Few games manage to grab my attention with advanced graphical wizardry – I appreciate the idea of it, sure, but that spark of wonder just isn’t there. Part of this is a cocktail of oversaturation and diminishing returns, but also a problem of artistic application. The Yakuza games are the exception to the rule I’d like to hone in on. All the hundreds of game trailers featuring the vast, gorgeously-rendered, nigh-limitless otherworldly landscapes of youthful gaming fantasy somehow fail to match up to a gameplay trailer I saw for Yakuza 6, the commentary and dialogue for which I could hardly understand, showing off the exact same patch of Tokyo the games have doggedly inhabited (with occasional departures) since 2005.
Though it can’t be explained through nostalgia – I’m a relatively recent convert to the series – there is a certain raw recognition of the game’s locales, and a tangible delight at the enhanced detail the series’ first current-generation-only entry brings to the streets of Kamurocho. When you’ve spent countless hours wandering, exploring local businesses, solving the residents’ problems, and punching, kicking, and suplexing people into the town’s very tarmac, the place starts to feel like a second home. To see it in staggering detail is like returning to the streets of your childhood with a more mature eye. Despite being occasionally held back by its generation-spanning release, Yakuza 0, the 1980’s-set prequel released in English this year, delivers similar effects.
Kamurocho, based on Tokyo’s famous real-life Kabukicho district, is a dense, gaudy, brightly-lit and eternally noisy nightlife and red-light district. A magnet for tourists and revellers of all stripes, it’s deeply connected with the criminal underworld – this is where the titular yakuza enter. Walking through the streets as Kazuma Kiryu and others, the player is subject to this engrossing density from the word go – density is the watchword with Kamurocho and the game’s other locales, including a depiction of Osaka’s similar hub of neon-splashed night-life, Dotonbori (becoming, in Yakuza, Sotenbori). The environments aren’t large, but every building is a meticulously-rendered front for a shop, bar, pachinko parlour, strip-club, restaurant or a plethora of other businesses of varying degrees of legitimacy. The attractions are vertical as well as horizontal – every entrance to a building sports a sign with a floor-list of various establishments, top to bottom, each one colourful and unique. This overwhelming closeness reaches its zenith with the Champion District (again a real location, Golden Gai, forms its basis). A tiny network of alleys, home to hundreds of bars and clubs. To join the bustle of these districts is part of the Yakuza attraction – it doesn’t take long before, even in such dense places, you start recognising streets by name. Impressive from the very first game, the constant evolution in detailing the city has ensured Kamurocho stays fresh and has avoided repetition.
To get caught in Yakuza’s web is to come into contact with the eternal artistic appeal of the red-light district. There’s a peculiar feeling of kinship, of connection, that Yakuza stirs up whenever I play it. Walking past couples, stumbling drunks (who sometimes fight you), barkers for clubs, those guys who give you tissues all the time, people talking, the noise of the bars and the pachinko-parlors – all these external things, from which you are broadly disconnected, coalesce into significant evocative power. Music from a bar, the sound of laughter from a hostess club, calls across the street, appeals from the women and men trying to pull you and others in. Being able to pick out individual, personal sounds, a brief characterisation of a passerby in a line of dialogue or the noisy implication of the goings-on inside a club (like they actually have patrons!) imbues your bounded city turf with a breath of life. Like hearing a radio or a ringing telephone through an open window, it implies something outside yourself, a reminder of the world around you. Yakuza’s sound design has evolved hugely over its lifetime, from the repetitive (almost unforgivable) canned street-chatter of the first two games to something with real depth and power.
These sights and sounds give insight into something embedded deeply into Yakuza’s artistic DNA, in that double helix swirling alongside innumerable crime flicks, and indeed connected to them. The underworld of the red-light district has had an enormous impact on Japanese art in general, and especially on Western perceptions. The most famous and recognisable form of Japanese visual art to a Western audience, ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) evolved from the urbanising, hedonistic lifestyle of Edo-period Japan, a culture known as ukiyo. Centring on the red-light district of Yoshiwara, depictions of this lifestyle became enormously popular, and a broader spectrum of artistic depiction emerged from it, ranging from its traditional subjects through nature and folklore. Yoshiwara, no longer the red-light district of its past, can broadly be said to have been replaced in modern culture with the neon density of places like Kabukicho. The connection between the “floating world” and the world of the yakuza up to the modern day endures; the traditional irezumi tattooing which has become a pop-culture symbol of the crime syndicates is intensely connected to the artistic conventions of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings. Portraits of the courtesans, theatres and drinking establishments are common – people at work and play in the pleasure districts side-by-side with loftier, more (to Western audiences, anyway) artistic targets, like mountains and Hokusai’s famous Great Wave. The Yakuza series even has a duology of (untranslated) games set in Japan’s Edo period.
Kamurocho (and its real-world equivalent) are the modern collision between the inheritance of the “floating world” and the infamous high-speed claustrophobic modern life of Tokyo. No coincidence, certainly, that there are artistic and emotive parallels between the “floating” emerging urbanised hedonism of the Edo period and the legendary disconnection felt in the rushing crowds and busy cityscape of Tokyo. The Yakuza series lives in a sort of entirely logical antithesis, posing the growing familiarity between player and environment with the eternal unknowability of the city; the wonderful silliness of the game and the darkness of its underworld; the bloodiness of the plot and the high-energy hand-to-hand battles. The game manages to draw itself together with a steady, moral core – Kiryu and friends are usually fundamentally good people, constantly caught out in a world moving at a violent pace their sensibilities find hard to keep up with (these sensibilities, of course, always tend to eventually get Kiryu in and out of trouble). The gangster with a heart of gold, cliché as he may be, manages to tie Yakuza’s antitheses together. Yet these antitheses are what makes the city so intriguing – the constant push-and-pull of alienating bustle with alluring individuality and presence.
Maybe I’m just easily amused, able to revisit the same place over and over again – but no other series is so determined to do it its own way. Yakuza makes me look at the enormous quantity of effort, the interminable hours that must go into designing hundreds of vast, throwaway open worlds – somebody had to spend days and days on designing a solitary cave in a Far Cry game or a dungeon even in a good open-world like The Witcher, only for the player to visit it once for a collectible and have it never again cross their mind. Sure, these worlds have their draws – Grand Theft Auto is indisputably larger, more devoted to providing a whole city. Yeah, it’s been more than a decade and Sega still can’t do a walk animation that looks normal, and the civilian AI is basic. World after world, either real or fantastic, passes by, but Yakuza keeps on pulling me back, every time prettier, grittier, more impossibly stuffed to the gills. I have open-world fever as much as the next person, but at the end of the day, you can keep them. My heart lies in Kamurocho.