Yakuza is a Reflection on the Struggle to Keep Up with Changing Times
Time is an element that no human can control, as it marches on relentlessly. The passage of time is a concept that many video games over the years have tried to capture, but few manage to really say something meaningful on the subject. That’s exactly what makes the Yakuza games such a unique experience, as it’s one of the only series out there that truly captures a city changing over the decades—and its core cast of characters struggling to not get left behind.
The Yakuza series takes place in the city of Kamurocho, which is based on the actual red-light district of Kabukicho in Tokyo, Japan. Although the first game’s story kicked things off in 1995, over the years the series has explored a variety of different times, from 1988 in Yakuza 0 to 2019 in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Playing the series in chronological order is like looking into a fascinating time capsule of Japan, seeing how the entertainment district changes in leaps and bounds; after all, Kamurocho is based on the real thing.
Wandering the streets of Kamurocho in the 80s bathes you in glimmering neon lights and disco music, while pachinko parlors dot nearly every street. As you move onto the later Yakuza games, those dazzling neon emblems are replaced by electronic signs and fluorescent lighting, with more variety to the buildings starting to be added. Iconic buildings you frequented in Yakuza 0 are now replaced with new shops, massive karaoke bars, arcades, and more. Perhaps most emblematic of how the city changes is the iconic Millenium Tower, the fearsome skyscraper completely absent in the skyline of Yakuza 0, yet the building plays a vital role in later games.
Each time you boot up a Yakuza game, it’s like returning to your favorite vacation spot; it’s all familiar and reassuring, but still new and different at the same time.
While the city changes and grows, so do its characters, but Yakuza is a series about the old making way for the new. The iconic series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is along for every step of the ride, and he starts out as a hip, headstrong youth wandering the streets of Kamurocho. After Kiryu goes to jail for ten years, however, he finds Kamurocho has left him behind.
The concept of cell phones is foreign to him, and the game uses some brilliant designs to illustrate Kiryu learning the ropes of technology. In Yakuza 3, he blogs about crazy things he sees and it teaches him new skills, and a “chat” minigame in Yakuza 6 shows Kiryu hilariously talking to a girl while typing with one finger.
Kiryu is “old-school” in every sense of the word, even choosing to rely on his fists while enemies prefer to pick up new weapons like guns. The changes of age are also shown on Kiryu’s character model, as Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio puts immense effort into his look with each game. Kiryu’s eyes start to look a little more sunken each game, and grey creeps into his brilliant spiky hair.
That in and of itself is a stark reminder of how fast time moves. The technology used to build the Yakuza games has grown in leaps and bounds over the years, and while the very first game couldn’t properly portray wrinkles on a character’s face, the Dragon Engine used now has some of the most impressive facial animations in all of video games. As Kiryu has grown up, so has the technology used to build him.
The first time I played a Yakuza game, I was younger, still trying to earn my college degree and living with roommates in the process. By the time I played Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, however, I was out of college and starting to look at my future in my career and life in general. It was surprisingly poignant to see Kiryu start to grapple with the struggles of fatherhood, while at the same time I started to think about the potential of starting a family, or what that would even look like.
So many of us have grown up playing video games, and at least in some way, the time we’ve spent with them have shaped us as people. As much as we may love something, though, it can’t last forever, and Yakuza knows that.
With that in mind, Yakuza 6 puts a bow on the story of Kazuma Kiryu as the story sees him go into hiding to protect the ones he loves. Kiryu has always been synonymous with the idea of Yakuza, but at some point, he has to move on for the series to stay relevant. It’s an admonition that at some point we all have to move on and face our own mortality, realizing we may not be able to do all the things we’d dreamed of.
At their core, the Yakuza games are hugely entertaining, but digging a little deeper reveals thoughtful experiences that ponder the nature of life. If video games are a product of their time, each Yakuza is a freeze-frame of the time it was made, and that’s an idea that’s equally beautiful and heart-rending.