intact. Anju and Zushio are son and daughter of a kindly Governor and his respectable wife Yashio. However, an unruly superior, Onikura, violates the Governor's control of land, and sends an incriminating letter accusing the Governor of destroying imperial land from the setting of a fire, which Onikura actually set himself. The Governor is sent to trial in the royal capital Kyoto, is ruled guilty and exiled to Kyushu. Thereafter, Onikura takes this chance to take control of the Governor's land. The family flee with their retainer Kikuno. Soon however, they find themselves tricked by morally corrupt slave traders. Put on different boats, son Zushiomaru and daughter Anju are separated from mother Yashio and retainer Kikuno. Kikuno is kicked overboard, and drowns. As Kikuno dies, she transforms into a mermaid (ningyo), and later achieves revenge by drowning the slave traders in a whirlpool.
Zushio and Anju find themselves in the hands of Sansho the Steward, working as slaves expanding his mansion. Yashio is sent to the distant Sado island. Sansho's youngest son Saburou is good of heart though, and helps the poor pair. Eventually, Anju tells her brother Zushio to escape. When he does, Anju is treated badly and eventually drowns herself, transforming into a white swan. She helps guide the escaped Zushio to Kyoto, where he defends the emperor's adviser's daughter from a bandit. Zushio is taken in, defeats a monster threatening the emperor, and is proclaimed Governor of the region encompassing Onikura's and Sansho's domains. He also finds out his father has died in exile. Upon arrival back home, he discovers the demise of his sister, frees all of Sansho's slaves, then embarks upon a journey to Sado where he finds his mother who is now visually impaired. The story ends with Zushio hugging his mother on a ship, with the white Swan representing Anju flying above, and mermaid Kikuno swimming below.
This plot is entirely against regular conventions of anime aimed at children. There are no convenient moralistic lessons to be learned in Anju to Zushio Maru. Mother Yashio's comment 'your father has done nothing wrong, so we need not worry', proves almost comically wrong. Sanjurou advises Zushio to outlast their pitiful condition- which only leads to continued heartache. Mori Ogai's story has also been adapted into a film by Kenji Mizoguchi, 'Sansho the Bailiff'. Anthony Lane said of this film, "I have not dared watch it again [...] because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal." This ordeal, evidently, has not lessened by much in Anju to Zushio Maru. The most the audience is spared from is being directly shown the death of characters (rather, they dissolve).
This did not address the presence of the talking animals. Early Toei films almost invariably feature them, and yet rarely do they factor into the story in a meaningful way, instead being simply figures of action or of plot development. Their relationship is almost invariably tied to the protagonists. Certainly what they do help facilitate is the feeling that the protagonist is righteous- protected by the Shinto spirits of animals and their environments. The transformation of Kikuno into a mermaid is interesting as it's supernatural. If they transformed Kikuno into a dolphin or turtle, then probably they could not show her venting her anger by revenging her death, killing the slave traders. This kind of complicity regarding naturalism is also quite interesting regarding the original material. Mori Ogai was an 'anti-realist'. The dichotomy between the supernatural and the perhaps negative actions, especially in relationship to bureaucracy is very much an intriguing commentary on Toei's contemporary state. The company was experiencing strikes and industrial action, yet management continued absolutist decisions.
Regarding technical aspects, Anju to Zushio Maru is very strong. The art style is fairly unique by today's standard, yet was primarily at the behest of Koyama Reiji, who also was responsible for the style of other early Toei works such as Shounen Sarutobi Sasuke and Wanpaku Ouji no Orochi Taiji. It's quite a sight to behold, even though this was a time when everything was done by hand at the studio itself. There are no digital effects in Anju to Zushio Maru, but definitely effects that would now be utilised with the help of CGI. The (actual) animation correspondingly is very good, though as per usual with all less-contemporary anime, the style can be sort of jerky as it over-relies on key frames. It is quite notable though, that characters are placed within static backgrounds. The sense of movement in Anju to Zushio Maru at times is quite stifled. There's a definite limit to what can be achieved with two dimensional scenes.
The sound is fairly good. The soundtrack is operatic, involves much almost ambient application of sound effects, and also contains songs performed by the voice actors. This operatic soundtrack was part of Toei Douga embracing the new, incorporating the Showa revival and the concurrent Westernisation. Classical Japanese musical elements as sometimes found in their other movies is fairly lacking in Anju to Zushio Maru. Especially regarding the period of the time they were representing, personally I would have liked some more traditionally Japanese music to accompany. Having said that, to create atmosphere, mood, and emotion, the soundtrack is virtually flawless. The voice acting is of a high calibre. There is a transition however, between Zushiomaru as a young boy and a young adult. The voice change, while of course deeper, just does not seem to be very cohesive.
As an example of early animation, 'Anju to Zushio Maru' shines as technically brilliant. As a kid's film, the appreciation of Anju to Zushio Maru might be a little more problematic. Toei simply has not made this anime happier than it could have been. Even with their practice of inserting talking animals to lighten the mood, Anju to Zushio Maru is a depressing tragedy of Herculean proportions. Certainly though, this does not detract from the merit of the story esoterically. Anju to Zushio Maru is compelling in its entire duration, and definitely outstanding in comparison to Toei's earlier 'Hakujaden' or 'Alakazam the Great'.