This films details the beginnings of the Yakuza, the system of honor and ritual that they created, and the social structure of the organization.
The film follows the lives of three friends at the lower rung of the Yakuza social order. (Many people mistake this film to be about three Ronin, but that is definitely not the case and is made clear in the opening narration.) The three protagonists are in fact toseinins, wandering peasants who have forsaken family and home for a life of adventure and petty crime, travelling between Yakuza Houses looking for shelter, work and food.
This film is a tragedy, not of epic proportions, but of all to real proportions. The film centers around Genta, a young man conflicted between desire (to family and love) and obligation (to the Yakuza code). Spoiler warning In essence the film is a coming of age story, especially for Genta. Genta must weigh his killing of his father against his love of family versus his obligation to kill him because of the code he lives by. He also deals with a certain level of betrayal ... after having been ordered to kill his father by a Yakuza boss, he is then turned away by that same boss because he doesn't want a criminal in his midst, the irony being that the boss created the criminal.
This film is really a ridiculing of any code, since rigid codes often undermine our own humanity and morality.
The only character that is really shown rejecting a code is the girl, Okumi, that runs away from her owner to be with Genta. She firmly rejects the role assigned to her by society's rules to do what is right, not just for herself but for her three friends.
The cinematography here is quite good, a lot of nice long shots of the three (eventually four) traipsing across gorgeous Japanese landscapes. (Unfortunately, the print shown wasn't that great, the colours washed out, especially the blue spectrum, so if some of the granduer was lost, the imagination was able to fill in the colour gaps.)
The tragedy in the film is the understated endings to three of the characters: Genta dies alone and lost. Shinta dies painfully of tetanus. And Okumi is left a life of servitude, forever awaiting the return of a Genta she knows not is dead. And Mokutaro, alive, is left alone and without the only friends he has, probably to forever believe that Genta deserted him out of a recent misunderstanding they just had.
For all the emotional and moral struggles these characters go through, in the end it is meaningless, as they die anonymously. There is no one to grieve their parting. And none of the character actually "come of age", even though that is the basic premise of the film.
There is some sporadic comedy here, and the fight scenes are oddly played out (against type for this kind of film, which makes them interesting to watch in that regard.)
I don't highly recommend this film, but I do recommend it.