The Honourable Journey of the Fourth Chairman – The Plight of Kazuma Kiryu
Spoiler Warning for all 7 mainline Yakuza games
Standing outside an orphanage in Okinawa, taking one last look at those I care about most, contemplating the strange twists of fate that brought me to this moment. Through thick and thin, up and down I managed to stay true to my ideals. Sure I made mistakes, but my hard and fast set of rules kept me sane. For me, it was better to die than betray my own personal code of honour. I lost and almost lost loved ones along the way and now I am walking away from the people that mean more to me than my own life, but I am content. My journey is over and I can walk into the sunset knowing I have done all I can. I have gone by many names, Taichi Suzuki, The Fourth Chairman, Prisoner #1240 but you may know me by my most recognised title, a title that inspires and terrorises in equal measure. That title is The Dragon of Dojima. My name is Kazuma Kiryu and my journey is at an end.
It is hard to believe that it was 18 months ago that I first dipped my toes into the world of Yakuza. Wide-eyed and willing, I found a franchise like no other, a series of games that were both ridiculous and serious, insane and sane, action-packed and emotional. It is fair to say that there isn’t anything quite like it and it wasn’t long before its hooks were in me. My journey with Kazuma Kiryu became an all-consuming passion, a journey I had to see through to the end. I told myself that I would just play 0 and 6, the modern titles, but before the credits had finished rolling on 0 I had purchased Kiwami 1 and 2. I then assured my own consciousness that the remade titles would be enough, I wouldn’t need to play the PS3 titles, but when the Yakuza Collection, featuring Yakuza 3, 4 and 5, was announced I found myself saying “I would like to pre-order…” to a helpful EB staff member before I had even seen the trailer. I gave up any pretence at that moment. I was in this for the long haul, this was a complete playthrough and I wasn’t going to be satisfied any other way. It was much like discovering an author with a massive back catalogue, I just had to consume it all.
So, in order, I played through all of the Yakuza games in an 18 month period. Some were fantastic, some great and others just good, but all had the one thing that kept me coming back for more. That one thing was Kazuma Kiryu. The central character in all of the games, Kiryu has become, to me at least, a figure head in gaming, a beacon of character creation. When people ask who are the most important characters in video games, I don’t think of Mario, Link, Kratos or Master Chief, I think of the Dragon of Dojima. You see, rarely has a character in gaming been so fleshed out, been given such a chance to grow. From the young Yakuza member, wanting to follow his adopted father to the caring grandparent, striving to make life better for his daughter, I got to live what feels like his entire life with him. I was there when he achieved the highest rank in the Tojo Clan and then gave it away. I was there when he took control of a small orphanage, looking after a group of children who were lost in the world without parents. I was there when he single-handedly stopped a war between two rival Yakuza clans. I was there when he gave it all away, his adopted daughter Haruka, his grandson and his entire adopted family to ensure their safety. I have ridden the wave with him from his teen years until his retirement and fake death. That breadth of someone’s life is so rarely explored in video games, simply because there is no chance to, but with the epic nature of this franchise, I got to fully explore this wonderful character.
Yakuza’s story has been often described as crime soap opera, Bold and the Beautiful with bullets and blood. I am not going to deny that. It is always high drama, often cheesy and often absurd, but Kiryu’s presence grounds all of that. He is the eye of the storm in terms of the story. He keeps the outright craziness, the inherent weirdness of the franchise planted and enjoyable. Through the fight clubs, secret societies, underground dealings, hidden warships and crazy power grabs there was the immovable anchor of Kazuma Kiryu, holding it together by sheer willpower. He was a warrior of black and white in a world of infinite shades of grey and instead of adapting, he forced the world to bend to his will. By the sixth game I knew him so well I could predict his reactions to events and while some would say that is the sign of a bad story, I would have to disagree. To me, it is a sign of a well-written character, a character that I had come to know so well that I understood his motivations, his desires, his code of honour. The rest of the cast in the Yakuza games are there to provide surprise, to provide unpredictability. Kiryu is the rope that holds it all together.
Speaking of other characters, there are a multitude that are worth celebrating and talking about from the series. Goro Majima, Kiryu’s long time rival and confidant. Taiga Saejima, Majima’s sworn brother and guide. Shun Akiyama, a former banker who, after being made bankrupt, became the head of Sky Finance to help those that deserved it. Makoto Date, A detective with the Tokyo police force who has believed in Kiryu’s ability to force a change for good since the first game. Daigo Dojima, head of the Tojo Clan, thanks primarily to Kiryu’s assistance. These are just a few of the wild, wonderful and amazing characters the franchise brings forward, but without Kiryu, they are simply names. For me, this was highlighted in the fourth Yakuza game, where for the first three-quarters of the game I played as people other than Kiryu and for that reason alone it was my least enjoyed title in the franchise. It took far too long to get to the man at the centre of the story, far too long to see how everyone connected with him.
After spending all this time with the franchise, somewhere around the 200-hour mark at a guess, I can see why people could bounce off these games. There is some inherent culture shock, some questionable gameplay mechanics and they aren’t exactly at the peak of technological advancement. But for those people that do get it, that realise that this is a franchise about story, about living in a strange and bleak world yet still having enough time for humour and craziness. This an experience that wants you to know you are in a video game, yet still offers a story that can bring a tear to your eye. This is a game that offers combat, intrigue and madness in equal measure. But most of all, Yakuza is all about one thing. Kazuma Kiryu. Yakuza 6 is apparently the end of Kiryu’s tale and with Yakuza: Like a Dragon focusing on a new character I can’t help but wonder will I be able to enjoy it as much, will I be just as addicted? Time will tell, but for now know this: The honourable journey of the fourth chairman is unlike any other in gaming and you owe it to yourself to see if it is a journey for you to embark on too.