A Japanese Crime Game Series Wins Hearts with Kind, Heroic Masculinity

REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Sega Corp’s logo is pictured at its headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, February 16, 2022. Picture taken on February 16, 2022.

The phrase “Not all men” started as a meek defense of terrible male behavior that’s insensitive at best. But a 28-year-old Kansas woman agrees with the sentiment.

“ ‘not all men’. ur right,” Adriana Rodriguez posted on social media in 2022. “kazuma kiryu yakuza would never do that to me.”

The dig is obvious: In lieu of real men, only a fictional man meets the standards. In this case, a noble yakuza whose careful character development over nearly two decades has earned him, and his game series, a steadily growing base of fans – and endless meme potential.

Kazuma Kiryu has been the protagonist of “Like a Dragon,” formerly called “Yakuza” in the United States, since its start in 2005. Kiryu has led seven games throughout the years, and unlike most fictional characters, he has aged every year. Now 55, he’s battling cancer while he struggles with his legacy of dismantling Japan’s yakuza system.

“Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth,” released Jan. 26 on PlayStation, Xbox and PC platforms, is the Sega series’ latest entry, continuing the story of the new main character, a 42-year-old homeless ex-con with a heart of gold named Ichiban Kasuga. Sega bet on bigger sales for this title, rolling out an influencer-fueled ad campaign with TikTok comedy star Druski and Twitch star xQc, and signing on Hollywood talent like Danny Trejo and Daniel Dae Kim to fill its cast. So far, trends show this is easily the biggest game launch in the series, with more than a million copies sold after a week. (The previous title, “Yakuza: Like a Dragon,” was already the series’ bestseller at 1.8 million copies sold.)

The growth of the series’ popularity was a slow and earnest burn. In the 2010s, as YouTube became an entertainment powerhouse, word-of-mouth recommendations from channels like videogamedunkey and Super Best Friends Play drew millions of views. Obscure Yakuza games suddenly punched through the Amazon sales charts.

The series has become beloved for two big reasons. First, it has character writing that could rival or top any prestige HBO show, filled with distinct and quirky personalities with emotionally charged and very relatable story arcs. Kasuga’s story, for example, has vividly portrayed the shame of job loss and the fight for dignity while homeless.

Secondly, these games offer so much more than hand-to-hand martial arts action. Kiryu and Kasuga engage in hundreds of side activities that fill the contours of their personalities and experiences, often in the form of unusually fleshed-out mini games. One mini game in “Infinite Wealth” mimics the entire premise of Nintendo’s pandemic-hit game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” Parallels with real-world pop culture – like an in-game, fully realized “V-tuber” YouTube personality – can feel uncannily contemporary.

Like Rodriguez, 35-year-old Brittney Brombacher is obsessed with the Yakuza men for many reasons. “Have you seen those abs, their flowing, beautiful hair, the way they rip off their shirts?” she exclaimed to The Washington Post. But the co-founder of “What’s Good Games” podcast also cites the character writing. During the throes of the 2020 pandemic and lockdown, Brombacher’s first playthrough of the prequel title “Yakuza 0” ended as a marathon through the rest of the series.

“As a woman who has played video games my entire life, having an all-male cast dripping with testosterone is something I’m used to seeing, so from that standpoint, it’s business as usual,” she said, adding: “These characters are like walking, talking tatted-up onions because of all of the freaking layers they have.”

— Developing ‘Like a Dragon’ like TV

The secret to “Like a Dragon’s” distinctive style, its creators say, comes from the studio’s workflow. Unlike other game studios that ramp up budgets and work time for a few complicated games, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio releases many titles covering one story. (Compare RGG’s seven new games since 2018 with Rockstar Games, which has only released “Red Dead Redemption 2” in that time.)

“If you take a ‘GTA’ or ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ those companies’ big marketing copy is ‘Oh, a new city with completely new gameplay,’ and they almost reinvent a large portion of the game,” said RGG Studio Director Masayoshi Yokoyama through an interpreter. “Most games these days aren’t necessarily upgrades of the previous as much as they are complete reboots.”

RGG Studio has achieved its steady output by recycling work from previous games, including years-old animation cycles. Most games revolve around the fictional Tokyo district of Kamurocho, modeled after the real-life Kabukicho area, allowing repeated use of textures of buildings and streets.

“We take on an approach that builds on the previous version,” Yokoyama said. “That comes more from a drama or movie type of development, linear media content. … I don’t think many companies are doing this with video games. I would argue it’s probably only us.”

This underscores the importance of the series’ recent changes, shifting gameplay from brawling to turn-based role-playing, and setting “Infinite Wealth” in Hawaii, a new location that demands new graphical textures and environments. Yokoyama, insists, however, the U.S. location wasn’t chosen because Sega wanted to “broaden Western appeal.”

Since joining the series in “Yakuza 3,” 42-year-old series director Ryosuke Horii has inserted much of his own humanity into the stories. When Horii applied to work for Sega, former RGG Studio director and founder Toshihiro Nagoshi asked to describe what makes him unique. Horii expressed his love for karaoke, to which Nagoshi said, “Everyone loves karaoke.” Desperate, Horii then brought out a binder full of spreadsheets. It turns out Horii had created data sets for every song – around 3,500 – he had ever sung in karaoke.

“It made Nagoshi-san go, ‘Oh wow, you’re a very interesting guy,’ and I was hired,” Horii said through an interpreter, laughing. The song list is now around 8,500 titles, he added. “My goal, in the next few years, is to make that 10,000.”

Horii made small design contributions to the series, but his first big proposal was implementing a karaoke mini game for “Yakuza 3.” Everyone hated the idea, but he stubbornly persisted. His dedication to karaoke was so strong, he wrote original songs and lyrics that mimic the style of traditional and modern Japanese enka, romantic ballads that filled the Tokyo airwaves in the late 20th century. The karaoke mini game ended up becoming a hit with players, and it changed the design philosophy of the series to focus more on mini games and experiences beyond the main story.

“It was something I wrote in my late 20s, so it was quite a while ago,” Horii said, adding that he felt video game music should get the same kind of care and attention to melody as any chart-topping hit. “I wanted to create something that was as high or higher than the same J-pop tracks I’m listening to or singing in karaoke.”

If anything, karaoke was the runway for the series to become a global phenomenon. One of Horii’s songs, “Baka Mitai” (“I’ve Been a Fool”) became a meme as the universal ballad and online lament for anything that goes wrong in your life.

YouTube creator, dancer and streamer CrystAAHHL heard of the series through the memes, but she didn’t become a fan until 2021. Now, she regularly dresses up as the game’s many male characters.

“‘Yakuza’ created so many meme templates online that I didn’t realize I had been seeing for years,” CrystAAHHL said. “So many people know the song without knowing it originates from ‘Yakuza.’”

It’s the side stories that won CrystAAHHL over to the series. “You have these characters that really shine in the main story, and then you go off, run into a substory and witness a whole new side of the character that you didn’t experience before, and end up loving them more. It’s unique writing that I honestly can’t get enough of.”

Horii agreed, adding that he always starts with a baseline of what makes these characters “uncool,” and the formula is to build them up with sprinklings of “cool” moments, finishing with the character fully realizing their potential.

“We’re not creating superheroes,” Horii said. “That’s not what our characters are meant to be. It’s their imperfect nature and occasional moments when they either rise to the challenge or make a stand that truly defines them. … I don’t necessarily feel we’re creating characters as much as we’re creating humans.”

Beyond karaoke, Horii’s sense of mortality is deeply embedded in “Infinite Wealth,” as he’s a cancer survivor. In the game, Kiryu’s cancer makes him wish for all the time in the world to play every video game he can, a desire Horii has expressed. He has taken what he has learned as a survivor to build a game that isn’t about a hero’s sad downfall.

“We wanted to be very mindful of not turning this game and story into something dark and heavy, especially if players might be carrying something themselves, and make them sad and depressed about it,” Horii said. “It’s a game that should be giving people hope. When realizing how close I came to death, it shifted my perspective on life. It’s made me a more kind person. And that personal journey translated into the game’s scenario.”