Yakuza Kawami 2 was my first introduction to the Yakuza series. I expected it to deliver heavy beatdowns, glowing fists and unusual minigames. And it did. But it also delivered an unexpected sweetness.
My initial concern that the remake of Yakuza 2 would feel too dated, or suffer from inflated expectations stoked by fans, was quickly allayed. It turns out the pleasure of cracking a bicycle over a street harasser’s head is timeless, and I’ve been having a lot of fun strolling around the streets of Osaka, punching thugs, eating crab, and living my best life.
That’s enjoyable enough by itself. But the characterisation of Kazuma Kiryu has turned these elements from drunken late night misadventures to a more meaningful kind of social welfare vigilante patrol.
Despite being a former gangster with a fearsome reputation, Kiryu bounces through life from one person in need to another, with as much control over his trajectory as a kite in a tornado. Random citizens entrust him with their problems as though he hauls around a chaise lounge and stack of tissues.
But rather than being put upon by men despairing over the great tragedy that is being terrible at crane machines, Kiryu approaches each of their problems with the same stoicism and genuine desire to help. Sometimes slowly or reluctantly, yet always with a sense of inevitability.
This person is in distress and I am in a position to help. It’s inconvenient, but how can I refuse?
It’s incredibly naive, occasionally hilarious and utterly endearing.
Kiryu’s characterisation as an awkward, well-meaning man wrapped in a delightfully impassive exterior imbues even the simplest of quests with warmth. Each feels akin to a confused dad dutifully following their child’s enthusiastic instructions on how to build a cubby house.
As I’ve worked through the game’s substories, Kiryu has comforted a nervous cashier, helped a man reconcile with his wife, and found an old woman’s lost keepsake.
The underworld is on the brink of war, but Kiryu still has time to model for a photographer of questionable skill, then give a speech on the true meaning of art. And in possibly his most wholesome jaunt, he fetched a dog for a lonely little boy in an orphanage, then made sure the kids got new play equipment as well.
These people’s problems may not seem large in the face of Kiryu’s own, but they are not inconsequential. To those who have them, they are major, debilitating concerns, and Kiryu acknowledges this by treating each one seriously. He is well aware of how ridiculous some of these tasks are but earnestly tries to assist regardless, showing admirable sympathy and respect.
Kiryu’s altruism is even what sparks the main story of the game, causing him to jump back into the Japanese underworld he deliberately left a year ago.
Of course, some of this characterisation could be attributed to Kiryu being a typical, fairly blank slate RPG protagonist. It wouldn’t be a terribly fun game if the player character simply refused to accept any quests or calls to adventure.
But there is a multitude of other, less innocent tasks more commonly associated with gangsters that Kiryu could have performed. Instead, he’s handing out tissues to sick buskers and delivering clean underwear to men stuck in toilet cubicles.
He wanders the streets giving pep talks, doling out advice, and providing quiet support to downtrodden people, sometimes without so much as a punch being thrown.
Through these connections with ordinary people, Kiryu is transformed from a gangster taking care of business to a man just trying to help people in whatever circumstances he finds himself. He just happens to find himself in some pretty wild circumstances.
I didn’t expect a game about gangsters to be one of the most wholesome games I’ve played this year. But life, and apparently one Japanese ex-yakuza, is full of surprises.