The 1980s, or at least, the Western mythos of the 1980s—the decade as I, a Briton born in 1990, and weaned on American movies, have learned to recognise it—can be summarily characterised by that Gordon Gekko quote from the original Wall Street: “Greed is good”. Pop-culturally, the ‘80s are an era of conspicuous consumption; in fact conspicuous everything. The cars have sharp lines. The phones are enormous. Anyone handling money wears red braces, big sunglasses, and blue-and-white striped shirts. Concordantly, Sonny Crockett, Mr. T, Maverick, and the other televisual and film heroes of the period are draped in, if not fashion, jewellry, or sex appeal, then at least something; at least draped in something. Those muted, cerebral protagonists of the ‘70s New Hollywood, like The French Connection’s “Popeye” Doyle and The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, are replaced in the ‘80s by Rambo, Indiana Jones, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, men whose strengths are recognisable and simple. Power suits succeed blazers. Perms replace partings. And instead of silence, you listen to your Walkman.
All of these things are the trickle-down results of a new political epoch. Ronald Reagan storms the White House wielding movie-star charms, a war on drugs, and a nuclear missile defence system called Star Wars. Likewise, Margaret Thatcher obliterates Labour, dismantles the unions, and conquers Argentina and the Falkland Islands; further encapsulating the era, its worship of money, status, and materialism, and diminution of spiritualism and intellectualism, Thatcher tells London Weekend Television’s Brian Walden “no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he only had good intentions; he had money as well.” Such is the mythos of the 1980s. Greed—i.e. already having a lot, say of cash, power or attention, but still wanting more—is good.
Yakuza 0, however, regularly contends with, and offers a counterpoint to, this mythos. Set in 1988, in a fictionalised version of Tokyo’s Kabukichō district called “Kamurocho”, as occasionally as it depicts, even celebrates ‘80s excess, it represents it as destructive and corruptive, and asserts the value—the greater value—of immaterial, inner assets. Many of its characters, player or otherwise, possess and pursue archetypically “‘80s” ambitions. Kuze, Awano, and Shibusawa, three lieutenants to the Dojima yakuza family,” desire more power, competing throughout the game to obtain the rank of captain. The fulcrum on which this conflict turns is a tiny but vacant plot of land in Kamurocho’s centre, which if its owner can be tracked down and convinced to either sell or hand it over, will allow the Dojima to consolidate its monopoly on Tokyo’s burgeoning real-estate market. The three lieutenants, who are happy to eschew the established rituals and rites of yakuza culture so as long as it helps them one-up each other, like Kuze, who attempts to bomb the headquarters of his compadre (and orphanage owner) Kazama, and Shibusawa, who by the end of the game seems intent on overthrowing the entire Dojima establishment, are exaggerations of yuppies. They real-estate double-deal their way to the top, willing to sacrifice blood, friends, and classical notions of honour and nobility so long as it's all on the altar of acquiring status. In order to prove themselves, not just professionally but personally, each of the three lieutenants needs to own the empty lot. Money is the basis of everything.
Caught between them are Kiryu, a junior gangster whose taste for opulent fashion (halfway through the game he swaps his neat black starter suit for this garish pinstriped number with an orange shirt) and attempts to build his own property business represent an adherence to the mythical ‘80s, and Majima, the game’s other playable protagonist, and nightlife king of Osaka, who as the manager of the Grand Cabaret is famous for plying his customers with the finest girls and champagne. Like their money and power-driven superiors, these two seem like men of their time, or at least, men of their time as it’s commonly defined. Enmeshed in pop and consumerist culture (Kiryu kills his evenings by playing the latest arcade games; Majima runs a nightclub in which wads of cash are literally thrown around, and fantasises about being a pop icon) they ostensibly thrive on being the coolest, the richest, and the best-looking. This conflation of material wealth and personal worth—an assumption that to gain the latter, one must first possess the former— eaches an absurd pinnacle in Yakuza 0’s character upgrade system, whereby in order to improve Kiryu or Majima’s fighting or defensive styles, their literal persons, you must hold down X to “put money into them”—with exponentially-gained speed, 30, 40, a 100 million yen goes flying out of Kiryu and Majima’s bank accounts and somehow “into” them, as if the cash itself is some kind of nutrient, strengthening, enlightening, and ambrosial, and the more you possess and pump inside yourself the tougher, more likely to succeed and more impressive a person you become.
If we wish to improve ourselves, we might start trying to read more books, or stop smoking, or go to the doctor and get signed up for therapy, or something. In the 1980s of Yakuza 0 all of those things, and their attendant life changes, are replaced by money. In the case of Kuze et al, money will elevate you up the career ladder; with Kiryu and Majima, who begin the game as underlings and outsiders, and end it as respected pillars of the Tokyo underground, in a general and encompassing sense it will facilitate your development. The more of it you have and use, the more rapidly you’ll evolve into the master of your own destiny. In the ‘80s, as it’s emphasised and reinscribed in Yakuza 0, it seems you don’t even need good intentions, just money.
Majima, however, is not manager of the Grand Cabaret by choice. After refusing to betray his “sworn brother” Saejima, he is tortured and outcast by his yakuza bosses, and forced to run the club as a punishment: living in a tiny, geki-sema-esque box flat, and surveilled at all times by yakuza enforcers, the money life for Majima has become a prison. Similarly Kiryu, as a result of his superiors’ power struggle, is hunted and repeatedly almost killed. The game’s “story missions,” all involving the conflict over the empty lot, see Kiryu embroiled in fighting, struggle, and violence—it’s particularly in the game’s sidequests, when he’s strolling the streets of Kamurocho, performing small and random acts of kindness towards strangers, that we appreciate a potential other aspect of the decade and society in which he and Majima are living.
One of the reasons that Yakuza 0 is funny is the stark and oft-played-upon contrast between Kiryu’s gang and non-gang existences, that monolithic stature and fixed, permanently-unimpressed-looking expression of his seeming perfectly appropriate when he’s staring down rival yakuza soldiers, but lending missions like, for example, him buying and delivering fish to a sushi restaurant or helping a young boy track down a copy of a new videogame, major deadpan humour. By blatantly placing Kiryu in these mundane, quotidian, fish-out-of-water scenarios, Yakuza 0 contrasts and contextualises the world of the yakuza themselves. Their fighting and killing, and the acquisition of money and power which is their goal, alongside basal, community life appears more destructive. The acknowledged existence of a way of life and system of values outside those that are typically ‘80s, a world where people may just do one another good turns, with no expectation of any financial reward, suggest the established, materialistic order of the decade may actually be fallible. Majima living in, as the game calls it, a gilded cage, and this implied insanity of Kiryu’s power-driven gangland existence, creates an implicit criticism of the pursuit of wealth. One character is trapped and being slowly destroyed by money. The other experiences a life not governed by money and power touristically; by Kiryu being a physical and kind of existential anachronism in the everyday world, simple acts of charity, and relationships that are not predicated solely on financial interest and exchange, i.e. typical interpersonal niceness, accrues alien, exotic and by extension intriguing and desirable qualities, a mystical promise that attends anything unknown—this “non-money” world seems funny and strange, and by that virtue somewhere it would be good to explore more, and potentially emigrate to, away from all the power-mongering.
It’s in moments such as these, not necessarily always contained within the substories, when say Kiryu is defending a group of homeless people from evictors or Majima is helping a guy find a battery for his portable phone, that what Yakuza 0 believes is more valuable, or at least is encouraging you to believe is more valuable, becomes apparent. The power, status, and money-hungry are all villains, and mostly end up either dead or arrested. The heroes of the game—Majima and Kiryu—are those possessing, rather than monetary or ones relating to status, ambitions that are spiritual and humanistic. This is embodied in Majima, who at the end of the game, having been absolved from running the Grand Cabaret and relinquished his identity as nightclub host, begins wearing a self-styled snakeskin jacket and jagged haircut, and declares he’s going to live life “crazier than anyone”. The heroes of Yakuza 0 reject or at least do not conform to social or cultural expectations. They see through the consumerist and power game for which the decade, their decade, is famous and pursue instead immaterial things of greater value, like altruism, individuality and honour. And their eventual substantiation—the fact that, compared to their social-position-obsessed but now either dead or jailed enemies, Kiryu and Majima—implies perilousness on behalf of ‘80s consumerism, the suggestion that chasing money and power is destructive whereas being good to others will somehow, in some cosmic way, keep you all safe—a trite but always good and humane message, that people are worth more than their money.
Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.