Check out this intriguing piece by Kit Sun Cheah, readers!
Yakuza 0 and the Art of Writing the Anti-Criminal
Kiryu Kazuma is a bad guy.
Kiryu Kazuma isn’t a bad guy.
The main protagonist of most of the games in the long-running Yakuza franchise, Kiryu Kazuma is the heart and soul of the series. Yakuza 0 explores his origins as a low-level member of the Dojima-gumi and his involvement in an underworld struggle to secure a piece of valuable real estate in the red light district of Kamurocho in 1988.
The game opens with Kiryu working as a small-time debt collector. He tracks down a client to an empty lot, beats him down, and makes off with his wallet. No matter how you cut it, this is a crime. Kiryu is undoubtedly a member of the criminal underworld. After this less-than-ideal first impression, however, Kiryu’s true nature shines through.
A Man of Honor
The Japanese yakuza claim to follow a code of honor. Kiryu is one of the exceedingly few yakuza members to take the code seriously. Yakuza he might be, but through most of the game—and the series—it becomes clear that Kiryu is much closer to a classic hero.
After collecting the debt in the opening scene, Kiryu meets the loan shark who gave him the assignment. After giving Kiryu his cut, the loan shark offers to hire him. Kiryu turns him down, claiming that once you join the yakuza, there’s no turning back. In a later scene, Kiryu declares that he joined the Dojima-gumi solely out of loyalty to his foster father, Kazama Shintaro. Together, these scenes demonstrate that Kiryu is a man of unwavering loyalty.
Debt collection aside, Kiryu refrains from wrongdoing for most of the game. Traditional Yakuza criminal activities span the gamut from drug dealing to human trafficking, fraud to protection rackets, prostitution to smuggling. Kiryu does not engage in any of these. He refuses to harm a civilian. If he encounters a person being harassed on the street, you can choose to have him intervene. This reinforces the image of Kiryu as a reasonably moral person.
Which is not to say he is not a criminal. He does engage in crime, but it is morally excusable to the player. One of his main sources of income is shaking down other criminals for cash. Even so, these shakedowns are justified.
The seedy streets of Kamurocho are filled with yakuza, bikers, and assorted ne’er do wells. If they catch sight of Kiryu, they chase him down, and if they catch up to him, a fight begins.
Kiryu doesn’t walk around starting fights with people on the street. But lots, and lots, and lots, of bad guys want to pick a fight with him. Every street fight is framed as self-defense, making it morally justifiable. This perception of morality extends to taking their money. The player feels that the bad guys deserved it.
In a peaceful society, justified or no, such violence would not tolerated. Kamurocho, however, is not peaceful. The huge fortunes concentrated in the district attract hordes of bad guys. There is literally a group of criminals hanging around on every street. Every few minutes, they gang up on an innocent civilian. Kiryu encounters hundreds of bad guys in the course of the game.