In a manner often found in noir films, the story focuses on criminal characters. In this case, they comprise a crime clan, a yakuza or crime syndicate, that specializes in gambling. Police are absent from the story. Kazuo Kasahara wrote this, and he also subsequently wrote other yakuza stories (as in the series comprising "Battles without Honor and Humanity") that are equally focused on the often complex machinations within yakuza clans.
Unlike the nearly constant energetic staging and directing of Fukasaku that's present in "Battles without Honor and Humanity", this movie is directed by Kôsaku Yamashita with a much greater degree of reserve and stateliness. There are action scenes and fights but they are not prevalent. Tempers do flare and serious conflicts occur, yet the ways in which the trying circumstances weigh heavily on the principals and result in strong emotion sets the tone of the film. The action flows from the intensity, not the other way around.
This particular story is well worth seeing. It's a tragedy, but both the ways in which it unfolds and the denouement are surprising. Virtually everyone from overlords to lesser clan members to wives get caught up in the tragedy.
The story opens with pressure being applied to the clan's chief to join up with a larger syndicate that deals in drugs and needs the clan's gambling revenues to finance a purchase. The boss refuses the offer, but he has a stroke and can no longer carry on. One of those applying pressure is "Samba" (Nobuo Kaneko). He's like an overlord to the clan while not controlling it. He is advising in favor of the merger with the outside drug clan and interest. Samba influences the selection of a new chief by refusing that it be given to the man next in line, "Matsuda" (Tomisaburô Wakayama) because he's in jail. The offer is next made to "Nakai" (Kôji Tsuruta). He's at the center of the story. He refuses because he originally came from a different clan in Osaka. With Samba's pushing, the chiefdom goes to a man junior to both Matsuda and Nikai, namely "Ishido" (Hiroshi Nawa).
When Matsuda is paroled early, he expects to become the new chief. He has been slighted. Nakai and he are very close friends and related as brothers-in-law through marriage. Nakai undertakes to calm Matsuda down and accept the clan's decision. Twice he is about to succeed when other events disturb the attempted peace.
The tragedy is driven and heightened by the willingness of a number of persons to die for principles, or to die in order to express loyalty to the clan or a clan member, or to die rather than lose face, or to die in order to pay a moral debt. "Over my dead body" is something that some of these characters say and mean. They don't hesitate to pull out some long knives, the weapon of choice. It is also driven by the manipulations of the outside interests to bring the clan under its heel and dissolve it within the larger syndicate.