Kaoru Sayama is the only character the audience ever sees Kazuma Kiryu kiss. Despite the few women he’s been involved with throughout the series—including his girlfriend in Yakuza 5, who makes clear that he hasn’t so much as touched her in their time together—Kiryu seems uninterested in romantic love. He may visit massage parlours, watch porn in downtown Tokyo video booths, or pay money to chat with or take photos of women in bikinis, but otherwise, he’s notably, remarkably chaste.
In Yakuza 2 (and its recent remake, Kiwami 2), though, Kiryu ends up with Sayama, an Osakan police inspector keeping tabs on a gang war brewing in her jurisdiction. Their relationship, which evolves from antagonistic to a love so deeply felt that she’s willing to die for him by the end of the game, is an aberration in the series. The first Yakuza sees Kiryu lovelorn and yearning for his soon-to-be-dead childhood sweetheart, but it’s only in 2 that he seems interested in anything more serious than furtive masturbation or utilitarian interactions with local sex workers.
This is in pretty direct contrast to the rest of the game’s plot, which, as is typical for Yakuza, is a story of gang politics, violence, and betrayal. The events of Yakuza 2 are spurred on by an atrocity committed by Kiryu’s oyabun, Shintaro Kazama, two decades earlier when, with the aid of elements within the police, the Tokyo-based Tojo Clan massacred the Korean Jingweon Mafia. The territorial dispute, whose brutality is nominally economic but tinged with an unmentioned racism, leaves only a few survivors from the women, men, and children at the scene. In 2006—the “present day” year of the original Yakuza 2’s release—Kiryu finds himself drawn into a resurrection of this bloody history. Though he’s left the Tojo Clan, his unflinching sense of loyalty sees him negotiating a merger between Osaka’s Omi Alliance and the Tojo that goes horribly awry following a coup by the game’s stand-out villain, a bleached-blonde giant named Ryuji Goda.
The twists and turns that follow are as delightfully convoluted and incessantly revealed as every other Yakuza game, and ultimately result in a crisis where the evils of the Jingweon massacre manifest in the present day. Past hatreds lead to further bloodshed decades later, the atrocities of the Japanese underworld against their Korean competitors surfacing in terrorist actions and massive unrest in the mob’s balance of power. Yakuza 2’s last act culminates in the Jingweon survivors planting bombs (the same number of bombs as the number of years since the massacre, naturally) around the series’ fictional Kamurocho district in downtown Tokyo and Kiryu, shirtless and scowling, facing down the architects of the revenge plot. Villain after villain is trotted out, including former Tojo leader Yukio Terada—a secret survivor of the Jingweon massacre who assumed a Japanese name and faked his own death to destroy the yakuza family from within. He and the Jingweon spent years upon years, consumed by their plans for violent revenge, manipulating the Japanese syndicates into tearing themselves apart. He dies, of course, like all the other characters guided by their hatred, a pathetic, thoroughly defeated figure.
Terada and his conspirators’ plan is presented in Yakuza 2 as terrible, but its evil is tempered by the context of him having been genuinely wronged. Again and again, the game presents sepia-tinged flashbacks of the massacre, paying special attention to the horror of the scene. Tojo members stalk the halls of a nondescript office building, gunning down scrambling and shaking Jingweon members. Bright red blood puddles the floor and drips from the walls, startlingly vivid against the muted tones of the nostalgic camera filter and the black clothes of the assassins. Contrasted with the series’ trademark, heroic brawls, it’s exceptionally horrific.
The hatred that led to the massacre goes mostly unstated, the game assuming its audience understands the world well enough to know the broadest aspects of East Asian history without it having to be spelled out for them. The Japanese mob killing its Korean counterpart in cold blood, we know, carries a weight beyond any individual, fictional scene+. The game’s heroic characters are disgusted by the inhumanity of these events—Detective Makoto Date is repulsed by having seen his fellow policeman Jiro Kawara shoot down illegal aliens in the past; the Tojo’s Kazama is shown in a flashback trying to discourage the Jingweon massacre and refusing to shoot two of the young men who would go on to take revenge against his syndicate. Though far from adequately rendered, the message is a clear but overly pat sentiment: good people are not motivated by hate.
The cultural and historical element of this concept all but vanishes as the story hammers it home. In the final showdown, the reward for the revenge-focused characters is, of course, betrayal and defeat. Ryuji Goda is revealed to be a pawn of Terada and the Jingweon Mafia who, themselves, are pawns of another ambitious Omi yakuza planning to absorb the Tojo, unite the Japanese mob under his rule, and extend their enterprises to the Asian mainland. In a roundabout way, the player learns, too, that the massacre resulted in two children raised without knowledge of their origins—the half-Japanese, half-Korean Osaka gangster Goda and Kiryu’s love interest, Kaoru Sayama. Goda, unwittingly a crucial part of the revenge plot, dies a sad, lonely death. Sayama, of course, is in love with Kiryu.
Yakuza 2 ends with all those who have been motivated by violence and anger dead and the odd couple of Sayama and Kiryu making out amidst the destruction and corpses that surround them. The game makes it clear that Sayama, despite having good reason to blame the Tojo-affiliated Kiryu for the ties he maintains to a yakuza family that she personally hates for ruining her life (and is professionally obligated to hunt down as a police inspector), is better served to fall in love instead. Though, she’s unceremoniously removed from the series following Yakuza 3’s intro—Kiryu returns, as he apparently must, to a monkish existence punctuated only by adolescent indulgences in mini-game enabled onanism—their future, at this point, seems bright. Especially in contrast with the dead bodies just off-screen.
Across its many entries, the Yakuza series functions as a sort of melodramatic, serialized morality play. It isn’t surprising, then, that 2 boils the complexities of its plot down to a didactic reminder of the power of love over hate++. The last scene before credits roll shows Kaoru and Kiryu, too shot up and beat up to move, embracing as a bomb’s timer counts down to zero and there’s a cut to black before an explosion (which an epilogue makes clear didn’t occur). Kaoru stays with Kiryu so they can die together: if he’s too injured to escape, she’s staying too. It’s a familiar action movie cliché but the imagery, in this case, is a good enough place to bring the story to a close. As death creeps ever closer, ticking toward them one bright LED second at a time, the two hold one another in the face of terminal violence. That a post-credits scene shows there’s a future for them after the hatred of others has brought so much brutality only reinforces that, for Yakuza’s purposes, love is the only path forward.
+ Troublingly, the game implicates its Korean mafia as well, making clear that their anger at the Japanese mob is unjustified in response to what’s been done to them. The wider meaning of this choice, whether intended or not, is fairly noxious.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.