The games which are unafraid to address toxic masculinity are the ones which matter most.
Spoilers are contained within this article.
The Yakuza series is going through somewhat of a revival right now. The remakes for Playstation 4, and expected remakes to come, means that fans are as excited as when they first started to be played. The nostalgia economy is hitting its stride and few industries highlight that quite as much as the gaming industry, remakes and remasters of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, the long awaited revival of Nintendo thanks to the Switch and the lingering appeal of long-time franchises such as The Sims and DragonAge mean that millennials are getting a second childhood. But often so many of the stories we once heard are better the second time around; our generation has learnt to criticise stories more and from that we can get better content. This is true of the entire Yakuza series.
Yet, while it was not the first game, the first game of the series – rather the prequel (yes, this is a Star Wars moment), has come to define what the games are really about. It is Yakuza 0 that right now is helping shape conversations around toxic masculinity, in the same way God of War is. 0 starts with the two characters that are at the heart of the franchise. Kazume Kiryu and Goro Majima are the stars of the show and both are put through the ringer due to toxic masculinity.
Kiryu starts off as yakuza, essentially working for a Japanese gang, until he’s framed for a murder he didn’t commit and his own ‘family’ want him dead. He gets caught up in the ultimate power play by men who have different ideas around masculinity and all of them are toxic and revolve around destroying anyone who gets in your way. The situation takes such a dark turn, that the best friend Kiryu has ever had drives him to a quiet spot intent upon killing him to spare Kiryu the horror of the torturous death which is almost certainly awaiting him.
By contrast, Majima seems more of a gentle soul, running cabaret clubs, trying to empower the women who work for him, and does not quite share the same propensity for violence. Yet, he still dreams of becoming yakuza and is assigned a mission to murder a person he only knows as Makoto, who turns out to be a victim too of the Dojima family’s power-plays which Kiryu is so caught up in. Majima ends up becoming protector to his own mark, but as soon as he makes this vow to keep Makoto safe, the target on her back becomes so much bigger. Majima watches the people he comes to admire slain around him, he then watches Makoto get shot and then after having being taken to safety, her life becomes under threat once again.
Both men are slowly broken in different ways by the violence they witness. They both try, at every single turn, to resist becoming the monsters who surround them, and it is this which makes the game great. The men within this game have very little choice but to rush for power. Classism and poverty are everywhere, as several gang leaders point out, the thing that wins you power, security and wealth is how well you can beat the shit out of other men and terrify citizens. But this is something both Kiryu and Majima detest, yet even they cannot withstand such a world indefinitely.
“They both try, at every single turn, to resist becoming the monsters who surround them, and it is this which makes the game great”
Majima and Kiryu both are left broken and have the chance to seek revenge. Both, in different ways, let the men who have caused so much pain live. In so many ways Yakuza 0 is like The Godfather game, both in gameplay and in storyline. However, the key difference is that The Godfather showed the playable character eventually claiming revenge upon every gang member who hurt him. Kiryu and Majima walk away from this path, and are greater men for it.
Yet, that is not to say that their souls leave unscathed. Majima is never quite the same, and he becomes known as ‘The Mad Dog’ as he changes his entire look, becomes much more unpredictable and becomes more violent. Kiryu too goes back to the world of the Dojima family. He could have chosen a life of peace but he entered back into a world of violence. Yet, while arguably not truly heroes, by the end of the game, both are trying to confront masculinity and the culture around them. They could make better choices, but they are at least still trying unlike the men around them.
This is such a necessary representation in games that all should play Yakuza 0. It must be said however, that the women of the game are not treated with as much thought or care. In fact, they’re forgotten and relegated until the sub-stories, although there they do at least get to shine, and we get different and empowering narratives around sex work and the exploration different marginalisations Asian women often face. This story though is largely centred around the dangers of toxic masculinity even to men, and in a culture of Gamergate, where men’s voices are the loudest, perhaps this game in some ways, is so necessary for the industry.
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