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Where the Yakuza Roam

Anthony John Agnello | 25 Jan 2012 14:00
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Yakuza is first and foremost a homecoming story. It's a gangster story too, as well as a weird comedy, and a manga-infused action epic. The series is filled with posturing, lantern-jawed dudes that pick street fights with random pedestrians. These dudes can also deftly remove a suit jacket and shirt in a single swipe without tearing a thing. These shenanigans, though, are framed around Kazuma Kiryu, the "Dragon of Dojima," and his complicated relationship with Kamurocho, a lovingly rendered fictional mirror of Tokyo's Kabukicho red-light district.

Coming home is a big, useful story tool that can instantly pull a player into both the characters and the play.

An orphan raised by the hitman that killed his birth parents, Kazuma is constantly drawn back to the city of his youth. The first game opens when he's framed for the death of Sohei Dojima, chairman of the Dojima Family of the Tojo yakuza clan. He then returns to Kamurocho after ten years in prison, a hardened man who, like many hobos, is befuddled by how his home and loved ones have changed. (Hobo, by the way, is an abbreviation of "homeward bound," not just a shabby train rider with a penchant for beans.) By the end of the first game and the beginning of the second, Kazuma has established himself as a legend amongst his fellow yakuza and as an honorable protector of Kamurocho's citizens. Cleared of his sins, Kazuma's relationship with Kamurocho is scarred, but healed. As with so many homecomings as well, Kazuma makes peace with his family.

Even as the Dojima clan calls for Kazuma to return as permanent chairman, the hero wishes to retire and create a new home for himself, but first he needs to make sure the clan and city are secure under new leadership. With his legacy safe, he's free to build a new life and by the beginning of Yakuza 3, he has. Kazuma moves to Okinawa and opens an orphanage, where he enjoys a peaceful respite before he's drawn back to Kamurocho again, this time to unravel a conspiracy involving the CIA and to protect his orphanage from closure. In the fourth game, Kazuma is drawn back to Kamurocho once more, this time to help three other men with complicated histories in the city. (Namely, a once-homeless loan shark who made his fortune thanks to Kazuma in the first game, a half-Thai cop treated as an outsider in the city he grew up in, and a long-imprisoned yakuza hitman.)

Just when I thought I was out, etc.

Homecomings aren't uncommon in games. Gears of War 3 actually broke the series' streak of torpid melodrama with a sequence of real power that involved, of all characters, Augustus "Coletrain" Cole returning to what's left of his ravaged home city. Coming home is a big, useful story tool that can instantly pull a player into both the characters and the play. It's reliable emotional artillery, but it's not one used best by Yakuza. The series' strength is more subtle. It allows Kazuma Kiryu the space to quietly reflect on his history in the city without recapping that history with dry dialogue and exposition. Every game in the series has Kazuma walking through the bright red arch at the mouth of Tenkaichi Street in Kamurocho, and it always lets that moment breathe. In the original Yakuza, it's a moment of tension and sadness-the free man reflects on the bondage of lost youth, sets his mouth, and then moves on to break up a nasty fight in front of a posh new club he doesn't recognize. By the time he walks through that arch in Yakuza 4, he's an older, wiser man embracing the fact that he cannot, no matter how hard he tries, escape his roots.

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