Performance & Tragicomedy in Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Yakuza: Like A Dragon begins with a performance of dramatic violence. It’s part of a more detailed flashback that ends up serving a crucial story purpose, but isolated from its context and looking at it structurally, it’s certainly an interesting decision for the opening moments of the Yakuza game, which have previously begun in very different ways. Outside of the flashy intro movies, the beginning of Yakuza games have often been deceptively mundane — Yakuza 3 begins with Kiryu emerging from the water, catching some fish for dinner. Yakuza 4 begins with the office life of Akiyama on a rainy day in Tokyo. Yakuza has always kicked off by pointing us in the direction of real life. By contrast, Like A Dragon’s first moments draw us into a scenario that is both deliberately energetic and deliberately inauthentic; showing us the strings holding up a moon on a stage and then panning down to the dramatic performance taking place underneath it.

For a good portion of the game, the true purpose of this sequence remains obscured. It gives us some important context for the character and behaviour of Arakawa, Ichiban’s father figure, but beyond this it also provides another interesting purpose: introducing us to the idea of performance as a theme. On stage, the focal character (who we later learn to be Arakawa) holds plenty of power, cutting down all of their assailants with precision and strength before succumbing to an applauded heroic demise. Backstage, it’s clear a whole different type of situation is going on, where they hold none of the power they performed so eloquently mere moments ago.

Yakuza as a series has often brushed against the thematic idea of performance and the performance of one’s identity as an underpinning to the more central themes of family, power and personal freedom. The franchise has shown many characters who embrace a new identity by arming themselves with the key ‘signifiers’ of power, wealth and status that are valued within the Yakuza hierarchy. This is something that the former protagonist Kiryu is often at odds with, but we also see it embraced and contemplated by important secondary characters (such as Majima and Saejima), who change throughout the course of the series by augmenting their own personalities with traits they see as necessary to succeed as officers of the the Tojo Clan. It’s not unusual for characters in Yakuza to effectively ‘perform themselves’ in order to assert their social position.

Like A Dragon takes the thematic concept of performance and runs with it, parallel to its primary story threads of conspiracy and the union ‘between light and darkness’. It presents a narrative that has as much to do with how people choose to perform themselves as the intriguing crime-family melodrama that drives events forwards. It’s also a game that routinely juxtaposes this examination with bursts of absurdity, in what could be described as ‘standard fare’ for the Yakuza series, which has always been an imperfect example of tragedy leaning up against comedy in dramatic storytelling.

Like A Dragon utilises this tragicomic tone alongside this aforementioned theme of ‘performance’ to communicate a story about people trying to reframe and reclaim their lives. In doing so, it manages to tell a story that more closely resembles a work of Shakespeare or early modern drama than any other game I’ve seen. The way Like A Dragon unravels Ichiban’s story really brought me back to thinking about the various emotional highs and lows of traditional stage plays; the way they communicate character through performative quirks, the way they heighten dramatic tension with absurd coincidences, the way they call attention to the fictionality of it all, and even the way they (often indecisively) address social issues. All of this stuff happens a remarkable amount in Yakuza: Like A Dragon, for better and for worse.

In reading the game’s many types of performances and picking away at how this tragicomic tone is heightened even compared to other games in the series, it becomes clear that this is a thematic idea that could have been more effectively utilised to underpin some more hefty commentary with only a few tweaks. Like A Dragon attempts to grapple with many complicated ideas, whilst occasionally failing to reach meaningfully decisive conclusions on them. Even in spite of elements of wasted potential in this regard, there’s some of the strongest character writing in the series yet. In attempting to determine which element of Like A Dragon resonated with me the most, I kept coming back to Ichiban and the workings of his mind as a kind of role-player.

Role Performances

Like A Dragon is a roleplaying game where you play the role of Kasuga Ichiban. It’s also a game where Ichiban is ‘playing a role’ himself, through one of the many job classes you can assign to him. The same goes for Ichiban’s party members. There are therefore (at least) two layers of performance immediately going on in Like A Dragon — the player who is ‘playing’ (performing) Ichiban, and Ichiban and his cohort who are all ‘playing’ (performing) their roles. Of course, playing a game isn’t exactly a performance in the traditional sense, but if we think slightly laterally, the idea of ‘role playing’ forces you to embody a character. You are invited to consider the choices and movements of a character who is not you but for whom you are responsible. Responsible being the operative word. In Like A Dragon, our assumed investment in a character is mined to give us a glimpse into their soul.

Ichiban’s ‘performance’ is represented chiefly by an abstraction, with the core group of characters magically transforming into exaggerated forms of their ‘jobs’ whenever combat begins, ready to take up arms with their various job skills. As a combat system, it’s a little rough around the edges: the automatic movement doesn’t always work in the best way, causing weird collisions with the environments, and only a few of the game’s many bosses create a challenge that requires thorough strategic engagement. When it works, it works great, but it’s quite light on mechanical substance, and could be retooled just a little bit for future instalments to add some depth. A sequel that refines this system could produce something truly great.

As a means to represent Ichiban’s point of view, however, it makes a lot of sense, and it also firmly establishes the game’s preoccupation with the idea of performing a role. Ichiban’s roleplaying mirrors the player’s roleplaying. By abstracting the turn-based combat into an acknowledged illusion that positions Ichiban as the hero of a fantasy epic, it not only gives an excuse for the combat to do whatever it wants, but it also gives us further insight into Ichiban himself, whose ‘quixotic’ mind can transform the most mundane of bar-room brawls into epic battles for the ages. By embracing combat on the street as an elaborate performance, Like A Dragon emboldens what could have been a fairly dull system into one that at least has a lot of character. Many of the core job classes are ‘jobs’ that directly put on some sort of performance — there’s a breakdancer who uses their rhythmic skill to dish out damage, an idol who uses their cutesy charms to heal, and a musician who can buff and debuff with their songs. Beyond that, other forms of labour are given the ability to use their skills to provide something to the party in an elaborate ‘performance’ that transforms equipment and standard job procedures in lethal weapons and special attacks.

It’s all very amusing at first to watch Ichiban and his friends ‘perform’ their roles in combat, especially in the early game where it serves as a wonderful diversion away from the rather depressing notes of Ichiban’s struggle. It’s also disappointing that various classes are gender locked, that the female classes have a few unnecessarily lurid combat moves, and also that certain characters’ best jobs are the unique ones that they start with, providing only minimal incentive to swap between jobs. Just as improvements could be used in the combat system itself, the job system could also use some additions, especially given how well it could gel with the themes of ‘performance’ on a broad level. It’s a system that could have been stronger, and the thematics would have been supported better for it.

Role playing games lend themselves well to stories that examine the identities of the characters within them. Playing a character by making choices that they would make, guiding their behaviour, and learning about how others feel about them forces a symbiotic bond between player and character. It playfully erodes away at the fourth wall that separates the two to create a feeling of immersion, forcing us to perform as the character we play. By performing as Ichiban, who is themselves ‘performing’ as a ‘hero’, Like A Dragon provides us with yet another shortcut to understanding Ichiban. He isn’t exactly a hero, but he’d sure like to be one, and that makes sense to anyone playing the role of someone else in a game; we’d like to experience a portion of that ‘heroic’ adventure for ourselves.

Yakuza has previously enamoured us with its protagonist Kiryu, and introducing us to a new protagonist was always going to be a hard sell, but Ichiban invites us in with a proactive attitude, even after a series of life events that can only be described as ‘tragic’. Filtering the world through Ichiban’s ultra-idealistic point of view not only goes a long way in heightening an understanding of the game’s tragicomic tone, but also proves a crucial factor in the way Ichiban collides with other characters and unravels the status quo.

Unravelling Performances

Outside of Ichiban’s ‘quixotic’ view of the world, the core narrative of Like A Dragon is also spurred on by characters who are obsessed with either upholding or unravelling various illusions. There’s a lot to be said about what characters in this game go through in order to uphold reputations, ideas and systems, perpetuating the status quo through a series of acts that could effectively be described as ‘performances’.

The first of several status quo performances we’re introduced to is the idea of Ijincho’s ‘wall of muscle’ and the ‘Ijin three’. The early game of Like A Dragon tells us that the warring factions of the Seiryu Clan, the Liumang and the Geomijul is what keeps the streets of Yokohama untouchable to outside influence. At first it seems to exist as a kind of necessary evil, but later plot revelations seem to upend this idea entirely, revealing that the three factions of Ijincho merely act on behalf of a self-serving politician, participating in an elaborate money counterfeiting scheme in exchange for territory and freedoms to participate in criminal behaviour. The image that most of Ijincho’s residents seem to have about the ‘Ijin three’ and the ‘wall of muscle’ are far from the truth. Instead, residents of Ijincho buy into a myth; a performance that the groups would rather continue to perpetuate as reality instead of addressing the moral inconveniences that come from revealing the ‘union of light and darkness’.

This conflict between truth and perceived reality acts as a macrocosm of the more personal conflict between our protagonist Ichiban and antagonist, Ryo Aoki, who adopts a new name and identity to bury their association with their yakuza family and climb Japan’s political ladder. Like A Dragon shows us in a rather straightforward way how Masato Arakawa becomes Ryo Aoki. It paints a portrait of a man who, in their younger years, hides their scars behind an image of youthful vigour. They circumvent their paralyzing disability with dangerous experimental drugs, and they paint over their loneliness with money and excess. But no matter what Arakawa does, their performance of themselves isn’t enough to get what they truly want. So they change the performance they’re putting on entirely.

Masato’s transformation to Ryo is one that on paper seems to make a lot of sense. In the story it isn’t necessarily executed with the most grace, but on a thematic level is at least clear, making the movement from someone who is content with living in a world of moral greys to someone who wants to be perceived as upholding the virtues of a moral society, even if their actions suggest otherwise. This is why Ryo aligns themselves with the dogmatic organisation of Bleach Japan, and why they feel so threatened by Ichiban’s continued existence: Despite their heroic roleplaying/performing, Ichiban is as authentic as they come.

By the point in the game that Ryo and Ichiban are coming face to face, it’s Ichiban’s aura of authenticity and willingness to believe in people that are his greatest heroic assets. Ichiban’s aforementioned ‘quixotic’ idealism that shines through in the game’s energetic combat illusions are an extension of his sincere belief in the ability for people to do good things; to be heroes. It shines through in reality too, in his continued (perhaps misplaced) faith in Ryo Aoki. Aoki has gone down such a dark path to keep the stage and players of their own performance in place, but despite all of Ryo’s misgivings, Ichiban is still willing to accept them and move on. There’s some deeply tragic stuff here, which is compelling because of the detours the game takes to arrive at this point.

Tragicomic Performances

The build to the Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s emotionally demanding climax also contains one of the silliest twists I’ve ever seen in a video game. If the rest of Like A Dragon’s absurdities prod gently at your willing suspension of disbelief, then surely certain moments of the actual plot attempt to shatter it into several pieces.

I’m talking about the moment where the game tells you with no sense of irony that there were not only one but two ‘coin locker babies’ in adjacent coin lockers, resulting in a child switcheroo. This is obviously very silly, and perhaps even entertaining, despite being played in the story for dramatic tension. It’s one of the many moments in Like A Dragon that reminds us we’re experiencing a story.

For a game that can often clearly communicate comedy and tragedy separately, it’s interesting that certain narrative decisions that Like A Dragon takes cause the two to bleed into each other. The two coin locker babies is one of the strongest examples of this, but the tragicomic feeling seems to permeate through all of Ichiban’s story. There’s something kind of sad and yet equally kind of funny about many of the circumstances that he finds himself in. Emerging from prison after 19 years to find the entire world around you has changed completely is kind of sad, but there’s comedy to be drawn from this situation too. The game obviously wastes no time with doing so, and it feels like it isn’t just limited to the game’s sub stories and side activities, this time around.

This isn’t to say that the previous games in Yakuza had no comedic elements in their main stories, but it’s more about how Ichiban’s way of engaging with the world has a profound impact on the storytelling style. Whilst Kiryu would predominantly attempt to avoid conflict as a first resort, Ichiban is a lot more of an instigator; a fiery and charismatic himbo. This allows the ‘comic’ aspect of the series tone to play a more equal role, balancing the tragic and comic evenly.

The final showdown between Ryo and Ichiban is another one of these moments that blends the comedic and tragic. For a brief moment, it appears as though the Omi loyalist Tendou (the penultimate) has bested Ichiban and his friends, which Ryo (and perhaps the audience, albeit fleetingly) seems to believe for a moment. Ichiban and his friends lie still on the ground, and as Ryo darkly declares that they should be ‘buried and dissolved’ to prevent them returning. This is disrupted once more by Ichiban springing to life, proud of their acting skills in this crucial moment.

In stage plays, the preoccupation with performance can often be understood as a glancing nod to the fictional nature of the events transpiring. It can also exist as a separate thematic thread that is lightly tugged on in order to explore the idea of what it means to perform. In Yakuza: Like A Dragon, there’s still a metafictional tinge to it, but it feels a bit more like the latter, bringing us full circle by presenting a parallel to the performance we saw at the very start of the game. In an excellent moment of some kind of symmetry, performing the state of being dead on the ground is what allows Ichiban to win, springing suddenly to life as his comrades proudly declare their plan. If suffering is what follows Arakawa’s performance in the opening cutscene, then victory and relief is what follows Ichiban’s performance at the end.

This wonderful little moment at the end is where the idea of performance felt most deliberately invoked, as if to remind us of Arakawa’s origin story. Much like Masumi Arakawa, who crafted a fierce reputation for themselves in the criminal underworld whilst retaining a gentle kindness, Ichiban recognises that how the world sees him is important, whilst refusing to give up on the part of himself that believes in others. In refusing to let his kind aura die, and engaging with Ryo on his own sincere terms, Ichiban fully embodies the ideals of Masumi and proudly affirms his role as ‘hero’.

stealth expert, giant robot fan, third-rate Scholar. I make words & videos focused on narrative and thematics in games!