I’ve played so many games over the last 20 years, since I was 2 years old, and as time went on my taste in games changed, evolved. I never outgrew the games of my childhood really, they just weren’t those once in a blue moon experiences. And as I fell in love with the kinds of stories that video games could tell, I began to look at the characters themselves, the people involved in these stories. Once upon a time I would just say “This is one the greatest characters ever!” But that was in reference to just about any character that was badass or cool. Eventually I realized that there was a line to be drawn, separating badass characters from the truly great characters.
When I first picked up my PlayStation 3 in 2012, I didn’t have a lot of games for it, but I knew that I wanted Japanese games, that I wanted story driven games. One day, while I was browsing through GameStop, I stumbled upon this game called Yakuza 3. I had seen some old reviews for it, and it looked interesting. I just had a hard time pulling the trigger on it because I was never 100% certain that I was gonna like it. Eventually I gave in and picked it up. I poured a good 40 or so hours into the game, and it became one of the defining games of my time with the PlayStation 3. But at the time, Kiryu Kazuma was just a character. He wasn’t yet one of the greats to me. Yakuza, or Like a Dragon as its known in Japan, is a fairly long series. As of this writing, there are seven numbered titles and a couple spin-offs. When I first got Yakuza 3, Yakuza 5 had just hit shelves in Japan and there was no word on if it would ever come to the US. So I made due with what I had. I played Yakuza 3, then Yakuza 4, then Yakuza: Dead Souls, and I watched the recap videos of Yakuza 1 & 2. And yet, even after all of that, Kiryu still wasn’t one of the greats, but he was getting there. It wasn’t until I played Yakuza 5 that I truly felt something from him, this vibe. And now, having completed the series prequel, Yakuza 0, he has ascended to that pedestal reserved for only the greatest characters.
Kiryu is an interesting character in that, even as a young adult, he was sort of like a sage. And it probably takes the resolve of one to stay sane throughout all the shit he had to go through. The events of Yakuza 0 show how Kiryu was shaped into the man that would become known as the Dragon of Dojima, the strongest Yakuza in Japan. Respected everywhere he went, he eventually left the Yakuza behind and tried to pursue a peaceful life running an orphanage. And yet, no matter how hard he tried, the life of a Yakuza followed him and forced him back into the shadowy underworld. He was like a paragon, singlehandedly stopping clan wars from breaking out, and putting other Yakuza in their place, trying to spread his own Yakuza way. That’s what I mean when I call him something like a sage. He has this unique view of the world, this way of seeing things and how things should be done. So when he comes into conflict with someone and speaks through his fists, he passes on his ways and tries to change people and show them the way.
While Yakuza 0 is the quintessential Kiryu story, the one that defines his entire character and makes him the great character that he is, Yakuza 5 is where it feels like it all comes together, the climax of his character arc. In his bid to live a peaceful life as a civilian rather than a Yakuza, he seemingly didn’t realize just how his past and reputation would reflect on those around him. He was eventually convinced that, in the best interests of the children he was caring for, he needed to leave and cut all ties with them so that they could live happy lives and fulfill their dreams. It’s this somber moment because he’s not happy without his “family.” He goes day to day, working, and just generally being a stoic person, watching his foster-daughter from afar as she rises to pop stardom, the public unaware of her ties to a Yakuza. And then, in the end, despite his protests, she publicly acknowledges him and throws away her career because he’s her family, an important part of her life, and she refuses to act as though he doesn’t exist. This is what Kiryu means to the people around him. He’s had a lot of enemies throughout the series, but he also has a lot of friends that have supported him even when he tried to step away from them for their own safety.
It’s not as though Kiryu is without his faults, but it’s because he’s this character that has grown over the course of multiple games, that turned into this mentor figure and that you can learn from him. His relationships with other characters further elevates him. This is what makes him, in my opinion, one of the greatest characters in gaming. He’s just got this aura about him, this charisma. Yakuza 6 is the finale of his story. If he ever gets another game, it’ll likely be a spin-off set before Yakuza 6. But it won’t change the fact that he’s stepping off the stage and letting a new character take the reigns of the franchises future in Shin Yakuza.