Video games are a wonderful style of art. Besides the visual or musical marvels they provide us with, by giving agency to the player they are a very strong medium in conveying important messages. The stories you live through and the choices you make can stay with you forever.
The Yakuza series took me by storm. It became my favourite series very fast, and not just in a come and go hype way, but the whole philosophy, attitude of the games is something that really grew to me. Yet when I discovered my probably favourite game series of all time, I found that none of my friends ever played it or even heard about it.
About a week ago I wrote about the fact that Yakuza characters might appear in Fortnite. Like in any other community of older games, many people were outraged by this. People like gatekeeping, feeling that their precious franchise would be too exposed to the masses, losing some of its charm along the way. But I could not disagree more, I think more people should play the Yakuza games. In fact, I believe more young people should play them. Because at the core of the stories, the message of acceptance, tolerance and compassion is the driving force of the main characters. Something that should be learned at a young age.
Also, if you prefer videos over reading, I strongly recommend you this video, which in my opinion is the best review on why you should really play Yakuza.
An unlikely hero.
Let’s clarify something. The protagonists and main characters of the Yakuza series are criminals. Most of them are part of the Asian mafia, especially the often romanticized Yakuza. Make no mistake, despite having some beneficial effects on the safety of Japan, the Yakuza is a dangerous and cruel organization.
Yet the protagonists of the games (Kiryu in 0-6 and Ichiban in Like a Dragon) are loyal members of the syndicate. However what gives most of the plot of these games is that they are cut from a different cloth than their fellow Yakuza. They both have strong moral standards, they stand up for the weak and protect the innocent oftentimes getting in trouble for it.
They share the same romanticized idea of the Yakuza as many people do in real life. They are almost like a modern day Asian version of Robin Hood.
But they have a strong idea on how Yakuza should be, how it should get rid of its rotten elements and while pushing the boundaries of legality, they should serve the public.
It is a returning motif of the series that people of power are just as rotten and corrupt as the Yakuza, if not worse. Actually oftentimes the two sides make deals, finding even more elaborate ways to leech off of society.
Kiryu and Ichiban oppose both sides, being almost lone vigilantes most of the time. An unthankful position, but something that is their very way of being.
The ultimate macho.
I will focus on Kiryu now, as he is the OG Yakuza protagonist, the one who “is” the Yakuza.
Kiryu is the archetypical macho, a badass guy. Whether you play his character in his twenties or his late thirties, he is a good looking, firm, determined man. His body is well sculpted, he is fit and he is never afraid of any challenge. Also, as the Dragon of Dojima, he has no opponent in a fight. His defeated opponents often question if he is even human.
By many standards, he is the perfect man.
In itself this would be nothing new. Movies and video games are full of handsome, strong good guys. John Marston, Geralt of Rivia, Chris Redfield, etc. You get the idea.
But two things make Kiryu different for me.
- Most of the time we read Kiryu’s inner monologues, we know exactly what and how he thinks, so we are absolutely sure he is genuine.
- He lives today. Okay, maybe sometimes it is 1988 or 2006, but he goes to restaurants, SEGA Arcades, bowling, sing karaoke. We see him doing activities that we could do as well, so his setting is much more relatable.
This makes Kiryu a very strong vessel in my opinion. We know what he thinks, he is an open book, we would know if he would hide anything, and he is “one of us”. This is important for understanding why I think more people should play Yakuza.
Fighting the good fight.
Because Kiryu is such a credible character, it is very important what message he conveys. Make it something toxic or harmful and he would be relatable for all the wrong reasons. We all have bad voices, doubts in our head. Strengthening them with a toxic but honest protagonist could be harmful.
But Ryu Ga Gotoku, the creators of Yakuza chose to make Kiryu one of the most level-headed, wholesome and overall kindest person out there.
Since the Yakuza games are set in the current era, Kiryu meets a lot of average Joes with everyday struggles that we might face as well.
Bullying, abuse, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, heartbreak, jealousy, you name it. Kiryu is often put in situations where he has to be the judge, the one who makes order in a confrontation.
Besides the already established fact that he always stands on the side of the weak and oppressed, through his words or inner monologues it is clear to us, that he never judges people. He accepts everyone as they are, unless they are objectively vile people. And even if they are evil, most of the time he tries to correct their ways, show them how they could do better.
I will tell a few examples where Kiryu’s absolute acceptance shows, although there are literally hundreds of instances throughout the series.
Substory #33 in Kiwami 2 is about Mama, the cross-dresser bartender of the Earth’s Angel bar being assaulted when a patron is getting handsy with her. After Kiryu straightening him out with his fists, the patron is banned from the bar by Mama. He begs her forgiveness and Kiryu ultimately decides that it is up to Mama to forgive him.
Why I like this example, is that on one hand Kiryu never ever makes remarks or comments (or even thinks badly) about Mama’s cross-dressing habit. He accepts her as she is. And when she is in need of help, he steps up to teach a lesson to the grabby guy.
On the other hand, despite putting the creep in his place through beating him up, ultimately he accepts that it is not his business to decide for Mama if the guy should remain banned or not. He did his job by protecting Mama when needed, but he understands that maybe the patron can regret and change his ways.
The other example is also in Kiwami 2, Substory #1, Be my Baby. Here we meet a returning formation of the series for the first time. The Gondawara family, whose boss has the fetish of dressing up and being pampered as a baby. Yeah Yakuza series goes there.
Kiryu is somehow invited by Gondawara to join them, but when Kiryu finds out what this is all about, he leaves. This angers the Gondawara boss and attacks him, because he feels that Kiryu is being rude by rejecting his hospitality.
What matters here is that Kiryu never makes any negative remark on Gondawara’s fetish. Yet again, he is not judging, not shaming, it is just not his thing so he wants to leave. His take is, that it is okay to be into unusual things, to have kinks. But you should not force these on others. And I completely agree with both parts of this statement.
The reason why I brought up these two examples, because they show what kind of person Kiryu is. In a way he is an outcast of society, a criminal. And as such he learned to never judge other people based on what they like, what cards they got dealt from life or what is their social status. If you are harmful to others, you meet his fists. If you are in need of help, he will be there, no questions asked.
Throughout the series you will be allied with people who are in unfortunate situations. Prostitutes, homeless people, illegal immigrants. But the games never judge or make fun of them. They are not portrayed as the trash of society. They are flesh and bone humans, often victims of the system or even their own mistakes.
The hero we need.
So yeah, I think Kiryu or Ichiban, the criminals of Yakuza are great role models. They are authentic, real and face similar issues like we do. But while we often react on things in a weird or bad way, they always do the right thing. And while some people are trying to gatekeep the franchise and dread the thought of kids swarming the community, I say please come. Come and learn.
Play a good game. Play a probably better game than what you normally do.
Play as an awesome protagonist and get reinforced in the fact, that you can be badass, cool but also compassionate at the same time.
I don’t have kids yet. But if one day I will have, I would be happy to see them play Yakuza. Because under all the insane comedic content, the countless times when shirtless guys beat each other senseless, there is a very good message. A message, that we should respect and accept each other, and stand up for each other no matter how different we might be.
The Yakuza series is a real time-sink, they are long games. But I highly recommend them to anyone. They are fun, the story is far better than most games, and also since several of them had been remade or remastered, they are also gorgeous. As an entry point, I recommend starting with Yakuza 0, but you can also start at Like a Dragon, which is a new story with a new protagonist.
Have you ever learned important life lessons through a video game? Did it ever happen to you that an event of a game made you reflect on a real life situation? I would be curious to hear in the comments.