Shame, satire, and contradictory writers - Yakuza 5, Part 2

This is Part 2 in a series examining Yakuza 5. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is hereYou can help support our long-form writing here Where the greatest strengths lie are also the greatest flaws. 

Yakuza 5 was released in 2012 in Japan, and went through localization for three years before it came to US shores. During this time, LGBTQ rights and acceptance expanded in the US—any localization team undoubtedly witnessed this happening.

So how is it that a character who goes by male pronouns but presents themselves as a woman and openly talks about their male lovers made it into the final cut with a line in which they call themselves a ‘tr***y’? This line is unavoidable; the line will be spoken very early in Part 3 when you’re playing as a teenage girl named Haruka.

The character’s main role is to help Haruka understand how she needs to present herself to succeed as an idol. After the initial meeting, you don’t have to ever talk to them again, but ignoring them will deprive you of some very interesting insight into the unreasonable standards placed on idols in Japan. And past that introductory line, the character really doesn’t have anything else objectionable to them.

Yet this weird, almost ancient presentation of non-heterosexual characters isn’t exactly an anomaly. During Part 1, while playing as Kiryu, you can earn a sizable amount of money taking on taxi jobs. One client you transport is a gay man who immediately starts hitting on Kiryu and gets ridiculously angry when rebuffed.

Kiryu’s own sexuality is questioned by his boss in an early cutscene as they enjoy their payday by enjoying sake at a food stall. The boss brings up rumors from the coworkers about Kiryu being gay due to never being seen with a woman and being a very clean, well-groomed man. Kiryu stutters and rushes to clarify that he is indeed a straight man, the whole thing coming off as a joke straight out of a Seinfeld episode.

As for the down-and-out Shinada, luck seems to grant him a chance at a fantastic job that pays much more than his career as a writer. He’s told only that he’d be acting as a secretary for the head of a company and that the offer was based upon his build. An interview of strange questions results in getting the job which immediately transitions to three men wearing nothing but towels surrounding Shinada; apparently the president is a gay man who brings men in under false pretenses with the expectation of sex. The problem is solved by thrashing all three men, then being given some money in apology for the scheme.

Writers also seemed to have contradictory opinions on sex work. Part 4, featuring Shinada, has a character named Milky who seems to have no qualms with working in the business of massages with happy endings. She’s in her 40s but never shamed for her age, and is made out as somewhat of a love interest for Shinada.

Another sex worker is encountered in a side quest where it’s uncovered that she’s been working overtime to give money to her boyfriend so he can pay off a massive debt. Turns out, the debt was a lie and he was just using her so he’d have free spending money for himself and his other girlfriend. He tries to shame her for her line of work, but Shinada takes him down a notch and defends the young woman.

With both of these characters appearing so early in Shinada’s story—and no anti-sex work precedent set in the rest of the game—you’d assume the writers were taking a progressive approach.

Soon after, you’ll find a side quest in which a seventeen-year-old woman is being told by the manager of a massage parlor that she’s too young to join. Shinada later finds her trying to get employment at another establishment, learning the young woman seeks to pay off a loan shark her father got involved with. The end of the quest has Shinada lecturing her about the world of sex work; she’s informed that nobody enters sex work of their own volition, and any who say they enjoy it are lying.

It’s a sharp contrast to the rest of the game and equates sex work with the illegal sex trade. More confusing is that the game is fully aware of the difference between the two; another quest for Shinada has a foreign woman explain clearly how the illegal sex trade operates, with police returning runaway workers back to their pimps and the pimps tricking women into traveling to countries with promises of wonderful jobs.

Women are handled with better care. 

A common trope in media is the damsel in distress: a woman is captured, kidnapped, or put in some kind of predicament and along comes our hero man to save the day. Yakuza 5, while containing damseling, uses it very sparingly. The majority of characters you’re saving are men, with several women taking prominent roles without dependence on any men.

Milky, from above, is a great example—existing as her own free agent in control of her life. Haruka, while needing saved at one point, spends the majority of her story relying solely on herself and her own ambition. The various hostesses you encounter don’t feel crafted just for your character, but have their own lives that never revolve around the whims of the player.

Nor are the women modeled to be nothing but titillating objects. Hostesses wear beautiful, tasteful dresses you’d expect at a political dinner, draped upon realistic bodies with realistic proportions. They’re a far cry from the women in the strip club of Hitman: Absolution, who were impossible to tell apart and seemed almost comically constructed. Meanwhile, the player is never given a sex prize full of uncanny valley interactions; at most, the end to some hostess arcs result in a hug and a flash to white before returning to the streets.

The closest the game comes to the standard kind of clunky, awkward sex scene you see in some games occurs during an early cutscene with Kiryu. A woman who has been staying with Kiryu wishes he would reciprocate her feelings. As he stands in his apartment, she slips off her nightgown and stands naked in front of him.

Not an uncommon scene in media, of course. Yet Kiryu rejects her advances without the camera ever panning to actually showcase her nudity.

Let’s be clear for a moment: nudity isn’t sinful or to be abhorred when it comes to video games. Certainly, there must be a story-driven game out there where nudity isn’t out of place, used as a prize to objectify an otherwise blank slate character, or designed so poorly it looks like two mannikins physically assaulting each other while blindfolded. I just have yet to find that game.

The few games I’ve come across where nudity is showcased, the intention seemed solely to arouse the player and hide the fact that the game had poor writing or a lack of worthwhile content.

This scene in Yakuza 5, while still cliched and not without imperfections, felt justified due to the context. It also helped maintain the soap opera-esque directing of the story cutscenes. Really, it’s an example to those that love this industry of exactly how artful games can be when proper care is taken.

Women who aren’t hostesses are presented realistically as well. In a somewhat rare—but increasingly more common—fashion, women in the game are written and treated as actual people. The writers occasionally slip in some critiques of sexism to boot. The first one you’ll likely encounter occurs when talking with the hostess in Part 1, wherein Kiryu comments that he doesn’t agree with the traditional expectation that women be the only cooks in a household. Later on, Kiryu will lampshade his own actions after saving a woman being hassled by a couple men, noting he really didn’t need to step in as the woman was in control of the situation herself without his help.

But the writing of women isn’t without its own problems. 

One side quest that spans all characters is about acquired moves called Revelations. The first one you encounter is a woman being harassed by a man as she tries to enter a cab. Using a switch for the automatic door on the cab, the driver is able to slam the man’s head without ever leaving his seat—inspiring Kiryu to learn a brutal move whenever battling near black cabs.

The woman in the cab mentions that the man is a stalker, and this is a frequently recurring trope throughout the game. Many of the encounters in which you save a woman will involve a stalker, with Part 3’s Akiyama having an entire quest of uncovering several men who are stalking the teenaged Haruka (it turns out each thought the other was a stalker and were staking out her apartment to protect her).

Haruka herself is given a story full of creepy encounters. As she’s a pop idol, it’s expected that she will participate in magazine interviews, television appearances, and meet-and-greets with fans. It could be argued that some of the creepiness I’m about to describe is in fact satire of the idol culture in Japan; some of it seems so egregious that there’s no way it isn’t satire.

The most likely to be satire involves specific men who appear in any crowd when she’s holding an event. They’re generally modeled as men in their late 20s to early 30s, and are distinct for a specific type of pink, black, and white jacket they wear. Meet-and-greet events are mini-games where Haruka must shake fans’ hands for long enough to raise a satisfaction bar without shaking for so long that the bouncer pulls the fan away. While shaking hands, fans will say something and you must respond with a proper response (all of which are color-coded).

The pink-jacketed fans will often tell Haruka that they wish to marry her, how sexy she is, and other unsettling comments that she’s expected to respond to cheerfully. Once you’ve stopped shaking their hands, the men will take a few steps away and be seen in full view of the camera excitedly sniffing their own hands before running off.

Again, this specific interaction seems so far-out that anything but satire would be a poor explanation.

Another side quest involves Haruka participating in a television show where idols compete in sports like darts or pool. One of these competitions pits her against a fellow female idol in a game of air hockey while both participants wear kimonos. The tutorial explains that you can ‘psych’ your opponent out by pressing a button to stare at their chest. Which is…odd, to say the least. Before the filming begins, your opponent will make some advancements towards Haruka that suggest a romantic interest. After winning the game, the opponent becomes almost hysterical in her affection for Haruka.

Haruka’s Revelation is another odd case. While walking around Soutenbori, she’ll get challenged to a dance battle by a very arrogant, snotty girl modeled to be very heavyset. The girl claims to be an idol herself with a lot of confidence in her skills, but fails the dance battle in mere seconds. She berates Haruka and disappears, but you’ll find her in the same spot a little later as she tries to show her skills.

The clear joke here is meant to be that a girl of her size believes she can be a beautiful idol—awfully low brow compared to some of the fantastic conversations this game contains. For some reason, the writers also included a jab at her class; she’s excited about hitting up a clothing store where she can pickup outfits for the equivalent of ten bucks. Haruka tells her than an idol would be expected to dress in more expensive, branded clothing.

Tragedy surrounds the most troubling case of writing. A very strong, fully-developed female character gives the impression they’ll be around the story for quite some time. However, their entire arc is ended almost as quickly as it begins, accompanied by a rush of depressing revelations seeming to exist only for emotional weight to their departure. Within the span of a few minutes, you discover this character was an abused orphan whose career ended due to being a married teenager with Korean ancestry and an abortion. Her husband left so that she could continue her career, but her company still dismissed her. And, of course, the abortion made it so she can no longer have children.

All of this is presented to the player roughly two minutes before the character is killed off-screen, and right after several conversations that range from touching to wholly character-establishing. Several other deceased characters end up coming back from the dead throughout the game, but this very important woman isn’t provided that luxury.

It could be argued that her death was important to the plot—except it never feels fully justified. The resolution of the thread started by her death never gives much explanation of why she specifically had to die for the plot to work. There were a dozen different ways that thread could’ve been handled, but the writers chose to make her death the result of an angry man being mad about money taking revenge a step too far.

The only consolation is knowing the man responsible at least suffered his own betrayal and a hefty dose of his own medicine.

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