“Imperialism spreads like a wildfire in an open field. All nations bow down to worship this new god, sing hymns to praise it, and have created a cult to pay it adoration.”
—Shūsui Kōtoku, Imperialism
“Our history, the history of the Japanese, is nothing more than a history of killing people.”
—Hideo Furukawa, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure
As the central authority and orderly hierarchy of the Tokugawa Shogunate begins to crumble, Sakamoto Ryōma leaves Edo a master swordsman. From the docks of Tosa to the streets of Kyo, Like a Dragon Ishin!’s protagonist will find himself at the historic sites of friction between, as Ishin! frames it: East and West, tradition and progress, power and populism.
Driving these tensions, both in fact and fiction, was the opening of the islands of Japan following the Perry Expedition and subsequent Convention of Kanagawa just a decade earlier. The shoguns had come to rule a unified nation through force centuries earlier and maintained their power as de facto rulers through violence and hierarchy, so their inability to resist colonial forces (or perhaps willingness to “sell” the nation's land and resources) significantly weakened their sovereignty. But Ryōma’s fictive adoptive father and brother offer an antithesis to this system: the Loyalist Party, a real life anti-shogunate group who in the game arm their countrymen with handguns as part of a nascent effort to restore the political power of their monarchical leader, then Emperor Kōmei, as the one ruler of Japan.
Years before, the emperor ordered the expulsion of all “barbarians” from Japan. Isolationism would become synonymous with nationalism. Regardless of the anger and anxiety that the looming colonial presence brought, this transfer of hegemony ultimately sought to preserve Japan as an imperial core, reshuffling control amongst the powerful rather than restructuring the distribution of power. As such, the Loyalist’s resistance is hardly revolutionary, despite how Like a Dragon: Ishin! frames the movement.
Ryōma’s modus operandi— Ishin!’s thematic conceit—lies in the ways he holds contradictions together with ambivalence. Sakamoto Ryōma, the historical figure, is portrayed as multiple characters. Sakamoto Ryōma, the Ishin shishi, becomes his own suspected assassin. Sakamoto Ryōma, the political leader, upends and reinforces the status quo. Sakamoto Ryōma, the player character, can dual wield a katana and a revolver in combat.
And if games are good at doing anything, it’s taking these contradictory, outright conservative ideologies and making them feel fucking awesome. Ishin!’s unique mechanical conceit is its set of fighting styles, or mechanical modes in which to engage in combat: using your hands, wielding a katana, aiming a revolver, or, dual wielding both weapons in the hallmark "Wild Dancer'' style. A mechanical synthesis described in game as a “merging” of “East and West.”An Edge Magazine description details the tactile, tactical joy of the mode:
"With one button you can whirl into the fray with your blade, then tap the dodge button to spin out of range, following up with a flurry of regular sword attacks and the odd blast with your gun. Later you can string together combos endlessly until you take a hit."
Thus the samurai's iconic katana and revolvers—taken right out of the hands of fledgling cowboys in the American west—come to neatly juxtapose Bakumatsu era Japan’s rival polemics.
The figure of the noble samurai bound by tradition to fight with the honorable sword is a little silly both historically and strategically speaking, but it’s proved an enticing narrative device. In Edward Zwick’s 2003 epic The Last Samurai, the white protagonist (played by Tom Cruise) comes to sympathize with the very samurai Ryōma sets out to fight in Ishin! Shown together, each story complicates the other, but both use “tradition” as a convenient rhetorical shorthand for a xenophobic cultural purity that would feed into colonial acts of aggression mere decades later.
The sword and gun have represented other transitory moments in Japanese history, too. Arquebuses are omens of a looming transformation that will sever Japan’s connection to nature and a mythologized past in the overlapping Muromachi era of Princess Mononoke and Sengoku era of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (both of which end under the same unification that ushered in the Edo period). In mecha media like Patlabor, the technological juxtaposition of sword and gun is transported into a renewed 20th century anxiety of America’s looming colonial presence. Falcom’s Trails series explores the consequences to life and war of neighboring nations industrializing at different rates.
That a firearm represents a nominally more democratic, nationalist party in Ishin! seems fitting since any alleged Western influences were themselves introduced to the nation at gunpoint. But, the game repeats this historic contradiction. The inevitable synthesis reached between the Loyalists and Shinsengumi is detailed by Ryōma in a series of endgame monologues delivered with all the elocution of a teenage Anakin Skywalker. He waxes on about tradition, ideals, a great people—nationalism. His dialogue is written to portray the historical Ryōma as a forward thinker, ensuring contemporary players that whatever happens in the empire that arises during the Meiji Restoration (namely, the war crimes done by and to the empire), it is all in the pursuit of a greater, ultimately just, cause. It’s hard to not read it as ultranationalist mythmaking.
The Loyalist party's leader, Ryōma’s fictive brother and historic friend Takechi Hanpeita, argues that guns will bring down the metaphorical walls of the shogunate’s hierarchy and keep any more from being built. But such a preponderance of weaponry only makes it easier to turn to those without, and furthermore Imperial Japan would go on to disarm occupied populations. And as with canons, there are other fortifications than walls to be built by those with the means to secure their power. Under the judiciary of the Meiji Constitution, anarchists like Shūsui Kōtoku were executed for treason. Guns and their narrative counterparts are never democratic.
Ishin! comes close to untangling this rhetorical sleight by positioning Takechi as the game's final boss. His aim of reinstating the state power of the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, a dynasty older than any record of itself, is hard to reconcile with the egalitarian rhetoric of the movement's own propaganda, let alone the narrative framing of progress in the game. But by finding a synthesis between the Loyalists and Shinsengumi, Ishin! retreads the historical compromise its budding empire would make: that Japan would end its isolation—open itself up to Western fashion and coffee, Christianity and Communism—but that it could take the technology and weaponry of industrialization with it. And then? Whatever it wants, at gunpoint.
Autumn Wright writes about video games and anime. They can be found on Twitter and cohost.