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Saturday, June 22, 2024

‘Like a Dragon: Ishin!’ Is a True Yakuza Game

Shortly after Ryoma Sakamoto, the historical figure fictionalized as the protagonist of Like a Dragon: Ishin!, must flee as a fugitive wanted for the violent death of his adoptive father, he heads to the chicken races. Brow furrowed, still armed with the swords and revolver with which he fights his enemies, Sakamoto places wagers on competitors with names like Rooster Booster and King of Wings in a Kyoto betting house, and then watches to see whether his favored fowl wins him money.

After he’s finished, Sakamoto may be guided by the player toward the next step in a quest for vengeance, whose outcome shapes 19th-century Japan’s entry into the modern world. Or they might have him visit his farm to plant vegetables, or head on down to a crude, potentially deadly version of a batting cage to practice his swordsmanship by deflecting cannonballs fired at him by a cheerful artilleryman.

Ishin!, like past entries to the series formerly called Yakuza and now retitled as Like a Dragon, has a unique tone. It’s as concerned with the melodramatics of its characters’ personal lives and the twisting intrigues of rival political factions as it is with making the player crack a smile at irreverent mini games and side missions. It’s important to note, too, that Ishin! is a spin-off from the main series, and repurposes the voice actors and character likenesses of the main series’ sprawling cast as the faces and voices of figures from Japan’s Bakumatsu period.

This historical setting trades the somewhat lower stakes of modern organized crime for those of the tumultuous years of the 1850s and ’60s, which saw Japan violently emerge from centuries of international isolation and feudal government to a nominally democratic industrialized nation. And its hero, Sakamoto, is based on a man whose life was defined by the instrumental role he played in ending the seven-centuries-long rule of the country’s military government. 

A protagonist like this, even when treated to the kind of liberty Ishin! takes, doesn’t seem like he’d be a star candidate for a series that pairs hours of dramatic cutscenes with absurdist slice-of-life scenarios and mini games. He isn’t even a member of the yakuza.

Aside from one entry set in the late 1980s and another spin-off set in the early 17th century that’s not yet released in English, Like a Dragon has always taken place in modern Japan. The series examines contemporary social and political issues through the lens of organized crime along with the light-heartedness of life in a major city, home not only to hardened gangsters and ruthless businesspeople but also eccentrics and regular citizens. 

Jumping backward by more than a century—and shifting Like a Dragon’s viewpoint from the relatively blank canvas of modern life to the well-known record of major historical figures at the center of a thoroughly documented, studied, and taught moment in time—could have required a change in tone too drastic to retain much of the familiar Like a Dragon spirit.

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Fortunately, it didn’t. Ishin!’s portrayal of Bakumatsu history squirms between encouraging and retreating from an advocation of nationalism and militarism. Similarly, past Like a Dragon games avoided the endorsement of specific viewpoints by taking complex portrayals of thorny issues, like government corruption, and boiling them down to simpler messages about the power of determined, pure-hearted individuals to overcome political cynicism.

If Ishin! is hesitant to make strong judgments about sticky matters—like the form of government Sakamoto and his fellow loyalists fought to create, which in certain vital elements presaged Japan’s fascist empire, or Sakamoto’s fictionalized membership in the Shinsengumi police force—it’s only following suit with earlier games.

Most notably, however, the goofball spirit that runs through every Like a Dragon game remains intact in both Ishin!’s side stories and its main plot. Walking around 19th-century Kyoto, Sakamoto is frequently accosted by locals or tourists who seek his help in matters that include picking mochi thieves out of a suspect line-up, cooking lunch for a visiting warlord, helping author Natsume Soseki title his books, and matchmaking an unconfident samurai with a woman he believes himself too ugly to date. When he stops by local businesses, Sakamoto might end up taking a busy shift at an udon restaurant or helping to entertain a bar’s customers by taking the stage to sing a kind of proto-karaoke.

This breezy tone surfaces in the main plotline, too. As expected of the series, heroic male characters frequently settle scores or end debates with fights, whose over-the-top expressions of “traditional” gender roles reach heights of ultramasculine camp on the level of winking homoeroticism. (A bathhouse brawl between Sakamoto and another character presents a series highlight in this regard, with two gruff men taking the measure of each other by fist-fighting naked, puffs of steam obscuring their genitals as they roar, grunt, and grapple with each other.) 

The portrayal of key historical figures is similarly flippant. Throughout the game, Sakamoto encounters those controlling the levers of political power, and, more often than not, ends up facing off against them in boss battles where names usually seen in history books hover above health bars.

This kind of good-hearted charm falters in Ishin!’s depictions of women, famous or otherwise, who function not as characters but as accessories to the male heroes and villains. This, unfortunately, is a problem as common to the entire Like a Dragon series as the rest of the game’s features.

Ishin! shows that Like a Dragon’s spirit—its desire to meld melodrama, social commentary, and unselfconscious silliness into a surprisingly coherent whole—can be translated to just about any setting, even one as outwardly incongruous as an era defined by years of violent political strife and cultural upheaval. This speaks to its creators’ understanding of what makes Like a Dragon work, even if it also demonstrates blind spots in plot and character writing. It also shows the boundless potential for reinvention in a series that’s been regularly releasing entries for nearly two decades, without any signs of slowing down in the future.

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