Of all the Sega properties still relevant this decade, none have had the staying power of Ryu Ga Gotoku, which translates to ‘Like A Dragon’. The series is more commonly known in the West as Yakuza. Compared to the wildly inconsistent Sonic franchise and the infrequent releases of Valkyria Chronicles sequels, Yakuza emerged as the most prolific series for the Japanese developer-publisher in its post-hardware era. If you count remasters, remakes, and spin-offs–some of which have never come out in the West–Ryu Ga Gotoku has averaged slightly more than one release every year since its introduction in 2005. As Yakuza, the series hits a milestone in 2018 as the story arc of its mainstay protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, reaches its conclusion in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. We thought this would be a fitting time to look back on this franchise in our History Of series.
A Well-Planned Debut
Yakuza was the brainchild of Sega veteran Toshihiro Nagoshi, the hard-as-nails director behind Daytona and Super Monkey Ball. He envisioned a gritty drama complemented by a sense of humanity in both its storytelling and characters. The game would revolve around the Japanese criminal underworld of the yakuza, exploring the power struggles between rival groups as well as their tenuous relationships with foreign organizations. The yakuza’s fixation to their code of honor would play a huge part in the series’ many stories. How its key characters adhere to or struggle with this code led to some of Yakuza’s most compelling narrative moments.
Development began as ‘Project J’, where Nagoshi assembled a team of Sega developers proficient in both arcade games like Virtua Fighter and Super Monkey Ball as well as more story-driven consoles titles like Panzer Dragoon and Jet Set Radio.
Nagoshi’s team needed a setting befitting a Japanese mafia tale. They settled on Kabukicho, the red-light district of Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, for their inspiration. Fictionally renamed as Kamurocho, this lively but modestly sized open world would become a staple location of every mainline Yakuza sequel. Much of the city’s immense staying power is thanks to its similarities to its real-life counterpart; this sense of virtual tourism would permeate through all of the series’ other locales. And like avid travellers revisiting Japan, fans–upon revisiting Kamurocho in sequels–would notice and appreciate both the clear and subtle changes to the landscape as storefronts disappear or relocate. The moment you start a new Yakuza and the initial exposition gives way to free roaming, you feel like you’ve returned to a theme park you haven’t visited in years, wondering what has changed, whether that’s an renovated batting center or a new selection of arcade titles at Club Sega.
Much of the city’s immense staying power is thanks to its similarities to its real-life counterpart; this sense of virtual tourism would permeate through all of the series’ other locales.
As the recurring locale, Kamurocho became a character itself, always reflective of its respective time periods. Banter among its locals provides color and context to Tokyo as it was in 2005, 2016 and every other year the games have been set in. Adding further personality to this district are the myriad optional substories triggered by Kamurocho’s many NPCs, the subject matter of which ranges from light-hearted to absurdly funny. Last but not least, this district would be inextricably tied to Kazuma Kiryu, Yakuza’s main protagonist.
We’re introduced to Kiryu–nicknamed The Dragon of Dojima–in the first Yakuza as an up and coming member of the Tojo Clan. His plans to one day start his own crime family are derailed early in the game when he takes the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. This was done to protect his best friend, Akira Nishikiyama as well as Kiryu’s lifelong love interest, Yumi Sawamura. Within the first hour of playing Yakuza, our hero ages 10 years in prison, is expelled from the Tojo Clan, and returns to a Kamurocho that is both familiar and foreign. Meanwhile, he meets Haruka, a 9 year-old orphan. She is somehow tied to Kiryu’s former crime family, which is undergoing a tumultuous period of unrest due to the disappearance of 10 billion yen from the Tojo Clan and the assassination of the Tojo chairman who was investigating the missing money.
In a period where one word game titles like Prey, Gun, and Bully were very much in vogue, ‘Yakuza’ was effective in making Ryu Ga Gotoku marketable in the West. Yet in retrospect, the continued focus on Kiryu’s personal journey makes this title inadequate. Here we find a hero who–in his youth–was drawn to the gangster lifestyle yet has been spending bulk of his adulthood trying to leave it. From the get go we learn that his drive to protect those he loves supersedes any kind of Yakuza code of honor. This gets more complicated due to the father-daughter relationship he quickly forms with Haruka, who stays inextricably tied to Kiryu for the rest of the series. This bond is all the more strengthened by their common upbringings as orphans.
Yakuza would also introduce Goro Majima, a fan-favorite character who would be more beloved than even Kiryu to some. His psychotic tendencies are only overshadowed by his flamboyant charisma, attributes that have only been amplified in future appearances. Kiryu’s relationship to Goro plus other recurring characters–like the detective-turned-journalist, Makoto Date–elevates a growing ensemble cast that become as memorable as any you’ll find in Dragon Age or Gears of War.
Kiryu’s relationship to Goro plus other recurring characters–like the detective-turned-journalist, Makoto Date–elevates a growing ensemble cast that become as memorable as any you’ll find in Dragon Age or Gears of War.
And with the announcement of the English voice cast, you could not have picked a better fit than Joker veteran Mark Hamill as the maniacal Goro. Another notable actor was Michael Madsen, whose work on gangster films like Reservoir Dogs and The Getaway made him a natural fit for a brute like Futoshi Shimano, one of the game’s major bosses. Eliza Dushku also proved a match for Yumi. It was a clear message from Sega of America of their well-intentioned efforts to introduce Ryu Ga Gotoku to the West. That said, the localization came with a forced hard edge, featuring more swearing and gangster posturing than the Japanese version. As if to fully own the Yakuza name, this English script played up the game’s criminal element more than what the original writers intended.
A Series Is Born
As Sega of America was localizing Yakuza, fans in Japan were treated to the series’ first spin-off, a film by the prolific and renowned director Takashi Miike as well as a shorter prologue film. These movies were fitting tie-ins to a game with strong cinematic qualities. The Yakuza games’ filmic storytelling would only get better as the series made its way to the PlayStation 3 and 4 consoles, rendering the idea of additional film adaptations obsolete. These later games would go on to use known actors familiar to Japanese audiences like Riki Takeuchi, Hitoshi Ozawa, and even New Japan Pro Wrestling stars playing as themselves. This would culminate in Yakuza 6 with the casting of one of the country’s biggest celebrities, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who has directed and starred in his share of gangster films.
Capitalizing on Yakuza’s success, a sequel naturally followed. Whether it was a financial decision or an attempt to provide a more authentic experience, Yakuza 2 was released in the West with no English voice acting, preserving the original Japanese audio.
Whereas the main conflict among the yakuza in the first game was from within the Tojo Clan, Yakuza 2 explored their struggles in maintaining peace with outside organizations, not just with other clans in Japan but also a crime group from Korea. It’s a dispute that takes part of the story to Osaka, particularly the tourist magnet of Dotonbori, now fictionalized as Sotenbori.
It also continues to portray Kiryu as the reluctant gangster who doesn’t hesitate to take the fight to his aggressors when his loved ones are threatened. He exhibits shades of Michael Corleone, though the Godfather never had someone as loving and kind-hearted as Haruka to keep him grounded. Wanting to get out but only to be pulled back in is a dilemma Kiryu faces time and time again, all the way to Yakuza 6. While this repetitiveness is amusing, it’s never to the detriment of each game’s respective story. After all, it’s satisfying to see Kiryu take out his frustrations on his inability to escape his yakuza roots by beating up countless gangsters in finely tailored suits. All he wants to do live out the rest of his life with Haruka and