I have a confession to make up top. I’m a huge Yakuza fan, but I have no more credibility here than anyone else who’s recently jumped on. I’ve been a peripheral fan of the series since I watched a playthrough of Yakuza 4, but my first time was with Yakuza Zero. Yakuza Zero has become a common starting point for new fans; a prequel to the entire series that garnered more western popularity and praise than any previous title. Zero was the turning point for the series, from an almost impenetrable overload of Japanese culture and mannerisms to something more accessible for the rest of us. There are a few reasons for that, primarily the incredible work of Sega’s localization team. It’s always an important job to break down cultural barriers but rarely has it been as vital to a game’s success as it has been to Yakuza.
Firstly, why the sudden shift in popularity? Western gamers have had close links to Japanese culture for decades, this goes without saying. From Mario to Final Fantasy, Japan has been producing huge hits on our shores for as long as there have been video games. However, few Japanese games are as soaked in the local culture as the Yakuza series. These games are as fundamentally Japanese as The Commitments is (are? were? grammar/context is hard.) for us here in Ireland. There’s worldwide appeal in there, but both are so entrenched in their home culture that something will always be lost on outsiders.
As much as Yakuza is a brawler about an ex-mobster trying to make his way in the world outside of organised crime it’s also the story of Kamurocho, the neon soaked patch of Tokyo the Yakuza series calls home. As a sort-of successor to Shenmue, Yakuza took up the reigns of presenting a world of extreme detail. The shops and businesses of Kamurocho aren’t stock buildings, they have real-life counterparts and often function as much in the games as they do in real life. Don Quijote is a real Japanese convenience store chain in Japan, famous for its cramped aisles selling you all sorts of crap you don’t need. Everyone who has played a Yakuza game will know Don Quijote as that corner shop you go to when an NPC asks you for something unusual. There are hostess clubs, karaoke bars and fully functioning arcades in the 21st century. The things people say and do in Yakuza games are unapologetically Japanese and if they make little sense to you then, tough.
Years of Japanese games have endeared many fans to Japanese culture, and with time has come a better understanding of the details that make us different. That said, it’s not like we’re talking about an alien planet.The differences aren’t vast, but without a skilled hand to bridge the gap the nuances can become distorted and often jarring in the translation process. While some Japanese developers are infamous for their lack of consideration for non-Japanese audiences, Sega has really stepped up with Yakuza. It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, the first Yakuza game was released in the west with a legendarily terrible English re-dub. Shockingly, even the inclusion of Mark Hamill voicing the Joker-inspired Goro Majima wasn’t enough to save the game for English-speaking fans.
All in all, the poor quality of the voicing is a likely candidate as to why Yakuza took such a long time to really grab our attention outside of Japan. As a result, all English dubbing was promptly cancelled from future games and that continues to this day. Not only is this better, but it gives the localization team the chance to shine. If there’s one thing that can be attributed to the sudden rise in Yakuza’s popularity, it’s the stellar work of the good folks translating the games. Just through subtitles and translation, their ability to capture the essence of a character’s speech is impeccable. It’s a difficult thing to capture the tone of someone’s speech in writing, but they do an excellent job here. Without speaking a word of Japanese, you get the tone and cadence of each character’s speech from the way their words read off the screen. It’s their work that opens this series up to us English speakers, like a key to a treasure chest.
Once the translation is done, what do we have now? A Japanese story through and through that not only invites foreign fans in, but is willing to educate them. My own experience with organised crime is limited to those banks I robbed when money got a bit tight, but I had no touchstone at all with Japanese organised crime. I do now, thanks to Yakuza and it is a fascinating world of interweaving stories. However, some of you film buffs might know a bit should you be fans of legendary Japanese filmmaker Beat Takeshi (who appears in Yakuza 6). I had heard there were similarities between his work and the Yakuza games, and in my research, for this piece, I discovered that he and the Yakuza series’ creator Toshihiro Nagoshi are drinking buddies. Makes sense.
If you have never played a Yakuza game before, I encourage you to join in. Yakuza Zero is as good a starting point as I alluded to earlier. It’s like a buffet of a game; excellent main plot, strange and hilarious side stories, oddly engaging mini-games, and all the over the top brawling you could want. Like a buffet, there’s almost too much for one trip. You might need to bring a few extra plates. If you find you like it, there’s plenty more where that came from. A remake of the first game recently hit the PS4, while a remake of game two is shortly on the way. Yakuza 6 recently released in western markets, and word is that Yakuza 3-5 are coming to the PS4 in the near future. Should we see those here that would make the entire main series available on one system? There won’t be enough buffet similes to go around.
From a recent fan to a potential future fan, I say get in on the fun now. You will not regret it. Ask the internet, they’ll tell you the same thing. Yakuza is big right now for a reason, don’t get left behind.