“Kiryu is fighting all the time. He's gotta be a fucking idiot. No yakuza is going to run around getting into fistfights like that.”
— yakuza Kuroishi, to Boing Boing
The Yakuza series has struck an unexpected vein of popularity in the West. Nearly 15 years old, it wasn’t until 2017’s Yakuza 0 that the stars aligned for long-suffering Kazuma Kiryu. Something about Yakuza 0’s skewed sense of humor and piles of absurd minigames squashed right alongside bloody throwdowns and triple-crossing gangland melodrama felt purpose-built for the way modern videogames are played—that is, the ways in which we let other people know we are playing them. Screenshots of specific dialogue and memes largely of the manic eyepatch-wearing antihero Goro Majima were passed around on Twitter, and Yakuza fanart and cosplay at anime conventions turned the knowingly, but not explicitly homoerotic Majima-Kiryu relationship into an overt sexual pairing.
But all these aspects first came to the fore in 2006’s Yakuza 2, which opened up regular series locale Kamurocho with a plethora of diversions. Yakuza’s recent popularity isn’t necessarily the result of new design choices; it’s more that the culture has caught up to Yakuza. They play like a cross between Shenmue and God Hand; more static than the former and with more fat around the brawling than the latter. Each game is a detailed simulation of a Tokyo, or Osaka, district, navigated by beating the shit out of packs of toughs and doing errands for hapless citizens. The amount of side business in Yakuza 0 is frankly intimidating; there are entire continents of stuff I didn’t touch, and some I didn’t know existed.
Yakuza Kiwami (2018), by contrast, feels positively streamlined. Some of this is because the original Yakuza was a straight-up yakuza story; written by novelist Hase Seishū, whose The City of Lost Souls was adapted in 2000 by Takashi Miike, who in 2007 adapted the first Yakuza. This circuit of influence indicates the direction of Yakuza Kiwami. At the beginning of the game (after some runaround involving a stolen ring) Kiryu takes the fall for a murder and spends a decade in jail, which echoes the setup of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor or Humanity (1973)—itself the start of a long-running series at Toei. Fukasaku’s film spurred a wave of verité-style jitsuroku eiga, whose depiction of yakuza as selfish, murderous hoods stood in contrast to the poppy, stylish Nikkatsu potboilers and period pieces+ that defined yakuza film previously.
At first blush it appears that the Yakuza series takes after Fukasaku: there are plenty of ignoble bosses, self-perpetuating empires of corruption, and bloody betrayals. But that’s not quite right. Yakuza Kiwami needs to give us someone to root for. A steadfast moral center. Fukasaku’s films and the directors who followed in his wake—Miike and Takashi Kitano in particular—thoroughly deconstruct the idea of a moral gangster; or at least frame yakuza morality as relative within a rotted system. Kitano’s Outrage (2010) is a grotesquely amoral procession of death, and Miike’s Agitator (2001) is a dehumanized 200-minute grind. The Yakuza series’ Kiryu, however, is a good guy at heart. His friend Nishiki is the one who kills their boss, Sohei Dojima, when Dojima tries to rape Kiryu’s friend Yumi. Kiryu, again, takes the fall, and upon getting out of prison takes charge of an orphan girl. Kiryu is an orphan himself—in Yakuza 3 (2009) he opens an orphanage in Okinawa!++ Despite the ever-escalating stakes in Yakuza 0 it is a surprisingly long time before any bodies are dropped. The street gangs the player beats up are always shown nursing their wounds after fights. Some characters get riddled with bullets without dying. Murder is taboo and used in specific plot instances to mark evil people—the bad yakuza are separate from the good ones like Kiryu. Maybe this sounds simplistic, but that’s the moral universe of Yakuza.
It has to be that simple, maybe, to clear the table for Yakuza’s real agenda: giving you a thousand ways to pummel men into dust. Kiryu starts Kiwami with four fighting styles: Beast, Brawler, Rush, and Dragon. Each of them naturally have different movesets and situational utility, but more importantly to the Yakuza experience they each have a different flair. When switching between styles Kiryu burns with a nimbus of neon power and performs a brief flourish— in Beast mode, he slams his body forward, arms outstretched, like a sumo wrestler. Dragon mode is crisp and unbothered; Kiryu’s guard is low, arms by his sides as he flits about. In Rush mode, Kiryu’s upper body is a triangle of speed that darts in and out of his opponent’s range. And in Brawler mode Kiryu swings his fists like hammers, big arcs that he puts his whole frame into.
The fighting in Kiwami can initially feel like a nuisance. Street gangs around Kamurocho spot Kiryu and mob him like Pokémon in tall grass. Majima is on the prowl as well, looking to throw down with Kiryu at every turn. But the fistfights are deceptively simple. They reward, even demand, constant movement. Bobbing and weaving around attacks lets the player chain together absurd combinations. Button mashing is good enough at first, but on higher difficulties trying to bulldoze through an enemy’s defense will get Kiryu laid out fast.
The player will be doing a lot of fighting, because fist-to-fist is how men solve problems in Kiwami. They go to soaplands or hostess clubs or karaoke to relax and do business, but disputes are solved outside, in the street, with broken teeth and bruised knuckles. Kiryu and Majima’s relationship advances through brawls. Majima expresses his fondness for Kiryu in slightly sadomasochistic fashion, by making him sweat and bleed (and occasionally, uh, bowl) until he gets better at fighting. Majima wants Kiryu to beat the shit out of him because he knows Kiryu can do it; he knows Kiryu is strong enough. Inside he’s like a father cheering his kid on at a little league game. “I’m ‘bout ready to burst with the anticipation,” he says before their final fight. Combat, in this case, is completely removed from the violence that yakuza do to others and themselves. It is elevated to an abstract level, more like the absurd melodrama of heroic bloodshed movies than the yakuza-film norm.
In Johnnie To’s heroic bloodshedder Exiled (2006) two groups of hitmen converge on a former colleague’s new home; one group intending to kill him, the other to defend him. The inevitable showdown is a hyperstylized shootout in an empty living room where no one takes any fatal bullets. Afterwards, everyone sits down to help the guy move in and assist his wife in making dinner. It’s like they got it out of their systems; violence as emotional purge, a uniquely and stereotypically masculine method of conflict resolution. There is palpable relief in their faces as they sit down as friends, having moved past the formalities. Yakuza Kiwami captures this sort of violence perfectly; the kind that substitutes itself for words, the kind that boils over when the pure blinding power of emotion reaches its apex. It happens between Kiryu and Majima, in grand fashion, but even in the more small-stakes fights, when a punk with ideas way above his station wants to square up with Kiryu, or some dickhead who can’t admit he’s wrong turns a discussion into a throwdown.
Violence also, inevitably, always, happens to women. As collateral damage; as targets; as punching bags; as victims. Only in a few cases are women able to inflict violence, and it is never the communal, reciprocatory violence-as-camaraderie that men have access to. They do it to survive. Yumi, whose assault kickstarts the events of the entire Yakuza saga, dies with a bullet in her chest. The perpetuation of the mob—to put the entire yakuza enterprise in slightly less cool terms—requires women’s bodies as capital, and then, when their value has been extracted, they are disposed of. Yakuza 0 illustrates this with its hostess club system, which in context is one of the better options women have available to them. But Kiwami begins and ends with death; first, a patriarch, whose murder cannot go unanswered. And second, the death of a woman, who is forgotten.
This tension is sometimes difficult to reconcile with the anodyne way the Yakuza games are shared and talked about. To be clear, fandom can spring from the most unlikely places—the fan community around Detroit: Become Human <a href="">doesn’t even like the actual game</a>. But Yakuza as shareable-bit-of-funny-dialogue is of course different from Yakuza as 20-hour epic that ends with a quintuple-cross and a roomful of corpses. There’s no better or worse way to appreciate the game. It just means that Yakuza’s popularity leads to a certain sanitization of the actual work. Yakuza as a story about fun dads is a good way to sell newcomers on the game, but the way the series explores violence in all its forms is deeper than it appears.
+ I nearly wrote “musty period pieces” here, but movies like Teruo Ishii’s frothing-mad Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), which is so far ahead of its time it still feels like it’s from the future, are hardly staid costume dramas.
++ In Miike’s bonkers Dead or Alive 2 (2000), the yakuza protagonists begin carrying out hits for money to send to children in Africa, who are represented by actual stock footage pulled, seemingly, from UNICEF-type ads.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.