I beat Yakuza 3 tonight, which is why I’m up so late.
The Yakuza series is excellent for many reasons, chief among which is protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, who is just so effortlessly badass throughout that you can’t help but admire him. And yet he somehow manages to be this way without falling into the testosterone-fuelled arsehole trap, which is good. One could argue that it’s further evidence that the Japanese are actually rather good at writing strong, interesting, deep and flawed characters, while the West is often stuck in Tropesville. (This is a gross generalisation, of course, but Yakuza does provide good ammunition against anyone who says Eastern games are just about big-eyed anime girls and floppy-haired teenage protagonists.)
However, one thing was at the back of my mind while I was playing, and it relates to this (rather ranty) Eurogamer opinion piece from a week or two back, during the “girlfriend mode” scandal, also known as “Game Developer Says Something Stupid, Episode 357”. The article had a point — people should speak up when misogyny and sexism rear their ugly heads — but the fact that the article specifically called out Yakuza for being sexist really bothered me.
It raised an interesting question, you see. Yakuza certainly features depictions of a particular breed of sexism and misogyny endemic to Japanese big-city life, but does that make the game, in itself, inherently sexist? Does the fact that the game allows its protagonist to visit “hostess bars” and attempt to romance the women within mean it is a sexist work? Does the fact that the game allows the protagonist to visit a poledancing club mean that it is misogynistic?
You could argue the case for “yes”, clearly, but the perspective from which I approach the Yakuza series is that it provides a (mostly) realistic depiction of another culture that is relatively alien to my own. Part of that culture is sexist, and to deny that it exists causes the depiction of that culture to no longer be accurate or realistic, putting the developers in something of a quandary. Sure, we could probably do without the lengthy cutscenes depicting poledancers doing their thing just before there’s a big manly fight, but for the most part, the Yakuza games depict sexism rather than actually being outright sexist. (As a matter of fact, the incidental female characters in the “hostess bars” are considerably more well-developed than any number of T&A-toting heroines from Western games in recent years. The game also passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours.)
Should we decry Yakuza as a bad thing for showing it like it is and not attempting to make a positive change in society? No, no we shouldn’t. Because not all art is there to make life better. Not all art is there to make a positive change. Not all art is there to create a utopian vision of What Life Should Be Like. Some art is there to depict How Life Is, and Yakuza succeeds in that admirably.
While I do believe it is important to call out sexism and misogyny in the industry when it comes up, I don’t believe the Yakuza series is the biggest problem. I don’t believe it’s a particular problem at all, to be honest. The writers of Yakuza create female characters who are real, interesting people rather than sex objects, and the protagonist interacts with them accordingly. Any sexism present in the game is a result of accurately depicting a sexist society — with the possible exception of the aforementioned poledancing cutscene, but one could argue that was there to establish ambience and atmosphere. And it’s not as if Kazuma goes around beating or raping women, either — every antagonist in the game is male, and Kaz himself treats all the women he comes across with nothing but respect, save for the odd option to give a cheeky, innuendo-filled response to a hostess.
Were the Yakuza series to be sanitised and watered down, with anything deemed to be sexist or misogynistic stripped out, a big part of the game’s authentic-feeling Japanese atmosphere would be gone. As much as we would like to believe we live in a world where there is true equality, the fact is we do not — and in many places around Japan, this is particularly obvious. To deny that this happens by whitewashing your content — particularly in a game that is aimed at adults — would just be short-sighted, and I’d argue that it’s more helpful to acknowledge that all this goes on without being hysterical or sensationalist about it.
But anyway. Yakuza 3 is pretty great. You should play it.