It is not my intention, still early in the run of this blog on Japanese cinema, to branch too wildly into other areas. That said, I do think there are other, relevant things that could be discussed: American re-edits or remakes of Japanese productions, books on the subject, and videogames that draw from the history of film. There’s one series that’s particularly dear to me: SEGA’s Yakuza (龍が如く/ Ryū ga Gotoku). First launching in Japan in 2005 and 2006 in the West, the series transplants recognisable yakuza movie tropes onto a long-running videogame franchise. It’s easy to see the influence Japanese cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s has had on it, from casting Tetsuya Watari (star of the Outlaw VIP series) as the protagonist’s yakuza mentor Shintaro Kazama, to the dramatic, freeze-frame splash screens that list the various characters’ names, ranks, and affiliations – a stylish technique ripped straight from Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity.
2017 has seen the belated, but extremely welcome, Western release of Yakuza Zero (originally launching in Japan in March 2015). Set in 1988 at the height of the Japanese Bubble Economy, the game is both a prequel to the series and the first non-spin off released on the PlayStation 4, making it an excellent jumping on point for newcomers.
The game stars long-time series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and on-again, off-again rival Goro Majima. While Kiryu has been playable in every instalment of the series – barring a handful of spin-off titles – this is the first time Majima has been a playable character outside the alt-history zombie spin-off to Yakuza 4, Yakuza: Dead Souls (龍が如く OF THE END). In 1988 they’re both much younger, not yet the infamous Dragon of Dojima or the Mad Dog of Shimano. Somewhat unusually for the series, both characters are also tied more closely into the yakuza than is typical. Despite the Western name for the series (and the prominent place gangsters take in every story), Kiryu was banished from the yakuza family he worked for way back at the start of the original Yakuza, and other playable characters have ranged from money lenders to adult magazine writers to undercover cops. This time around, Kiryu and Majima both find themselves outside the yakuza once again, but they’re actively trying to get back on the inside.
The 1988 setting doesn’t just allow the game to have the usual prequel fun of showing how these characters became the recognisable fan favourites they would be later, it allows for a window into a stylised take on decadent, 1980s Japan. I’m neither an economist nor an historian, but the 1980s Bubble Economy is fascinating. Roughly speaking, aggressive speculation led to massive increases in the stock market and in real estate property values. Corporations (and individuals) suddenly had vast amounts of cash to throw around, and instead of investing internally, much of this cash was spent on real estate acquisitions (as well as more more outlandish purchases, like an insurance company spending millions of dollars on a van Gogh that was later alleged to be a fake). The collapse of the Bubble would lead to decades of economic stagnation that Japan still hasn’t climbed out of (despite remaining one of the world’s top economies), but Yakuza Zero isn’t concerned with that: it’s 1988, and money is everything.
The extravagance of the era feeds into everything. Tutorial pop-ups now have a golden background. Instead of experience points, you spend cash to upgrade your characters, cash which physically flies out of your enemies with every punch, kick, and swing of an abandoned bicycle. On the other hand, the setting isn’t quite as noticeable as you might expect; the ‘80s power suits and hairstyles of the US might make the decade more recognisable in a game set there, but the Yakuza series has always trafficked in over the top and somewhat dated outfits – just look at the white suit and magnificent popped collar Kiryu normally wears through the ‘90s, 2000s, and 2010s or Majima’s usual ensemble of no shirt under a snakeskin blazer. Kamurocho and Sotenbori, the series’ stand-ins for Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Osaka’s Dotonbori, are both entertainment districts full of neon signs and outrageous decor whether in the ‘80s or the modern day.
Much of what makes the Yakuza series special is not the main story, which invariably involves double-crosses, betrayals, redemptions, and soap opera-level twists (an identical twin? Sure! A dramatic coma? Why not!). It’s not that the story isn’t fun, and many times through the series it has led to some truly outrageous and memorable scenes. It’s just that much of the game is in its substories, side quests littered around the richly-detailed cities, and its minigames and activities. Kamurocho is so closely modelled on its real-life counterpart that the first time I wandered around Shinjuku in real life, I knew just where the Don Quijote store would be. Successive games have added more and more to do, from rhythm game-based karaoke to a wealth of traditional Japanese games including shogi, mahjong, and assorted card games – including oicho kabu, from which this blog takes its name. Unlike other contemporary JRPGs like the Persona series, Yakuza isn’t quite a slice of life simulator, but it packs in a lot of nostalgia for someone like me who has spent time in Japan, and Tokyo in particular. Convenience stores are stacked with familiar products, food (as a healing item) is omnipresent and mouthwatering, and the games are riddled with evocative sound and sights. Because of all this extra stuff to do and explore, the main story points can start to feel a little disjointed – sure, Kiryu needs to investigate a murder case and clear his own name, but he also has a real estate venture to run and karaoke bars to visit.
In this recent This Gen Last Gen podcast, we discussed the Yakuza series and Zero in particular while looking at other SEGA games, past and present.
Given the rocky history the series has had in terms of localisation and sales in the West, I would love to encourage anyone and everyone to play Zero, and shore up the chances of getting future games translated. It would be unkind of me to ignore Zero’s faults, though, many of which it shares with its predecessors. They require a certain tolerance for eccentricities, both in storytelling and game design, and a willingness to overlook some systems that are still rooted in the original 2005/6 release and graphics that still cling to the days of the PlayStation 3 (the upcoming Yakuza 6 will be the first game designed exclusively for the PlayStation 4, without a simultaneous release on a last gen console). In common with a lot of JRPGs, the game can also be quite a grind, requiring time be sunk into random battles triggered while wandering around town or repeating minigames to rank up and earn items and other unlocks. On the other hand, a lot of that grind is optional – it’s possible to ignore the side quests and other activities and focus on the main story, which typically does not ask too much in terms of character progression. Doing so, however more streamlined an experience it might be, robs the game of much of what makes it special.
For long-time players of the series, Yakuza Zero is essential. For newcomers, perhaps those daunted by the idea of jumping into the middle of the on-going story with Yakuza 3 through 5 on the PlayStaiton 3, this represents an ideal time to get involved. Later in 2017, another long overdue localisation will bring the remake of the original Yakuza to PS4, reportedly followed by Yakuza 6 in 2018. After a long drought, it’s a great time to be a Yakuza fan.