December 9th, Tokyo
The economy is booming, Emperor Hirohito has retired to the royal palace amidst rumours of illness, and the body of High School Student Junko Futura is discovered encased in concrete.
New money lines the streets, businessmen bid for cab fare as if at Sotheby’s and newly minted Yakuza Kazuma Kiryu chases a debtor into a part of town settled by Chinese immigrants before beating him senseless in a seemingly meaningless empty back lot.
Thus begins Yakuza 0, the latest game in one of Japan’s premier intellectual properties to receive a release in the West. Having covered recession-struck modern Japan and the blighted period during the 1860’s ,when Japan was consistently embroiled in proxy wars and practically ungovernable, the team at Sega has decided to set this one during the boom economy of the 80s and 90s, the era in which the Japanese government took a look at Reagan’s US and decided it could go one better.
The period, synonymous with a certain anxiety about Japanese takeover during the West (American movies of the time are fraught with this, from Die Hard to The Simpsons. We even had a lamentable outing in the movie Rising Sun in which Sean Connery played the forerunner to the modern Weeaboo) is remembered as something of a nostalgic golden age in Japan. Culturally as well as economically Japan was finally achieving the centuries-long dream of becoming a great global power.
Japanese Corporations were setting up shop in American cities, taking advantage of Post-Reagan slumps. In VHS stores worldwide, Sweaty, unattractive young males were discovering “Japanimation” in a cultural exchange future anthropologists will compare to the Iroquois craving for European blankets. The Japanese giants Sega and Nintendo took advantage of the collapse of Western Game studios during the great crash of ’83 to absolutely dominate the gaming market for the next two decades. Flushed with cash, corruption (Many Japanese lawmakers were sent down for backhanders) and crime, this makes a perfect setting for a series known for its’ soap opera rollercoaster plots and colourful characters.
Pocket Circuit racing is one of the ways to relax from Real Estate deals
Electing to explore the origins of series mainstay, the incorruptible Stoic Kazuma Kiryu and fan favourite Goro Majima, the eccentric Yakuza enforcer, the game places us in Sotenbori, Osaka and the ever present Kamurocho, Tokyo just at the moment organised crime poised itself to take a share of Nippon’s new found wealth by any means necessary.
The aforementioned empty lot is the one last piece of un-bought land in a parcel every crime family in Japan wants as a future site for development, and the death of Kiryu’s debtor places him in the crosshairs. The setup is typical of the franchise, which western audiences will find most comparable to film noir but far more takes after the outlandish plots of home-produced Yakuza flicks.
Those familiar with Japanese media will likely notice several favourites of Japanese film and television among the cast of the game, and several references will most definitely fly over the heads of a western audience. One particular sidequest parodying the 1987 “haha woman has job” comedy A Taxing Woman would play far better in its’ native country than in the West. I would argue, however, that for fans one of the appeals of the series is how very Japanese it is, being one of the most culturally immersive games ever made. You can sing Karaoke, go to telephone sex clubs (apparently very popular during the period) and buy meal deals in the Japanese equivalent of Spar. The makers deals with various restaurateurs and whiskey distilleries lead to a plethora of authentic products and placement in the game which adds to the immersion (although likely would prove more irritating to a Japanese audience, especially considering the fifth game had a sidequest in which a real life Sushi Bar owner tells you how fresh his fish is).
Kiryu and the Bright lights of Kamurocho
It is uniquely difficult to describe the Yakuza series to someone unfamiliar with it. The most apt comparison would be to the Grand Theft Auto franchise but with many, many caveats. While there are indeed many similarities (criminal characters, various recreations of cities to roam around in, gritty plot infused with silly humour, various distractions and mini games) the differences in gameplay and tone are also very pronounced. Yakuza , true to real life, rely much more on fists and knives as opposed to American gangsters and firearms, and the lack of motorised vehicles and large cities in order to have a densely packed Asian red light district mark two distinct differences.
It would be accurate to call Yakuza the Asian Grand Theft Auto, just as much as you could call Grand Theft Auto the Western Yakuza. Players new to the series may find the melodramatic main plot clashes with the zaniness of the sidequests, but once they learn to treat the main story as the ‘straight man’ it works remarkably well. One can go from a story mission filled with death and loss to a side-plot that involves winning a live chicken from a bowling alley and employing it at a real estate business with relatively little narrative dissonance.
It makes the side missions warm, funny breaks from the noir and blood of the Tokyo underworld, much like the puerile humour of Grand Theft Auto works to lessen the horrific atrocities the player commits during the average Sunday drive in Los Santos. On the flipside the steady feed of serious drama keeps the player engaged in the story and characters, preventing the game from succumbing to disassociative surrealism. The tone may not be consistent, but it’s blended like a fine Martini from the finest Karaoke Bar in Kamurocho.
From Hitman to Hospitality and back again: the Dapper Goro Majima
One of the things that will certainly throw off Western players used to bigger meaning better is the massive focus on detail over sheer size. Rather than give the player a scaled down state, Yakuza places you in a realistically sized town centre with freedom to go into most businesses. Like Tokyo Real estate, space it at a premium and the philosophy is to make the most of it. Rather than being an incredibly shallow ocean, the game elects to be the kind of Puddle David Blaine would jump into to impress a flock of Gawkers. The amount of character imbued into each side activity prevents the “Empty Film Set” feeling that the sandbox genre often suffers. Rather than a convenience store serving no function other than to half-heartedly rob for an insignificant amount, they sell a variety of real-world products, some of which take some experimentation to find out the use of.
It’s not a series one will fully experience on a first playthrough, as hand-holding is kept to a refreshing (for a Westerner) minimum. It took me quite a while to get around to finding out the salt dispensers you can buy are a weapon. Anything that at first seems purposeless almost certainly has some hidden point to it, and the game is very efficient with the space it provides, much like the most masterful low-budget director. Compared to the most recent Grand Theft Auto where the massive expanse oftentimes served to make travelling a long, dull commute rather than increase immersion, the difference is akin to driving through the Mojave or making your way through some of Tokyo’s most populated districts.
One of the major themes in this prequel games is that of Capitalism. Unlike in previous games, where the player accumulated experience to improve his abilities, all moves and upgrades must be purchased (which the game refers to as “investing in yourself”). Random thugs beaten by Kiryu and Majima now literally bleed Yen, and both characters earn far more than they did in previous games, when a relatively modest few million yen was the most the player could hope to earn without cheating at roulette.
This is reflected in the story as well, and by the early game Kiryu is forced from the Yakuza into a much more lucrative position as a grey-market real estate agent, whilst Majima taps into the goldmine of Japanese sexual frustration by managing a Cabaret Club. The plot revolves around dodgy real estate deals, corporate excess and nihilistic hedonism that everyone who wasn’t born in South Wales associates with the 80’s. Ferrari’s can be found parked outside tacky nightclubs and “Nouveau Riche” Enemy types wander out of Karaoke bars in gold plated suits. By the end of Kiryu’s Real Estate subplot I thought nothing of blowing a million yen with impunity, like an authentic legitimate salaryman.
Poverty and exploitation also play a role, with Kiryu forced to hide out with Kamurocho’s large homeless community and Majima finding himself immersed in the parallel society of Japan’s immigrant Chinese population. The social commentary remains largely subtle, but the team at Sega managed to merge it well with the mechanics of the game rather than get up on a soapbox.
One area in which I did somewhat miss Western sensibilities was the game’s treatment of women. While I’m no San Francisco Feminist, basing almost every female character off of a real life hardcore porn star is something that only the most tasteless and tongue in cheek Western game could get away with (Specifically the Second Saints Row Game which did something similar as a marketing gimmick). From convenience store clerks to the more fleshed out of Majima’s hostess girls, almost every woman in the game has her corresponding real life counter-part. When the player completes whatever story beat that girl had, they unlock a (thankfully largely tasteful) Gravure video which can be viewed at a seedy establishment in both of the games locations. Whilst the game largely refrains from overt sexuality, it feels rather immature in this regard, with almost an adolescent view of the opposite sex. I would also recommend that players of this game never google the names of some of these women, partially because being put onto a watch list by GCHQ is never a nice thing, and partially because I found there to be a severe dissonance in the often sweet or demure characters in the game and the sinful exploits that their models got up too in real life.
On the whole though, the tone of the game is much more moral than something like Grand Theft Auto. Good characters rarely murder even a rival gang member much less a civilian. Murder and human life are treated with far more weight than in a western game, partially due to the delicate semi-legal status of Yakuza operations but also from a genuine desire to make characters that aren’t irredeemable sociopaths. While Western developers don’t particularly care whether an audience of hormonal and aggressive teenagers bonds with a protagonist, the Japanese place value of harmony and order. All but the series vilest villains tend to have redeeming moments, and it’s not uncommon to find oneself suddenly empathising with a character that previously earned nothing but scorn. It’s a welcome feeling of morality and a certain old-fashioned heroism that is sorely lacking in many modern Western games.
Interestingly enough, it seems that the sales of this game are making it the first in the series to successfully crack the West. I hope this is the case, as Western gamers have been dealt a slop of largely derivative games in the last few years with the sandbox genre (Apart from the “Yakuza for the White Piggu” effort Sleeping dogs which I would thoroughly recommend as a good bridge between the series and GTA) blending into one homogenised mass of radio towers and escort missions.
Perhaps history is indeed cyclical, and Asian flavour is required once again to re-vitalise a bloated, Red Dwarf Western industry as it did before in the 80’s. I would certainly rather it be a series like Yakuza that does this. I’d be appalled, as would most decent people, should mainstream western culture be over-ran with bug eyed underage cartoon girls which represent the other end of the Japanese design spectrum. Give me one-eyed gangsters with full body tattoos any day of the week.