Sunday, January 10, 2021

Yakuza 0 and the Art of Writing the Anti-Criminal

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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.

Outside of cutscenes, the police are nowhere in sight. They do not patrol the streets to clear out the riffraff, they do not investigate the countless street fights and crimes, they do not even show their faces. Throughout the game, there is only one cop who, occasionally, chips in to help you—and even then, you have to pay him to do his job!

Without effective law enforcement, the strong rule the streets. Kiryu, however, fights only to defend himself or others. He becomes a protector of the innocent. During street fights, you can even see bystanders in the background cheering him on. With such positive perceptions of Kiryu, and without a competent police force willing to do their jobs, no player would feel any qualms from taking money from bad guys.

Further, when fighting enemies, Kiryu exercises mercy. He holds nothing back in battle, but once an enemy is defeated, he lets him live. After street fights, defeated enemies are seen limping away, muttering apologies under their breath. While Kiryu will unhesitatingly use weapons and brutal finishers against his foes, he will never harm anyone who can no longer threaten him and his friends. For this reason, the franchise claims that Kiryu has never killed a man.

(A better translation would be 'has never murdered a man in cold blood'.)

This trait, alas, is one of his greatest weaknesses. Throughout the game, Kiryu is forced to fight recurring enemies because he didn't finish them the first time around. In one such encounter, a boss explicitly calls out this behaviour, mocking Kiryu for his weakness.

Throughout the game, Kiryu encounters special enemies called 'Mr. Shakedown'. They wander the streets of Kamurocho, mugging people. They are so skilled at it that at higher levels, they can make millions, even billions of yen from robbery alone. If Mr. Shakedown encounters Kiryu, he can steal money from Kiryu by striking him. If he defeats Kiryu, he takes much, if not all, of his cash.

Mr. Shakedown is a persistent enemy. No matter how many times you fight him, he keeps coming back, stronger and richer than before. This wouldn't be a problem if Kiryu killed Mr. Shakedown after the first encounter. Instead, by refraining from murdering Mr. Shakedown, Kiryu gets to enjoy fighting him over, and over, and over again.

In the criminal world, allowing an enemy to live is a sign of weakness. If someone threatens you, you must kill him before you he does the same to you. But such thinking is alien to the civilian, and an abomination in pop culture codes of honor. By refraining from such apparently dishonorable behavior, Kiryu reinforces his image as a man of honor.

Framed against this combination of setting and character, Kiryu's other crimes become excusable. He buys illegal weapons—but only uses them in self-defense, never for murder. He picks up bicycles and signs and other private property as improvised weapons in fights and often destroys them—but he only did it to defend himself, not because he wanted to rampage through the area. He spends his ill-gotten gains on improving his skills—but if he doesn't, his enemies will overpower him. While these are illegal acts, they are motivated by moral reasons.

Contrasting Light and Darkness

Japan of the late 1980s enjoyed a booming economy, especially in real estate. In Kamurocho, magnates buy up swathes of property and flip them for outrageous profits. Among the more unscrupulous of these tycoons, what they can't secure with money, they take through force. Yakuza involvement in real estate flipping drives the main plot.

Kiryu is framed for murder as part of a scheme to win control of a parcel of land called the Empty Lot. As he fights to clear his name, he runs up against a colorful cast of gangsters, all of whom are scrabbling for control of the Empty Lot. These encounters contrast Kiryu sharply against these other yakuza. Where he is generous and selfless, his enemies are greedy and ruthless. Kiryu conducts his business above the board, they skulk in the dark and use manipulation and assassinations. He fights for what is right, they fight to stuff their bank accounts.

A third of the way through the game, Kiryu gets personally involved in real estate dealing. The storyline of the Real Estate Royale minigame pits Kiryu against the Five Billionaires, a group of tycoons who have split up Kamurocho among themselves. Specialising in key industries, each billionaire uses unscrupulous methods to gain and secure their immense fortunes. They buy out key properties, assault owners who refuse to sell, exploit the people who work for them, cause trouble for rival real estate agents, and aim to murder everyone who opposes them. This makes them no different from the yakuza Kiryu encounters.

In contrast, Kiryu acts like an honest real estate agent. He buys key properties, then steadily invests in them to help them increase their profits. He doesn't send thugs to harass business owners, he won't take advantage of others, and in a key scene it is implied that he aims to help customers solve their real-estate related problems instead of ruthlessly seizing every yen he can find.

A Human Face

When he isn't battling yakuza and billionaires, Kiryu reveals other aspects of his character in his everyday life. Yakuza 0 offers a huge range of substories, what other games call side quests. In these substories, Kiryu is shown to be generous and big-hearted, offering assistance to anyone who needs help. During these adventures, he befriends and protects children, helps a pop star in a music video, hires people for his real estate business, brings people together, and more. Many of these stories end in violence, but it is always justified as him protecting innocents from the countless thugs populating Kamurocho.

Kiryu also demonstrates a great deal of charm and naivete. His interactions with his sworn brother Nishikiyama Akira are genuinely funny, heart-warming and brotherly. He is (reasonably) courteous to civilians and non-criminal types. He commits one hundred percent to everything he does in his off-time, from singing in a karaoke to playing arcade games to answering a telephone. Like every typical Japanese male protagonist in fiction, he is awkward and clueless with women.

An honorable yakuza who strives to do the right thing is a stock character in Japanese fiction. Combine this with an actual personality, one that is endearing, helpful and charming, and you create a compelling character. The former defines Kiryu, while the latter rounds him out, making him a whole man.

The Extreme Path

Kiryu Kazuma is a bad guy. But under these circumstances, he shines like a hero.

In a world of vice, greed and corruption, he is idealistic, generous and selfless. When the police fail to keep the peace, he steps up to the plate. He is always ready to help anyone who needs it, no matter how strange their request may be. Though he inhabits the criminal underworld and interacts with lawbreakers, he refuses to be stained by them. He is a criminal, but his crimes are mostly morally excusable. He always tries to do the right thing, though it might not always be the legal thing.

This combination of setting, characters, actions and contrasts paints Kiryu Kazuma as a hero. Bad guy he may be, but he is the best bad guy in a setting filled with even worse scumbags. He offsets his crimes by helping everyone around him and refraining from harming the innocent. He reserves his wrath only for those who prey on the innocent or pick a fight with him, and grants his enemies mercy as a matter of routine. While he occasionally suffers because of his idealism, he refuses to give up his code.

'Yakuza' in Japanese means 'loser', drawing its origins from the worst possible hand in the traditional card game of Oicho-Kabu. Kiryu and other yakuza figures, on the other hand, prefer to use 'gokudo': the extreme path. In thought, word and deed, Kiryu shows he is a follower of the extreme path, a path of honour, courage and compassion.

By studying this combination of narrative devices, gameplay elements, actions, setting, characters and contrast, a pulp fiction writer would learn much about crafting this peculiar character: the bad guy who is not a bad guy.

Hollow City: A Superhero Vigilante Thriller (Heroes Unleashed: Song of Karma Book 1) by [Kai Wai Cheah, Thomas Plutarch, Kasia Suplecka]

What makes a good cop become a vigilante? Find out in HOLLOW CITY!

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