In 1974, Paul Schrader’s Film Comment essay “Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer” introduced yakuza movies to Western audiences with no small amount of ceremony. The yakuza film was nothing like an American gangster picture, he wrote. It was ritual: the same “twenty or so” scenes of gambling, deathbed confession, pinky-chopping, and tattoo-baring staged almost identically in hundreds of films. It looked cheap, but inherited from its jidaigeki (period piece) predecessors a thematic richness. Each film’s mythically static setpieces illustrated a high-flown conflict between the hero’s duty to the organization (giri) and his humanity (ninjo).
Yakuza films from the Toei studio, Schrader wrote, inevitably
“ … open with the release of the hero from prison. He has gone to prison to spare his clan a police investigation, but, upon his return, finds the clan has fallen under the control of an evil Oyabun (godfather)....He soon finds he has little influence and is himself being requested to commit deeds totally alien to his personal morality. Still he doesn’t flinch from his duty …. At some point the evil Oyabun does a deed so reprehensible that duty can no longer be served and humanity demands his death.”
Schrader’s co-screenwriter on The Yakuza, the great Robert Towne, was more succinct: “all these gangsters are stricken with this terrible sense of duty and obligation, that they’re obliged to do these things, so that in the end they end up killing 25,000 people or themselves or both or mutilating themselves+.”
That’s the ninkyo eiga, the “chivalry film” model that Schrader and contemporary critics took to represent all yakuza films. Despite his warning that these are “production line films” from “the most restrictive genre yet devised,” the best of them are not bad at all. They’re worn, comfortable movies, where plain shots of gambling halls and izakayas leave room for actors like Kōji Tsuruta, a sort of avuncular Japanese Gregory Peck, to command the screen. A classic like Presidential Gambling starts so simply, with every character a known type and every scene already half-familiar, that easing into the setup feels like sinking into an old leather chair. With great economy, the story puts Tsuruta’s dutiful hero in moral checkmate: he must obey a bad oyabun (Nobuo Kaneko, the weak boss in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, here a Barzini-like manipulator) and punish his obstinate friend, future Lone Wolf Tomisaburō Wakayama, who for once has beheaded only the spirit of decorum. Forcefully drawn lines of obligation drag each protagonist through the tangle of their own motivation to a radical clarity, and then annihilation. The best scenes in the movie are the battles of wits between Kaneko and Tsuruta, always framed before a silent audience of clansmen, in which the calculating oyabun uses the language of tradition to push the yakuza hero into a trap he can see, but not avoid.
If this doesn’t sound like any Yakuza game you ever played, that’s because it’s not. No Yakuza game resembles any yakuza movie the way that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City resembles Scarface, Uncharted 2 resembles Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Red Dead Redemption resembles The Wild Bunch from Robert Ryan's perspective. The yakuza film hero is always trapped: by “chivalrous” codes of honor, by faithless partners and personal vices in the later “documentary” style of Kinji Fukasaku, by shadowy organizations and dogged hitmen in the “borderless” action films of the Nikkatsu studio. The Yakuza game hero lives free in an open world: he pursues endless diversions, plays knight-errant around Tokyo, Osaka, or Okinawa, then returns to plot duty at his leisure. Cinematic icons like Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara must endure countless provocations from vile bosses before they finally forsake their family obligations. But when Kazuma Kiryu has to choose between his oyabun and his friends at the very start of the first Yakuza, he sides with his friends instantly, against a superior’s orders. The classic yakuza film spends its full running time asking when, if ever, humanity can override duty; in the Yakuza games, it’s not even a question.
The Yakuza games adapt the forms of the genre without accepting its spirit, which is inhumane by definition. (This fascinated Schrader but repulsed critics like Joan Mellen, who saw in the yakuza film’s hierarchies a “hysterical” desire to “return to feudalism.”) The “twenty scenes or so” of Schrader’s taxonomy return but serve new purposes in Yakuza games. Yakuza 1 opens traditionally with Kiryu’s release from prison and reintroduction to a corrupted criminal society, but he’s soon punching, stabbing, and curb-stomping his way through everyone in sight rather than doing the bidding of any of the Tojo Clan’s wicked lieutenants. The obligatory graveyard scene (“the hero visits the grave of his dead Oyabun (wife, father) before seeking his revenge”) pops up in both Yakuza 2 and 3, but only as a board-clearing recap before a new storyline. The early scene where rival gangsters “bully local merchants or workmen” often takes place, with no apparent attempt at humor, in a cabaret club. The fetishized presentation of tattoos (which “reveals the bearer’s profession and is an invitation to fight”) occurs so frequently that it becomes a series trademark: in a fluid one-armed movement, like a surfer hooking his tee over his head, Kiryu grips his collar and casts both jacket and shirt to the wind++. But he shows the ink so often in each game that its ritual importance fades. Thirty minutes into Yakuza 3, for example, he’s shirtless just for a breezy tutorial fight with Majima.
The seemingly random pastime of karaoke—one of many side activities introduced in Yakuza 3, the series’ major turn toward comedy and digression—also calls back to the genre’s past. Ken Takakura himself established the tradition of yakuza crooners by singing the theme song to Abashiri Prison (1965), the hit that put yakuza films on the map. (“Bright red rugosa roses are/Facing the ocean and crying/They call it Abashiri Bangaichi.”) In the exuberant Tokyo Drifter, Tetsuya Watari (who voices Shintaro Kazama in the games) famously breaks into his own theme mid-film. Finally, after three games, Kiryu gets a turgid enka track to call his own: “Kamurocho Lullaby.”
Yakuza 3 affirms the series’ self-identification with the chivalry film, rather than anti-chivalry epics like Battles without Honor and Humanity, from which it borrows little beyond splashy on-screen text. In the substory “Silver Screen Dragon,” a film crew pulls Kiryu off Kamurocho’s Theater Ave. to stand in for an injured actor in their movie’s climactic fight scene. Seeing the period costumes on set, Kiryu notes that it’s clearly “a samurai flick.” The player then memorizes, or fails to memorize, a script with specific instructions for beating each combatant. The scenes play out as regular Yakuza fights, just in different clothes. After the film wraps, Kiryu momentarily confuses the director by asking if his line delivery was right “for a samurai film.” As Kiryu walks away shirtless, the production assistants spot the dragon tattoo on his back and hastily line up to bow, as if they were junior yakuza. The camera zooms in on the script in the director’s hand: it’s titled Gangs of Japan: A True Story, a ninkyo eiga.
Of course Yakuza’s own yakuza movie would be compressed down to its violent climax, the only scene of the chivalry film that the series truly emulates. Of course we skip to the moment when humanity takes over from duty, which is where the Yakuza series’ heart has been from the beginning.
“Silver Screen Dragon” is one of the earliest great Yakuza substories. (It gets a sequel in Yakuza 5.) It layers on knowing absurdities in a style later perfected in Yakuza 0 sidequests like “Miracle on Tenkaichi Street”: it’s no problem that the film’s lead actor changes in its very last scene, or that Kiryu “acts” by beating the shit out of his fellow performers. It ends with a symmetrical flourish, as Kiryu never learns the nature of the film, and the director never learns the nature of Kiryu. There’s something oddly affecting about the civilian crew bowing to Kiryu in recognition, which resonates more than the choruses of “Fourth Chairman” from his fellow yakuza.
Yakuza 3 doesn’t have the best plot in the series. Its long and sentimental narrative begins doubled over, as Yakuza games often do, with no relief from hours of flashbacks. (These openings are the only time Yakuza heroes aren’t free to do what they want, and they’re intolerable.) Watching the superhuman Kiryu resolve adolescent squabbles at Sunshine Orphanage—the place where he and his friends from Yakuza 1 grew up—can be charmingly campy, but it’s swamped by the introductions and deaths of lame new characters, bathetic speeches, and the machinations of CIA-backed land developers out of a cornball ‘80s flick.
Joan Mellen’s 1976 critique of yakuza films in The Waves at Genji’s Door called them out as “hack-formula potboilers” with “no psychological depth,” akin to the worst chambara (sword-fighting) films, where “the onrush of plot is periodically halted in the service of declamation.” This was not really true of prominent yakuza films from Kinji Fukasaku or numerous Nikkatsu directors, whom Mellen (along with Schrader and Japanese film historian Donald Richie) simply ignored. Yet it feels uncannily accurate as a description of Yakuza games in their serious mode.
Yakuza 3’s innovation was to flesh out the world outside that mode. Additions like golfing, fishing, karaoke, and hanafuda created new avenues of escape from responsibility. Kiryu’s new passion for blogging turned his intense focus into a joke in its own right, prefiguring the wall-to-wall self-parody of Yakuza 0. Sidequests like “Silver Screen Dragon” also turned self-reflexive, playing up both the staginess of chivalry movies and the limits of Yakuza’s own design, in which protracted beatdowns are the only real means of expression. Others, like the long series of missions targeting hitmen from the “Honest Living Association,” look to Nikkatsu classics like the oddball Branded to Kill and the cast of previous Yakuza games for inspiration.
The developers’ frame of reference widens beyond the yakuza milieu. “Murder at Cafe Alps,” one of the series’ best-remembered substories, is an hours-long homage to Phoenix Wright, complete with diagrams, notebooks, and witness statements to gather. Like “Silver Screen Dragon,” it plays around with dialogue options outside Yakuza’s traditional scope, concluding with a parlor room scene where Kiryu refutes each suspect’s objections with a different piece of evidence from his inventory.
To start my favorite Yakuza 3 substory, you must have already proven yourself a scratch golfer on the tournament course at Okinawa’s idyllic Nanyou Country Club. You’re approached by a man identified as “Low-Level Employee,” whose asshole boss President Kurosawa has sent him to find a “good golfer” to play against. His cowed assistants are no match for him. The Low-Level Employee eventually tells Kiryu his name, Tamura, but his title in dialogue updates not to “Tamura” but to “Low-Level Employee Tamura”—a touch that throws us back, hysterically, toward feudalism.
“Kazuma, please beat the president for me,” Low-Level Employee Tamura whispers. “Be easy on me, okay? Har har har,” the president says. It feels incredibly important that you beat this man at golf. It feels more important than stopping the bulldozers outside the orphanage or recovering 10 billion yen.
Beating the president is tough, and you only get one shot at it: you can’t replay the story. If you succeed, you earn an award screen where Kiryu pumps his fist slowly, savoring the victory, as the president squats in agony behind him, head in hands, his dignity obliterated. You’re then given money and thanked by both the president and Tamura, and that’s it. There’s no drama, no brawl against a cartful of rival golfers in argyle vests. It’s not the most inconsequential thing in the entire game—Kiryu also helps find a cat whose back looks like a map of Italy—but it feels like its greatest emotional reward for a struggle that was totally meaningless.
As everyone on earth has noticed, role-playing games resemble work. You check tasks off to-do lists, earn promotions and ranks, and receive currency to spend. But while games may be a fantasy about progress, they are virtually never a fantasy about having a boss. Game bosses, from President Kurosawa to the CIA’s Andre Richardson, exist to be overcome. The Yakuza games may pay lip service to giri and ninjo, but they almost never conflict for Kiryu, simply because he is his own boss.
The dichotomy that Kazuma Kiryu begins to represent in Yakuza 3, and fully embodies in Yakuza 0, is not a feudal vestige but something entirely modern. In his main-mission dealings with the Tojo Clan and its rivals, he remains invariably resolute and upright. But in his leisure time, he’s free to gloat after winning trivial contests, frequent shady clubs for “massages,” and record his amazed reactions to scenes he witnesses on the streets. By Yakuza 0, he becomes noticeably more demonstrative in substories than in the main plot, facepalming in annoyance and reacting with a quick, flat “What?” to each unlikely development. In the course of story business, he is heroically chaste; at the phone dating club after work, he is desperately, self-destructively horny. This is not the old tension between duty and humanity: it is the divide between a work face and a real face.
+ Quoted by Elaine Lennon from the records of the AFI.
++ A timely cut eliminates the technical challenges of showing this.
Chris Breault is a writer on the internet.