"The Family" Business
Playing the Hand You're Dealt

Pat Miller | 17 Nov 2009 12:41
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Considering the history of classist tension between the common folk that made up the Yakuza and the Edo-era samurai class and Meiji police force, it's a little bit easier to see why Yakuza's Kazuma Kiryu is a gangster rather than a policeman. Police in Japan are commonly perceived as incompetent when it comes to dealing with violent crimes, and their reputation for Yakuza prosecution is even worse. Anyone who's ever watched an episode of Law and Order knows about the Witness Protection Program and the RICO Act; the Japanese police have neither at their disposal. Thus, while it's not hard for the police to figure out who's who in the Yakuza scene, it is next to impossible for them to do anything about it (which is why Yakuza's Detective Mako Date is practically useless). Needless to say, casting Kazuma as a cop would probably blow Japanese players' minds.

Kazuma Kiryu, the People's Champ

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After reading up on the Yakuza's historical legacy, it's not hard to see why Kazuma Kiryu doesn't quite fit the criminal mold we expect. Gangsters in American movies are about manipulating, intimidating, killing and making money; Kazuma, meanwhile, seems content to beat up his fellow gangsters for chump change. What's more, those fellow gangsters spend more time drinking, brawling and stealing from each other than they spend hustling. Yakuza doesn't break my suspension of disbelief after Kazuma takes on an entire squadron of rival gangsters at once; it breaks it when I see countless anonymous guys in flashy suits walk around without so much as lifting a finger to steal the money needed to buy said flashy suit.

Nitpicky? Maybe a little bit - after all, the game is concerned with presenting a story, not a simulation of Japanese gangster life. But the story it presents is a bit too concerned with keeping Kazuma's hands clean for my taste. In Yakuza, you protect a beef bowl storeowner from gangster harassment; a real Yakuza would drive off the rival gangsters and charge the storeowner a "protection fee" himself. In Yakuza, most of the fights go down with knives and chairs at worst; a real Yakuza wouldn't have any problem getting his hands on a gun. And in Yakuza, Kazuma spends most of his time protecting a little girl named Haruka, eventually going so far as to take her and other orphans under his wing. However, the real Kazuma would have been more likely to use her to cash in on the underground appetite for child pornography, which Japan's National Police Agency Organized Crime Division recently acknowledged as big business for the Yakuza. In short, no game portrays the old romantic Yakuza image - and glosses over their dirty work - quite like those of the Yakuza series.

Real Gangsters

But the historical perception of the Yakuza as champions of the common people stands in stark contrast to the organization's modern reality. While it may have started out with a semi-legitimate protection role in feudal Japan, the contemporary Yakuza is a full-on international crime syndicate. The Yakuza are responsible for "importing" the women of Japan's prostitution industry from China, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil and Russia by telling them they can get jobs as receptionists and secretaries in Japan, then burying them in debt once they arrive. The same goes for guns and drugs: The amphetamines that fuel Japan's high-speed lifestyle are produced in China and smuggled into Japan via Hong Kong with the cooperation of the Triads, as are firearms, which are notoriously heavily restricted in Japan.

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