As evidenced by several of my entries in our ongoing, We’re Just Playing… series; I have become a huge fan of the Yakuza franchise in the past year and a half or so. The games are a strange combination of cutscene heavy, intense stories, stupidly fleshed out and various side activities, with uniquely Japanese sensibilities that somehow make the various tones of each game work. It’s a series that has super serious and buff dudes indulge in activities like arcades, golfing, karaoke, and beating the ever-loving snot out of each other. On paper, the many elements of each game shouldn’t work, but they do, and a large reason for that is Kazuma Kiryu, who serves as the main playable character for Yakuza 0- 6.
Something many, many narrative-driven games have struggled with is giving the player a character they want to play as. Someone who has their own fleshed-out backstory but is enough of a blank slate that the player can project themselves on to whoever the player character might be. It’s something that I’ve found Western RPGs in particular struggle with, but in my opinion, Kazuma Kiryu is possibly the ultimate gaming protagonist. He’s someone with hopes, dreams, and a fully fleshed out back story that the player can still relate to in a myriad of ways.
Come with me friends, as I try my best to explore the relationship Yakuza players have with Kiryu, and what makes him the perfect protagonist.
What Makes a Player
First, though, let’s discuss the different types of characters gamers can play as and why it matters.
Back in the early days of gaming, the design of the player character ultimately didn’t matter. Mario is such an iconic character because he has regularly appeared in some really great games, but ultimately, the fact that he’s a portly plumber with a sweet moustache doesn’t really have much of an impact on the games as a whole. If you replaced Mario’s sprite in the original NES game with, say, a purple dog, but kept everything else the same, you’d still have an immensely important, enjoyable platformer on your hands.
Blank slate protagonists work for many different kinds of games. The Super Mario franchise is, nine times out of ten, completely uninterested in telling an engaging story, and instead is focused on challenging the player with well-realized, enjoyable mechanics. The early days of gaming are filled with characters like these who have almost completely undefined personality and simply act as a means for the player to engage with the game’s world. The original Final Fantasy, numerous Zelda titles, Metroid, and so many more give players the ability to control characters with little in the way of development. And for these kinds of games, that’s completely 100% fine.
But as games have evolved and changed since the early days of the industry, so too have the stories they tell. And with that change comes characters who are more fleshed out. An early, if unorthodox, example of this would be the Soul Reaver series, which sees players control Raziel on a revenge mission to take down his once-mentor Kain after being betrayed by him. The entire Legacy of Kain series has a narrative throughline that was extremely ambitious for its time, and Raziel feels like he has more agency and stake in the story than in someone like Link in the original Legend of Zelda.
Of course, creating characters with fully fleshed out back stories and motivations has led to some problematic instances of ludonarrative dissonance. It’s a problem that particularly came into prominence near the end of the first decade of the 2000s when AAA games became largely linear experiences more akin to interactive movies than anything else. It’s been talked about to death, but a character like Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series is difficult to empathize with when he slaughters his fellow man by the hundreds and shows no remorse for doing so.
Shooters are enjoyable, sure, but when you’re asked to sympathize with someone who is so ready to murder for their own gain, it really leads to some unintentional disconnect between the player and the protagonist. Of course, this can be used to a game’s advantage, as is the case with Spec Ops: The Line, where the whole point of the story is depicting what would actually happen to a real person when they commit violence on such a grand scale.
Still, other games balance this by letting the player depict their own version of the main character. Western RPGs like Mass Effect and Fallout allow players to determine the personality and backstory of who they’re playing as. In the best instances, this works very well in letting the player feel like a part of the narrative, but it doesn’t always pay off if the game’s writing is lacking. Even something less apparently choice-driven like Dishonored still allows players to determine if Corvo Attano is a man seeking violent justice or a man looking to pacify and expose his enemies through non-lethal means. But these characters are, for the most part, blank slates. In the first game, Corvo doesn’t speak and has minimal backstory beyond being a disgraced guard for the queen.
The point of all of this is that there are numerous ways for video games to create an engaging player character that gamers can connect with. It’s all about what kind of game you’re playing, and sometimes the best of intentions can lead to unintended flaws. It’s all about finding the right balance of character agency and them being a blank slate.
Before continuing any further, I will be discussing elements of Kiryu’s backstory that crop up throughout the Yakuza franchise. I’ll be keeping spoilers to a minimum, but you’ve been warned.
Anyways, Kiryu has a classic criminal history. Raised with his sworn brother Nishiki in an orphanage as a kid, and eventually brought into the Yakuza lifestyle by Kazama Shintaro, in Yakuza 0 we see him leave the Dojima family he belongs to after he is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. His strong sense of justice allows him to leave behind everything he had been fighting to gain, but he is ultimately better off because of his ability to break away from the crime family he’s been a part of. But even before the main plot kicks off, we see him and Nishiki enjoy a night out on the town and participate in an extremely goofy but kind of awesome karaoke song. Seeing such a serious, perpetually scowling man in such a weird situation is inherently funny, but it also reveals elements of Kiryu’s personality that I will come back to later.
Being raised by Kazama has allowed Kiryu to develop his own strong personal philosophy that he adheres to regardless of the situation he finds himself in or the odds stacked against him. We later find out in Yakuza Kiwami that Kazama actually killed Kiryu’s parents. In fact, the orphanage he and Nishiki grew up in is actually populated by children whose parents Kazama has killed. Despite this, Kiryu’s history allows him to reveal that he considers Kazama to be his only true parent in the world. And while on the surface, this seems like Kiryu being honorable to a fault, it actually reveals the more tragic side to Kiryu: despite believing so much in honor and being a good person, he is ultimately a victim of the very system he tries to break away from again and again throughout the series.
Despite his still-questionable beliefs in Kazama being an honorable man, this ultimately has a positive effect on the world around Kiryu, as later on in the series, starting with the third installment, he starts running an orphanage, recognizing the need for kids without parental figures to have a place they can call home due to his own history. His early days come to inform everything he does throughout the series, and sets a precedent for how he follows his own code no matter what.
Still Something of a Blank Slate
The aforementioned opening of Yakuza 0, where Kiryu and Nishiki enjoy a night out in Kamurocho, a fictionalized version of Japan’s red-light district, actually does a fantastic job setting up the gameplay of the series for newcomers. I myself was new to the series when I played this prequel but in hindsight, the series writers did a great job showing why Kiryu, someone so serious all the time, indulges in all the goofy shenanigans he does.
Despite ostensibly being an open-world game, the Yakuza series takes a vastly different approach from its Western counterparts regarding the ways it entertains players. In something like Grand Theft Auto, or my personal favorite sandbox series Just Cause, the emphasis is on players creating their own chaos with a specific set of mechanics. You can go anywhere, commit wanton murder, get away with it, and generally be as maniacal and mayhem inducing as you’d like. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these kinds of games as much as anyone else (although I’m not a big fan of Rockstar). These kinds of games offer pure power fantasy and can be a great way to blow off steam after a stressful day at work. They’re indulgent in our darkest sides and revel in letting the player cause destruction.
The Yakuza series takes an entirely different approach to the idea of an open world; instead turning it into something of an adventure game at times. You can’t go on rampages; in fact, in the fifth entry, there’s an extensive taxi driving side game where you lose points for breaking traffic laws. It feels like a direct response to games like Grand Theft Auto, where the goal is to let the player do whatever they want. Instead, Yakuza focuses on being something of a virtual tourism pamphlet for the various cities players can explore.
The primary location, Kamurocho, isn’t exactly a 1-to-1 recreation of its real-life inspiration Kabuchiko, but quick internet searches indicate that it’s pretty dang close. There’s a painstaking level of detail put into each city, making it as close to real life as possible while still letting the player indulge in a heightened, fantasy-based reality (apparently, even things like cab fares are accurate to the time and place each game takes place in). Each segment of gameplay is sort of sequestered from the others. Combat sees players being transported into a mini arena on the mean streets of Kamurocho, while story cut scenes call into question the canonicity of all the side activities and brutal street fights Kiryu takes place in.
Going back to Yakuza 0’s opening segment, players are made to play karaoke and fight some drunk guys. It lets players know that sure, the different things you can do might be disconnected from one another, but they should indulge in them whenever they want to. It also shows that, like the player, Kiryu is curious about what kind of shenanigans are in store for him while exploring around town.
This does create ludonarrative dissonance in so many ways, but the execution of the side content allows for everything to feel plausible in the game’s world. Kiryu puts his all into everything he does, including picking up a telephone, and in this way, the player can very easily relate to Kiryu even though they likely aren’t a completely ripped former Yakuza member.
One of the most well-known jokes/ memes surrounding the series is the idea that Kiryu doesn’t kill anyone. The combat in these games allow players to perform all kinds of ridiculously brutal actions on their enemies, including straight-up shooting them, breaking their limbs, stabbing them multiple times with a katana, and so much more. But like all the mini-games, the combat feels sequestered off from the main narrative, and the fact that it’s so over the top means it’s easier to accept the idea that Kiryu has never killed anyone despite the fact that he just threw a guy off the top and under the wheels of a speeding truck.
At the end of the day, Kiryu is just as interested in the world he inhabits as the player is. Thanks to his strong moral code, he wants to help people with their problems in each game’s numerous substories, which are often hilarious, sometimes emotional, and on occasion scary. His belief in helping others and defending those who can’t help themselves allow for all of the hilarious situations he finds himself in feel consistent with his character. And the fact that he’s so serious just enhances the comedic elements.
In other words, his back story and demeanor still allow players to connect with him in any situation, whether it’s the deathly serious story scenes or a whacky tale of him helping out a plumber who’s crapped their pants.
But even more so than that, his personal code means that players want to be Kiryu.
Beliefs Worth Following
Before I started playing Yakuza 0, I had a very different idea of the kind of character I’d be playing as. I thought it would be a morally ambiguous man who is unafraid to get his hands dirty to do what’s necessary for his crime family. Maybe he has a good heart, but he would still be a dark, violent individual with a haunted past. Instead, what I got was a character who oftentimes functions as the sole guiding light in a dark, brutal world.
While public opinion in Japan wavers on the real-life Yakuza, there’s no denying that they are, at the end of the day, a criminal organization. Extortion, murder, human trafficking; if you can name the crime, chances are the Yakuza have had a hand in it. It’s curious, then, that the idea of being a Yakuza is supposed to be something a bit more idealized. The view is often that they are groups of men doing what needs to be done outside of the law, and that the ends justify the means.
Kiryu is essentially an embodiment of this idealized version of the Yakuza, a man who sets an example for all others around him. He believes in helping people and treating everyone with an equal amount of respect, assuming they are deserving of it. Throughout the series, there are substories after substories of Kiryu either putting someone back on a more legitimate path, or of helping them out of a very bad situation. Despite how weird a lot of the people he interacts with are, he rarely if ever judges them for their quirks of problems. Unless they threaten an innocent or put him in a position where he has to let his fists do the talking.
It’s most evident in his treatment of sex workers. He has all kinds of run-ins with people who work in the sex industry, with one of the first substories in Yakuza 0 being one where he helps a dominatrix gain her confidence by practicing conversations with her. He never rolls his eyes at the fact that she’s a dominatrix, and instead actively helps her become better at her profession. It’s an interesting, unique angle to take when people in the real world look down on sex workers so often.
Even more so than that, he flies in the face of the worst traits of the hyper-masculine. He will listen carefully to people’s problems and do his best to find a solution that works for them rather than imposing his own point of view on them. Despite his super tough-guy exterior, there are many moments throughout the series, both in the main storylines and in the side content, where he is unafraid to express his emotions, whether it’s sorrow, humor, or anything else you can imagine. He is very much in touch with his own emotions and beliefs and stands in stark contrast to the various antagonists he squares off against.
In the best stories in the series, the antagonists are dark reflections of Kiryu himself. The first game, where Kiryu spends ten years in prison after taking the fall for a murder Nishiki committed, shows what happens when he isn’t there to guide his sworn brother on the right path. The game’s story is admittedly convoluted, but the beating heart of the tale is his relationship with Nishiki. Nishiki is ultimately revealed to be the villain and commits various murders and betrayals to further his own power. Without Kiryu keeping him on the straight and narrow, he becomes the polar opposite of his sworn brother; violent, murderous, greedy, power-hungry, and ultimately very fragile. The ultimate showdown between the two characters is more than just two buff dudes beating the snot out of one another; it’s very much Kiryu confronting who he could have been in another life.
The same goes for the following entries, with the second game introducing Ryuji Goda, another Yakuza member who wants to be the only “dragon” in the entire world. Because of this desire for power and his hatred of Kiryu, he sets into motion various terrorist attacks and almost blows up the entirety of Kamurocho, all for the sake of defeating Kiryu. Meanwhile, in the somewhat weaker third entry, the main antagonist Mine is a man who bought his way into the Yakuza. In fact, he bought every aspect of his own life; he runs a family because of his money, he has allies because of his money, and he has respect because of his money. The problem is that none of his relationships are genuine; a stark contrast to Kiryu who at this point is leading a fulfilled life running an orphanage and shares real connections with the children he takes care of.
His stance on doing the right thing serves as the anchor for players. No, he is not a realistic character, and yes, in some ways he is a masculine stereotype, but the fact remains that Kiryu is an idealized hero that players enjoy controlling because he reflects the best parts of ourselves. He’s caring, he enjoys spending time with his fellow man, but he is also able to stand up for what he believes in thanks to his well-toned physique and fighting skills. In a more realistic setting, Kiryu would be a laughable caricature of the creators’ idea of a good person, but in the heightened and often very silly reality of the Yakuza franchise, he allows players to connect with their own values and beliefs.
What It All Means
At the end of the day, the Yakuza series is as much about people trying to do the right thing in a very broken world as it is about interacting with whacky characters and fully fleshed out mini-games. The series shows Kiryu trying to break away from his own past time and time again, but he repeatedly is drawn back in due to his inability to stand by while evil men cause others to suffer. The antagonists he fights are reflective of how the real world works. They’re selfish, violent, and care for little more than their own ambitions and goals. Sadly, people like this are often the winners in this world. Don’t believe me? Look at the state of American politics and tell me I’m wrong.
For all these reasons, Kazuma Kiryu is the ultimate heroic gaming protagonist. He has a fully fleshed out, sympathetic back story, and the way his character is written makes him an idealized version of the average player. He is someone with the extraordinary ability to fight back at the injustices of the world he inhabits and struggles against the way his society works every chance he gets.
No, he isn’t realistic. No, the Yakuza series isn’t really grounded in reality despite its outward appearances. But through Kazuma Kiryu, players can engage with a world where the morally right are able to combat the evils of everyday living. In this way, he is one of gaming’s absolute best protagonists. Despite being a victim of an unjust world, he stays true to what he believes in and lets players see the best parts of themselves in him.