Note: This contains very obvious spoilers for Yakuza: Like a Dragon. You’ve been warned.
There’s still goodness in the world.
Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that, and it’s not the core message I expected being pushed so hard in a Yakuza game. That’s not to say that the Yakuza games push darkness exclusively. Kiryu’s story, followed from Yakuza 0 through Yakuza 6, was one of a stoic badass who grew tender with age and time, making the end of his story tough to swallow for fans of the series. Introducing a newer character was always going to be a tough sell, and I’ll admit, early in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I was less-than-excited about playing a Yakuza game as this goofy, emotionally unstable Ichiban Kasuga.
What transpired over the next 50-plus hours was watching this character evolve and impact the world around him without giving up on his core values. Ichiban changed little, which isn’t to say his character is static, because he isn’t, instead he helped change his world for the better. When a new challenge presented itself to him, Ichiban met it with the same vigor and compassion that he wanted from others, even when met with crushing disappointment by those same people that physically assaulted him or even shot and left in a ditch in critical condition. The eager kid who practically begged to do time in prison to protect his crime family and prove himself, who only had an extended sentence because someone insulted his boss and got a reply of an epic beating, gave up the prime of his life for a concept and refused to give up on those people that seemingly wanted nothing to do with him.
Because he believed in them.
Living in the US has been an interesting array of ups and downs throughout my lifetime, although it would be difficult to say if things have ever seemed as bleak as they do now. Throughout my entire life power has shifted in the direction of the wealthy, ruling class, often with unwavering support from a public willing to buy any promise for a better future that deep down inside know the better future being sold to them will never come, but losing hope would mean embracing drastic change and their lives, which are already challenging, could get harder to make this change happen. And it’s not their fault for buying a fiction like this, because at one time these promises were mostly put into action, albeit for limited classes of people. Even so, there was a time when there was at least an illusion of elected officials working for the people to improve lives instead of whatever this is now.
Unless you’re wealthy beyond your imagination, you’ve felt this and lived it.
Which is why Yakuza: Like a Dragon hit hard in 2020. The story centers on a contrast between Ichiban Kasuga, a man born in a brothel and raised by their staff after his mother fled, and Ryo Aoki, a wealthy bureaucrat who was handed the world and merely craved more power. Kasuga has ever reason to be angry with the world and the people that failed him when he wakes up after serving an 18 year jail time for his crime family only to get snubbed by the boss who claimed Kasuga was like a son to him, then shot by him and left for dead in a homeless camp in the neighboring Iljincho. There he was, being nursed back to health by a camp of homeless men living a communal life, with a hole in his chest, both literally and figuratively. We’re treated to a rather humanizing view of the homeless people, how they help each other, how no matter Kasuga’s best efforts to just “get jobs” and fix their problems, there’s more complexity than that to the situation.
Where most would find despair and hopelessness, Kasuga refuses to give up on not just himself, but the people who hurt him. He learns early on, though, that he can’t do everything alone, instead forging strong bonds with several unlikely allies, from a disgraced detective trying to make sense of the corruption that led to his dismissal, to a homeless nurse with a nihilistic view of the world and more. The friends Kasuga made would be classified as losers by most with money and power. The dregs of society that were failures for one reason or another, sometimes because of corrupt, broken systems, sometimes their own personal failings, or most of the time a combination of both. It depicts no one as being without fault, including Kasuga. He was a yakuza after all, right? The overwhelming emotional responses Kasuga displayed in the early parts of the story never went away, instead he found healthy ways to channel that energy into helping the people around him. His own ascent from a mostly cold body in a homeless camp to challenging the Governor of Tokyo and chair of the Citizen’s Liberal Party (a riff on Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party, a right-wing party with lots of power in Japan) only made sense because of the relationships he forged with other people, each who had their own problems that he was more-than-willing to help them with.
This ranged from owners of small restaurants, brothels and even the leader of the homeless camp until it expanded out and the legend of Ichiban Kasuga, a crusader for good, a hero (I mean, the whole thing is wrapped up in a veneer of his delusion of being a Dragon Quest hero) spread throughout the city. There were times, in typical Yakuza fashion, where the commentary felt ridiculous and over-the-top, like the very idea of “Bleach Japan,” a conservative group on the side of “light” looking to expose the “gray areas” where people took advantage of lack of regulation or oversight. Stuff like brothels or how the three rival gangs controlled the heart of the city because of rampant corruption. I mean, their name is literally abbreviated as “BJ” and they were very much against sex workers. Right? Right? When you fight them, the average member’s power is to lob unsubstantiated accusations at a character to cast the “silence” malady on them. But the further in you get, the more nuance arises.
These aren’t one-dimensional caricatures of zealots who just go out to do and say ridiculous things. They’re political pawns being used by the powerful to further an agenda and consolidate power. Ryo Aoki was one of the founders of the organization and used its nationalist, populist message to give people a feeling of empowerment. Bleach Japan created “others” to blame for their problems, deflecting the people with true power’s refusal to help and make things better for the average person. If this is sounding familiar, it should. America’s problems are not uniquely American, they’re universal, they’re things that have happened multiple times throughout history with a clear blueprint for how these things go. Yuta Kume, the passionate foot soldier for Bleach Japan turns into Ryo Aoki’s hand-selected political candidate in his district, not because of any of the traits Kume displays, but his undying loyalty to the cause and willingness to surrender to Aoki’s political agenda. Replace the “BJ” signs with MAGA hats and Kume is a veritable Laura Loomer, who got a few RTs from Trump and launched her own political career off of it, parroting his talking points and bringing nothing of value to anything she was doing.
This game came out in January 2020 in Japan, by the way. None of the things that happen in this game have to be prophetic because they’re based on how these types of powerful, corrupt figures rise to power by using people and pitting the average person against their neighbor. Kasuga gets roped into politics to be a political rival to Kume, not because he wants to, but because the people within his community trust him, believe in him and know even if he fails, he spoke for them against an oppressive power and someone being handed power who only looked to make their lives worse.
Through all of this, though… Kasuga never gave in to the despair. When the Geomijul revealed the truth behind Namba’s quest, that he was searching for his missing journalist brother that was investigating them and using Kasuga to get to him, it was a shocking betrayal. If only because Kasuga would have embraced this and fought side-by-side with Namba to help find and free his brother, no matter the cost. Namba’s betrayal leads to him being a temporary adversary, and it crushes Kasuga, only for Kasuga to immediately offer his hand to Namba when the smoke cleared to continue helping him and accept him as a friend, even with the betrayal. Not because Kasuga is weak or has no self-worth, but because there’s good in people, even when they do bad things. People aren’t lost forever just for making selfish decisions and mistakes.
To Kasuga anyone can be redeemed as long as they’re willing to put in the work.
No, not everyone will be redeemed and not all misdeeds should be immediately forgiven, that’s never the message he sends. Instead, it’s one of compassion and understanding.
Let me repeat that here: the central message of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is for compassion and understanding.
I’m not kidding here. That’s the message of this game with this character. Arakawa, his adopted father, literally shot him through the heart (well, he missed, probably intentionally, right?) and all Kasuga wanted to do was help him. Namba betrayed him and sold him out for information on his missing brother, and all Kasuga wanted to do was see Namba reunited with his brother because he loves him. Vicious adversaries like Joon gi-han and Tianyou Zhao don’t just go from bitter rivals to allies, they go from rivals to party members and dear friends. The Iljincho Three, the rival gang leaders, all try to kill Kasuga to keep their tenuous balance of power in check and when given a chance of revenge on any and all of them, Kasuga instead listens to them to understand where they’re coming from and why they do what they do. When he realizes they’ve all been working together from the start to create a barrier for their people from the outside world that looked to displace and harm them, he’s angry, and justifiably so as he’s been trying to help people that were being harmed by their underlings, but he finds the reasons and the logic. He finds the good and helps them to be better.
The parity between Aoki and Kasuga is not just apparent, it’s blatant. Their backgrounds were virtually identical, right down to both of them being in adjacent storage lockers. The sons of Sawashiro and Arakawa, both abandoned in storage lockers at a train station and only one ended up with the lottery of a powerful, loving father. Even with that, it was never enough for Kasuga’s rival, who traveled abroad to get expensive medical treatment, study at the best schools and return a literal different person with nothing on his mind but overcoming his personal shames by seizing power and making the people who made him feel small pay for their cruelty.
Kasuga, on the other hand, was on the short end of the storage locker roll of the dice. He grew up with nothing, from a family to an identity to any sense of security. To gain the attention of his actual (well, probably) father, he waited outside in the cold every day just for this man’s glance and acknowledgement. When told to go to prison for a murder Sawashiro claimed to commit, but was actually Masato’s… he did it, not just out of duty and honor, but out of loyalty and love for these people. Masato took that time to become a new person and seize power to harm people.
Even through all of this, and all the times Aoki attempted to have Kasuga smeared, murdered and left for dead… even after having their shared father murdered to further consolidate power… Kasuga wanted nothing more than for his “brother” to be a better person and live a happy, honest life. He saw the selfish, angry man bent on revenge on the world for never giving him a fair shake, even though he had just about everything he could ever need, and just wanted him to be a better person for himself and the surrounding people. Kasuga lived the life of building a better world that Aoki claimed to be doing and he did it by helping the downtrodden with respect and dignity, instead of sneering and turning his nose up at them, then pandering to the people that wanted to hurt them.
It’s not because Kasuga is weak. It’s because Kasuga is strong enough to understand the power of goodness that exists within all of us.
In an age where games are looking to tell “dark,” “gritty” and “cinematic” stories, Yakuza does all of this without falling into the trap of nihilism. Instead, Yakuza gives a message of hope and a clear blueprint of how to make the world around each of us better through helping each other, forgiveness, compassion and understanding. So while people heap praise on Naughty Dog games sowing nihilism and “people are shit, huh?” games like Yakuza bring gorgeous and brilliant direction (I took over 350 screenshots throughout this because of how brilliantly the cut scenes were framed and lit) and show that there’s more to the world’s darkness than falling into despair, there’s hope. There’s goodness, we just need to work for it.