The Yakuza series has greatly enjoyed a resurgence in the west (and with English-speaking audience globally) the past few years. And it’s thanks to its extreme devotion in portraying modern Japanese culture and society that made it stand out.
And also the goofy but heartwarming side content that’s an absolute meme generator.
With the latest Yakuza: Like A Dragon, developers Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio continue to explore Japan’s criminal underworld tales with a fresh new perspective by way of new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga.
But unlike past entries, Like A Dragon’s portrayal of the seedy parts of the real world hits harder. There’s a theme the story explores a lot, which explains the Japanese subtitle for the game, roughly translates to “Whereabouts of Light And Dark”.
The story of Kasuga’s hero journey is grounded in a nuanced portrayal of the folks making a living in Yokohama, contrasted with the absolute powers that maintain the law, system and rules of the land. It questions if the “light” in our moral standards is truly right, and if the “dark” or “shadow” is truly evil and must be abolished. When the truth is, one element cannot exist without the other.
But this is still a Yakuza game, known for its whiplashing tones. One minute it can be a brooding tale of plot and intrigue, the other something batshit crazy happens that’s probably played for laughs. While these elements are usually separated in past entries, Like A Dragon brings these mishmash of tones closer in the main storyline, more than ever.
The result is a fascinating and gripping tale, enough to convince everyone here at Gamer Matters to award it the honour of “Best Story” of 2020. And that’s saying a lot considering last year’s many interesting tales told in video game form.
There’s one cut-scene that’s best exemplified all of these elements that showcases the nuance of Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s plot, the thoughtful build-up of its main character, while still not forgetting that you can have fun while doing so.
It’s in Chapter 3, where you are first introduced to Bleach Japan.
Spoilers Start Here
First, some context. At this moment of the story, the ex-convict Kasuga is now a deadbeat taking shelter with the homeless folks in Ichinjo, Yokohama. And he has befriended Nanba, who helped him get patched up. The two can’t be employed with regular jobs, so they have to do weird errands for old lady Hamako for now.
Prior to this gig, the duo was attacked by the local Korean mobsters with a rain of crossbow fire. It was wild.
So this next job they got roped into the next morning by Hamako should either be wilder. But thankfully it’s a much-needed reprieve from the last set of events.
They just need to go to her small restaurant. “Restaurant”, as Kasuga and Nanba discovered. The duo saw a bunch of ladies leaving the building. Which reveals what Kasuga and Nanba’s gig for the day really is- cleaning the room at the top floor, riddled with used tissues and damp mattresses.
Cue the goofy music- the boys had to clean a brothel after an aftermath of a massive job last night, something you hear as the ladies went out of the building.
As they joked around and faffed about cleaning the sticky mess, a march of protesters appears.
This is Bleach Japan, an NPO (non-profit organisation, for Malaysians, think of it as an NGO) that aims to eradicate “grey zones”, locations that register as legal businesses but conduct shady businesses. Like a restaurant “that caters to a certain appetite” or “catering to the thirsty”, as Kasuga puts it early on.
Which one you get depends on whether you went with Japanese VO with subs, or the English dub, both having different text scripts.
So, from a silly banter scene about getting grossed at bodily fluids and making fun of the duo’s state of homelessness, the scene moves into Nanba spouting exposition about Bleach Japan, in typical Yakuza fashion. The first whiplash of tone hits.
And it’s not just long drivel either, we learned that the founder of this movement has ties to the another person that another of Kasuga’s party member has beef on.
Yes, this has ties to the actual main plot- a long overdue scene at this point of the game, which has at this point been focused on establishing the new Ichinjo setting rather than moving the main story beats.
The protesters than start arguing with old lady Hamako down on the streets. The Bleach Japan protester leader makes a big point about her restaurant isn’t a restaurant, and brothels are illegal. And then accuses the sex workers there to be “brainwashed”, of not knowing what they were signing up to and are now trapped in this line of work.
It’s a situation that, depending on where you live in, sounds very plausible.
Hamako then snapped, defending her women she pledges to protect against the protesters. Which leads to a heated argument where both sides raised good points.
Bleach Japan leader, Kume, calls out the brothel manipulating the good women that worked there. Hamako insists that they worked there on their accord to support their families. The group rebutted, no happy children are raised by the dingy job that is a prostitute- and using the classic “show me an example” card at that too.
Kasuga butts in the conversation from the restaurant/brothel’s top floor window: “I never minded it!”
Now the scene of contrasting perspectives turn into more character development for our hunk of a hero. It’s previously established that Kasuga was raised in a soapland (a very specific kind of brothel) as an orphan, surrounded with many mothers. And he’s totally not ashamed of it.
Kasuga is also pretty witty with roasts and comebacks- and one is an early example of his brashness working in his favour. “You all came here because you wanna get rid of the trash, I got that right?” he said, while holding a trashcan filled with stained tissue papers.
What Makes This Scene Good?
In one cutscene, Yakuza: Like A Dragon elegantly moves the plot, gives character development, and stir the theme of the story into the back of your mind- which will continue to be explored later in the game. And it does that with its masterful use of switching between lighthearted sexual jokes and serious discussion about the nature of sex work. This side plot is further explored in later parts of the story.
The game also explores the gaps of Japan’s laws, which one wrong turn can make you out of the loop from being able to be a law-abiding citizen.
An earlier example of this is when you discover that in Japan, if you don’t have a home address, you can’t get employed at some jobs. Which means homeless folks have a rough hill to climb even when they meaningly want to pick themselves up again. And explains why one would continue to remain homeless.
This is where the criminal underworld, as illegal they may be, can come to protect people when the law fails them. It’s a story that’s told in a Japanese perspective, but its commentary rings true universally.
It ties so well with the story theme- where light and dark may not be as clear-cut black-and-white as idealists see it, and grey areas may be a compromise to safeguard every individual’s lives, a safety net when the system fails to give these folks a chance of living. You’ll also see the contrasting duality of Kasuga and the main antagonist’s journey, which is also amazing to see unfold.
And this harmonious co-existence can be interpreted to be seen in the core gameplay as well. The new JRPG combat has embraced the serious beat-’em-ups with a wacky portrayal of the job system, and it works wonderfully well thematically.
And this is why we enjoy Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s story so much, and the Bleach Japan introduction scene is where every element of it clicks the hardest to say yes, this story is something worth seeing through the end.
Yakuza’s great. Go play Yakuza. It’s our 2020 Game Of The Year.