This article contains spoilers for the plot of Yakuza Kiwami. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Heroes fighting against villains is a core motivator for most stories. The hero is good and just, and the villain is cruel and evil. While good versus evil isn’t going anywhere fast, it doesn’t mean that we can’t demand better from our games. Yakuza Kiwami delivers something extraordinary in its main villain, Nishikiyama. He is not a 2D enemy who has been propped up as something for the main character to overcome. Instead, he is one of the most compelling villains in all of video games. Let’s look at why shall we?
Yakuza Kiwami is an HD version of the original Yakuza from the PlayStation 2 era. Unlike the original, it digs into the backstory and motivations of the game’s main antagonist far more. This gives the player insight into what turned Akira Nishikiyama from friend to murderous enemy.
We are first introduced to Nishikiyama (Nishiki) as protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s best friend and sworn brother. They have a friendly rivalry, but at the end of the day, they have each other’s back. They grew up together and have known each other for years. After the events that send Kazuma to prison, Nishiki is left to pick up the pieces of a Kiryu-less world. Nishiki, now ostensibly alone, must look after his sick sister and try to survive in the grim world of the yakuza.
The thing that makes Nishiki’s fall so interesting and compelling, is that it isn’t quick. He takes small steps towards the darkness, often in the pursuit of doing good. He loves his sister, but she is dying. The weight of powerlessness weighs heavy on his shoulders. He is trying to be a good yakuza and afford the money to pay for his sister’s treatments, but that isn’t enough, and she eventually passes. He also has the knowledge that Kazuma went to prison for a crime he committed, and this is clearly something he never gets over. The core of Nishiki as a villain is this sense of powerlessness and lack of control. He believes that gaining power and authority, no matter the cost, will remove this embedded fear.
It is this journey to power that is so important. Plenty of games, films and other media have you taking it at face value that a person is evil. They were just born that way, or power corrupted them. Yakuza Kiwami does not do this. Instead, they show you a decent person who has had to make some difficult decisions in their life. It shows the results and consequences these decisions have had on Nishiki’s psyche. He doesn’t suddenly become unhinged and villainous. It takes time, and as the player, we get to see his fall from grace.
As Nishiki steps towards this role of villain, we sympathise with a lot of his goals. We know that what he is doing isn’t 100% in the right, but we can try to understand his reasons. Nishiki feels that the means justify the end in every situation. He might kill people, steal from them and ruin lives, but he is trying to do what he feels is right. Saving his sister is his initial aim and the reason why he takes steps he might not otherwise. Once she passes, he starts to see power as the only thing left in his life.
At his core, he remains that same scared brother who cannot save his sister or best friend. The real reason Nishiki is seeking power is to escape this feeling, and he feels that once he has power, then he will be the one in control. This means that even when he is doing truly terrible things, you never entirely hate him. You hate what he is doing, but struggle to hate the character itself.
All of this comes to a head in the final, climactic battle between Nishiki and Kazuma. The two brothers face off, and inevitably Kazuma emerges the victor. However, Nishiki has his moment of redemption. He sacrifices himself so that Kazuma and Haruka can live. He takes control of his life and in that he finds clarity. In that one perfect moment, he is no longer the villain of the game, but its hero. His entire character arc has been building up to this single moment.
He spent ten years trying to find a way to take charge of his life. He thought that thirsting for power would lead him to that end he sought so strongly. No longer would he have to suffer and feel that powerlessness he felt when his sister died. Instead, he would be in charge and become chairman of the clan. Ultimately, that was a fruitless and flawed goal.
Nishiki’s story isn’t one of a villain seeking control for nefarious purposes, but one of a human running away from their past. Nishiki’s search for power is mostly his way of coping with the death of his sister, the imprisoning of his friend and the loneliness he felt during those ten years. This becomes evident when the two finally meet after ten years and Nishiki has closed himself off to all emotions except hate. However, there is still some semblance of the man he once was. While he tries to impress Kiryu with his new position and influence, he is instead showing his weakness. Nishiki shows that all he wants is acceptance and to have his brother back in his life. This scene ends with the two on opposite ends of the conflict, but with Nishiki crying out for help in his own twisted way.
All of this makes Nishiki far more than the game’s antagonist. He is an incredibly human and relatable character. He might be an exaggerated representation of a person dealing with the death of loved one, but everything he does ties back to that single flaw and series of events.
I love Yakuza Kiwami. The story and game are brilliant. As much I as I like Kazuma, I think Nishiki is my favourite of the two. While Kiryu goes on a journey, Nishiki has an intense and emotive character arc that ends in tragedy. You can play Yakuza 0 and get even more backstory for this fantastic character. Nishiki is one of the most interesting and compelling villains I have ever come across in a video game. He is more than merely the thing our hero needs to defeat. He is human.
For more Yakuza related stuff, you can check out Gav’s article about why he loves the series or check out his runner-up game for 2017 game of the year. We also probably mention it in at least one podcast episode. I can’t remember which one, sorry!
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