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Somehow, the image of the noble Yakuza has endured. No doubt some of this is due to a cultural inclination to hide, ignore or otherwise cover up the shameful elements of one's own society. Prostitution, drug and firearm smuggling, white-collar graft and loan sharking could alternatively be rationalized as "victimless crimes," or, at the very least, crimes that wouldn't affect a good law-abiding citizen. Perhaps the strangest contributor to the Yakuza's innocuous image, however, is the Yakuza's connection to right-wing Japanese nationalism, both during Japan's post-war rebuilding process as well as its current connections to fringe right-wing organizations called "uyoku dantai." Yes, somewhere between the sex trafficking and corporate fraud is a true Japanese patriot trying to restore the former empire's pride.
Honor and Humanity
This isn't to say that the noble Yakuza image is the only one in circulation, however. While we haven't seen much in the way of GTA-esque Yakuza games quite yet, film director/actor Takeshi Kitano and director Takashi Miike are both known for exploring deeper themes through Yakuza films. Kitano's Brother, for example, portrays the ruthlessness of an organized crime syndicate with a remarkable level of sympathy for the characters, while Miike is best known for the ultraviolent cult classic Ichi the Killer, whose Yakuza enforcer protagonist Kakihara is about as far from Robin Hood as you could possibly get.
The shift in perception from Yakuza as heroes to Yakuza as gangsters is commonly attributed to a lack of "jingi," a Japanese word commonly translated as "honor and humanity." Battles Without Honor or Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai) became the title of a series of five Yakuza movies from the 1970s directed by Kinji Fukusaku (who would later become famous for the gory cult classic, Battle Royale). Adapted from a series of newspaper articles about crime in post-war Hiroshima, these films were characterized by an overwhelming sense of futility and a perpetual state of internal violence not unlike the Godfather movies. Yet that futility and violence hardly comes up in Sega's Yakuza games, despite the fact that 90 percent of Kazuma's opponents are fellow Yakuza.
The Yakuza series keeps continuing, of course; though Yakuza 3's U.S. release status is somewhat ambiguous, production on Yakuza 4 has already started. Further Yakuza games by Sega are unlikely to bring out Kazuma's darker side anytime soon, considering it would take a series reboot roughly equivalent to what we've seen Resident Evil go through over the last few years. Then again, Grand Theft Auto has done well in Japan, and game designer Goichi Suda is probably the closest we have to a Takashi Miike of videogames, so perhaps we'll see a gritty, fatalistic game about the real Yakuza someday. But until that happens, we're going to have to be satisfied with our babysitting, bare-knuckle brawling Kazuma Kiryu, because that's all we've got.