This article discusses plot details from throughout Like a Dragon: Ishin!
At one point in Like a Dragon: Ishin!, the latest, spin-off entry to the series formerly known in English as Yakuza, the protagonist accidentally brokers a history-making military alliance by getting brutally, maudlinly drunk.
Set during the 1860s, in the midst of Japan’s Bakumatsu period, this lead character is based on an approximation of the historical Sakamoto Ryoma. The in-game Sakamoto, like his real-world counterpart, mediated the formation of an alliance between the powerful, mutually antagonistic feudal domains of Satsuma and Choshu. His actions, too, greatly influenced the outcome of the conflict between the nation’s revolutionary loyalists, the shishi, and government forces in service to Japan’s shogun. Only, in actual history, Satsuma and Choshu authorities didn’t come to an enormously portentous agreement by hearing Sakamoto mutter in drunken despair about tragic, pointless deaths and, moved by his thoughts, decide to let politically complex bygones be politically complex bygones. And yet, as Ishin! details in other, fascinating ways, every seemingly ridiculous scene depicting Sakamoto and his historical milieu blends together to paint an appropriately contradictory portrait of the man.
A typical approach to historical fiction in videogames, shown best by series like Assassin’s Creed, is to cast the player as a Forrest Gumpian character who encounters famous faces of their era, playing a key role in epoch-shaping events despite being otherwise unknown. Ishin! isn’t entirely different in this regard.
Sakamoto meets fictionalized versions of those who both triggered and worked to avert the Meiji Restoration as he assumes the fake identity of another historical figure, Saito Hajime, to infiltrate the government's Shinsengumi police force and work alongside its captains. His new backstory sees him as the adoptive son of Yoshida Toyo and brother of Takechi Zuizan (or Hanpeita), friend of the aforementioned Satsuma leaders Saigo Takamori (name tweaked to Kichinosuke in the game) and Choshu’s Kido Takayoshi (Katsura Kogoro). In a particularly absurd sequence, Ishin!’s Sakamoto fights the actual British arms trader Thomas Glover on the deck of a ship, the two dodge-rolling as they slash and shoot one another into submission. In another, he and Japan’s last shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, slice up and beat the hell out of each other as part of Sakamoto’s appeal for the leader to cede power—diplomacy by way of goofy action game conventions.
Ishin!, despite including this long list of figures in its plot, isn’t as interested in recreating the past event-by-event as it is in telling a story inspired by what the Bakumatsu means to the modern day. The game very quickly swerves away from the historical record to make Sakamoto into the character its creators want for their narrative rather than the one delivered to them from the past. To begin with, players aren't simply cast as Sakamoto, but as Sakamoto in the disguise of the aforementioned Shinsengumi captain Saito Hajime, a man who often worked in opposition to Sakamoto’s goals.
In this seemingly bizarre choice, Ishin! reveals its aim. If the actual Sakamoto is a man remembered, in part, for his open mindedness and ability to negotiate between bitterly opposed factions, casting him as both a fierce revolutionary shishi and a captain in the government force that worked to destroy them reveals a certain truth to his character that exists beyond the confines of fact+.
The fluidity of his in-game portrayal becomes even clearer in a related plot point, which sees a shadowy figure take the alias “Ryoma Sakamoto” even as the actual Sakamoto lives a dual life spent partially among the Shinsengumi as “Saito Hajime.” The mysterious identity of this false Sakamoto forms a classic Like a Dragon/Yakuza plot driver, with all the promise of late-game twists and the laboured plot contortions that precede their revelation. More importantly, the concept of a real historical figure—one of the architects of Imperial Japan—being a Janus-faced chimera representing both government and revolutionary samurai speaks to conflicting readings of this era in national history.
The Bakumatsu period began, after all, with the arrival of the American navy to Japan and the looming conclusion, at the tip of a gun barrel, of a centuries-long period of national isolation. Japan had seen the disastrous consequences of first India and then China's trade relations with the Western powers. America's initial diplomatic mission, which threatened a looming, violent conquest of the nation if trading agreements were refused upon the ships’ return a year later, naturally sparked a panicked debate over the country’s future. The loyalist shishi fought to expel all foreigners and restore the emperor’s primacy while removing the shogun from power, initially as a response to Japan’s rusted, failing feudalism and as a rejection of the shogunate’s decision to concede to the American’s demands. Though far more complex than a short synopsis can summarize, the Bakumatsu and the subsequent Boshin War were a (frequently violent) confrontation with the onrush of modernization, within and without the country, driven by a desire to avoid, by any means possible, subjection to Western countries.
The end result of the Restoration was a fledgeling empire whose formation and entry into modern international politics made possible the following decades of unspeakable brutality abroad and repression at home. Historical fiction about Sakamoto Ryoma and other key figures of the Bakumatsu must, then, grapple at least subtly with what a story about the forging of the Empire of Japan means in hindsight. Was it a fight to establish a new nation that maintained the best of its traditions while avoiding the looming threat of colonialism? Or a struggle whose outcome would result only in the birth of a new country with imperial ambitions equal in ruthlessness to those it was created to avoid falling victim to?
In its conclusion, Ishin's two-faced Sakamoto serves a similarly dual purpose. We see not only the positive and negative sides of the man and his influence, but a personification of Japan itself—including the horrors it would inflict and have inflicted upon it in the century to follow. In his construction as both the original Sakamoto, modelled after the always heroic series mainstay, Kazuma Kiryu, and as a villainous Takechi Zuizan who, in his own words, “tried to lead the country through brute force” while stealing Sakamoto's name for himself, the historical figure of Sakamoto becomes a mirrored reflection of twin, alternating visions of the Restoration’s effects on Japanese history.
The final triumph of the original Sakamoto over Zuizan—who, of course, realizes the errors of his ways after being beaten in a climatic fight—is uncomfortably close to Imperial Japan apologia. A strong, good-hearted Kiryu-faced Sakamoto proclaiming that his countrymen will protect the virtuous path he struggled to lay out for the country is overly tidy for the game’s commentary, redolent of nationalist whitewashing and appeals to the ineffable spirit of the volk, but what precedes this conclusion is an unusually artistic depiction of conflicting historical readings.
There’s an argument to be made that games ought to expect more from their players than they typically do—that they, like any other media, can present subjects as dense and complex as abstracted, opposing views on the particulars of a nation’s history without rendering those views down into a Wikipedia-style recitation of facts or tempering them into a colourless, fence-sitting seminar from a point of robotic remove. By reworking the past to draw out an appropriately difficult and messy vision, Like a Dragon: Ishin! becomes something more than a dry history lesson.
+ Perhaps the most famous anecdote from Sakamoto’s short life saw the man refrain from assassinating government official and naval officer Katsu Kaishu when his enemy invited the would-be murderer to discuss their political differences. Sakamoto declined to kill Kaishu afterwards and entered his service for a time instead.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.