★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. Chairman (Sôichirô Kitamura) presides three yakuza families. Although two, one led by Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) and the other by Ôtomo (Takeshi “Beat” Kitano), are already under his control, drug-dealing Murase (Renji Ishibashi) remains reluctant. This is unacceptable for business so Mr. Chairman assigns Ikemoto to lure in Murase. However, Ikemoto’s methods have never been subtle. Soon, a petty rivalry begins to snowball into all-out violence between Mr. Chairman and Murase—and among the Sanno-kai.
Written and directed by Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, “Autoreiji” commands a cold sophistication and seeps through just about every scene. It has a confident way of revealing the inherent ugliness in the seemingly organized hierarchy of the crime syndicate and its members’ immaculately pressed suits. When blood stains the facade of perfection, it is a reminder to them and to us that there is no romance in extortion and other illicit activities. There is only betrayal and a possibility of losing it all.
Everyone hungers for more power. Ikemoto, Ôtomo, and Murase compete for power by acquiring territory. The more territory they manage, the more money end up in their pockets. The more money in their pockets, the more they can give to Mr. Chairman. If pleased, the boss just might consider giving one them a rare promotion. Mr. Chairman, despite being respected and feared, wants more, too. It is not revealed to us exactly what it is he wants; maybe he does not know it either. One thing is certain: the first step is to acquire Murase’s loyalty. But once or if that happens, then what? What does a person on top do when there is no more room for advancement?
At times I became convinced that Mr. Chairman chooses to stir the pot just to see what will happen. Each time he is on screen and the camera pulls back, there is an eerie calm to those in the vicinity. But when the camera zooms in on someone’s face, panic is all the more visible in his subordinates’ eyes. There is fear in saying or doing the wrong thing. Everyone has something to offer yet everyone is dispensable.
Interestingly, Ikemoto and Ôtomo have their own right-hand men with opposite personalities. Ozawa (Tetta Sugimoto), working for Ikemoto, is a silent but deadly threat. He is like a rattlesnake: biding his time and content with observing his target until he recognizes the perfect opportunity to strike. On the other hand, Mizuno (Kippei Shiina), working for Ôtomo, tends to get his hands dirty and derives pleasure from it. One might expect that the two will eventually end up trying to slash each other’s throats. But this picture is not concerned in handing out the predictable.
Inevitably, there is violence and it comes rapidly in irregular intervals. Sometimes, the gore is front and center. Other times, the camera just looks away and we are only allowed to hear the sounds of struggle and pain. I admired the elegance behind its level of control. I was curious as to why only some courses of action were shown. What is considered too violent? Just when I thought I knew the answer, the rules had already changed. In a way, this reflects the rules—or lack thereof—the men try to abide by. But then again maybe only on a superficial level. After all, when it comes to life or death, our loyalty is only to ourselves.