Warning: Discussion of this game contains spoilers and the references to suicide which some people may find difficult.
Yakuza 0 is a game about many things. It’s about the struggle to pay back debts of gratitude that potentially are too large to ever give back. It’s about the conflict that arises to balance ambition with humility and dignity. It’s about wanting to simply live a free life while caught up in the endless and often bloody machinations of politics. While at the same time Yakuza 0 is also about helping random strangers be better people, solving their issues, and also bashing in ugly gangster skulls into the concrete with your fist.
With a game as well written as Yakuza 0 there’s so much to talk about and so little time to do it in. Perhaps in the future I’ll get to write about everything I loved about this game. But for today I want to talk about Yakuza 0’s most poignant theme of leaving a legacy and the conflict between ideals and the reality of life.
Or at least that’s underlying theme of Kazama Kiryu’s story. That’s not even close to mentioning the other half of the story with Goro Majima which… is an entirely different can of busted skulls ripe for the analysis.
Usually I only talk about Shonen and Shonen Jump but honestly Yakuza 0 is basically a Shonen as is. So I’m not very far out of my comfort zone here.
Kazama Kiryu and Keiji Shibusawa: Origin
“It’s our lives. Our future. We can decide… I owe you everything, but this isn’t about that. And don’t play the saint. You’re yakuza yourself… Considering that. You have no right to tell us we can’t be yakuza… You’ve got no right! We’ve looked up to you for all this time. Your car. Your confidence… The way everyone bows to you. We idolized you. Is that so wrong?! Is that too much…? Do orphans not get dream!?” -Kazama Kiryu
As a devote Epicurean I strive to meet my ideals by wanting little and asking little in return to other people. So it might seem rather backwards that someone who considers most efforts people undertake in the name of vain ideals to be writing a script on a story of ambition. However, contrary to that initial dichotomy, much like with Epicurus and when Plato wrote the Republic, when everyone around you is obsessed with ambition, glory, and other measures of success that come from outside rather than within, you start to see the true nature of humanity and society.
So while I am an Epicurean that doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that the fact that Keiji Shibusawa, final boss of Kazama Kiryu’s story, is absolutely correct. People have needs. And it’s these, idealized and ultimately unnecessary needs, that convinced philosophers of yesterday that most humans are incapable of reaching.
It always starts the same way most things to, with a simple dream. There is nothing uncommon about dreaming of prosperity, wealth and honor. To dream for the opposite is almost unnatural in comparison. In that sense Keiji Shibusawa and Kazama Kiryu have analogous formative experiences which is why the two characters make perfect foils for each other. Both grew up looking to the father/mentor figure they idolized attempting to carve out a legend for themselves. For Kiryu that was the almost mythological figure that is the yakuza Captain Kazama Shintaro. For Keiji it was his father attempting to climb the political latter. However, while their origins are similar it’s where their father figures differ in methods and results that paint a more grim picture of reality.
Reality Of The Idealized Legend: Respect the Past
Given that this is my first Yakuza game I cannot give as much insight into the man named Kazama Shintaro. How he’s portrayed within the narrative of Yakuza 0 the game wants you to think he’s the second coming of Lelouch V. All For One Riboku descended from Yakuza heaven to style on everyone in the story with his overwhelming strategic and tactical mind despite only showing up like twice throughout the entire story.
And to that end yes, he does very much seem like he lives up to that legend. Infact if this Yakuza 0 was not a story about legends, ambitions and legacies this praise of Kazama Shintaro would be a negative and not an overwhelming point in the narrative’s favor. The story of Yakuza 0 is told through the eyes of its many characters, Kazama Kiryu most of all. In the majority of their eyes, Kazama is not only legendary strategist, but also a paragon of the idealized virtuous yakuza.
Humans, however, are nothing if not unideal. To almost every legend (that isn’t Yoshihiro Togashi) there is a darker underside that history has a tendency to bury for the sake of having an example for those to follow. “Do as I say. Don’t do as I do.” (my least favorite quote of all time)
Kazama Kiryu is a man who holds his idealized vision of what a yakuza and a man should be very deeply in his heart. But reality oft cares very little for our ideals. Because the ideal Kiryu has for a yakuza, the one built upon his idolization of a Shintaro, doesn’t exist. The Kazama Shintaro in Kiryu’s mind is merely an image projected based off of a whitewashed legend.
It’s here, where the split between the reality of building a legend and the simple idea of one are pointed out but someone who has witnessed the other half of trying to build a legend. A failure. While Kiryu watched Shintaro rise and envied that life, Keiji Shibusawa watched his father try to rise up the latter of politics and watched his father try to carve out his own legend on talent and merit alone. What Shibusawa ended up witnessing was his father being used up for all of his talent and then simply tossed aside when someone else needed a fall man. His hard work was not rewarded by life. Or rather, his hard work was merely abused by a system that, as he put it, “answers diligence with indifference”.
While Kazama Shintaro used up the people around him he grew, stepped over their bodies, and reached glory. In contrast Shibusawa’s father only relied on his own efforts and eventually lost and committed suicide.
Such is the reality of the world where hard work goes unrequited. And it’s this reality that Kiryu ultimately has no answer for and cannot refute.
We Write In Other People’s Blood: Bonds Cannot Be Severed
The actual question now arises? Is it true? Is the only way to make your legend by using other people? Is there, like Kiryu wanted, an existing way to build your legacy without the blood of other people acting as the ink of your own pen.
In short, no there is not. But that doesn’t mean it need be viewed, like Shibusawa saw it, so negatively. While Shibusawa presented the truth so harshly and bluntly that some, if not most, people will want to turn away from it the reverse can be said for Kazama Kiryu’s worldview. While pleasant to the eyes and ears it can also be seen as far too naive.
When we bring it down to material brass takts there is not a way to live your life alone. Blood is life, and life is time. Every living being had a mother and father that had to contribute to raise them, everyone meets others they come to grow fond of and form a bond. Whether that be of friendship, family, or in Kiryu and Nishiki’s case both. And even broadly you must someday acknowledge that nothing can be taken for granted. Other people’s blood, sweat, and life have gone into even building the societal infrastructure that we can now operate in today right down to the school buildings and public spaces we use.
Forgetting that we owe at minimum a meager debt of gratitude to everything around us is dangerous because it leads to isolation. Whereas Kiryu had a brother in Nishiki to keep from going too far over the edge and giving up his ideals, even willing to cross that boundary together, Shibusawa had no one by his side.
As perhaps the purest soul next to Kiryu’s put it, “You see, Kiryu-san, I firmly believe that we must all use anyone and everyone around us. Such was the way of the world where I grew up. Any less, and one one simply not survive. To say nothing of climbing up the ranks. The only question was how to extract the most from others, whether through money, force, or any other means. I am sure it was a world far different from the one that gave rise to a gentle soul like you. […] However… unlike you, I have no friends that would risk their lives for my sake. In the end, those who have gathered around me have done so to use me in return. You describe yourself as an idiot. Well… I suppose I too aspire to be such an idiot.” – Tachibana
In this world we cannot escape using others to survive. We must write in other people’s blood. But others can gift you there’s to use. That’s what friendship and bonds are at their finest. The virtue of these bonds negates any negative stigma that people might have towards using their friends, because a true friend is always ready to help.
Ultimately, Kiryu after the events of Yakuza 0 goes back to the Dojima family despite the troubles it will bring him. Because Kazama is a true synthesis of everything he holds dear and everything he has learned.
He still wants to make his own legend but he’s committed to carving out a path separate from the blood legend of Kazama Shintaro. If he were to give up and live a quiet life of a civilian again to would be a silent but implicit recognition of defeat. That his ideals were not only based on a falsehood, but also entirely unachievable. And that doesn’t sit right with Kiryu.
Nor should it sit well with anyone of us. Keep your purest ideals in your heart. Don’t forget them, and don’t change them.