The end of a story twelve years in the making
Kazuma Kiryu's story is over. The realisation hit me like a punch to the gut followed by a slow-motion, glowing, blue-flamed kick to the side of the face. When Sega announced that Yakuza 6 would be the final chapter for Kazuma Kiryu, the main star of the Yakuza series for seven main chapters now, expectations were high among Yakuza fans. There's been heated debate about how successfully his departure from the series was handled, but I think it was perfectly judged; a fitting tribute to the man himself, and a lesson for other game series that dropped the ball on their final chapter.
Uncle Kaz has been in my life for twelve years now. In 2006, on a portable TV in the kitchen of my university flat, I witnessed the beginning of his fascinating and labyrinthine arc. At the very beginning of Yakuza, he makes the decision to take the fall after his best friend murders the Dojima family boss. It's a sombre beginning; Kiryu stands holding a gun, his face stricken with sadness as he contemplates the people he has to say goodbye to after making his decision to go to prison.
From these opening moments onwards, I was hooked on his story.
The reason Kazuma Kiryu is so compelling is because he transcends the "gangster with a heart of gold" stereotype. At every major point in the Yakuza series, Kiryu's decision is always to take the path of most resistance (usually dozens of angry men who are about to get their faces smashed into the ground) towards the best outcome for the people he cares for. In a series known for its melodrama, twists and turns and conniving, scheming villains, Kazuma Kiryu always stands firm as an unwavering and utterly dependable force for Doing The Right Thing. He's predictable, but that's what makes him work so well.
It also helps that Doing The Right Thing always involves punching guys (or tigers) in the face, a major plus point for a video game character.
However, after six chapter in the Yakuza series (1-5 plus the 80's set prequel Yakuza 0) Sega made the decision to change things drastically for Yakuza 6. As the game continues on, the over-the-top melodrama the series is known for starts to become less prominent, and the game focusses inwards on Kiryu himself; it's a less epic tale than previous games in the series. I think this is why some series fans have felt shortchanged by Yakuza 6; they went in wanting a big celebration of everything the series has had in it up to this point, but received something a bit more low-key. Relatively low-key anyway; there's still a fight involving a helicopter and one major plot reveal that caused me to genuinely laugh out loud.
There are two main reasons why Yakuza 6 works so well for me. The first is simple: Kiryu has more agency in this story than he has had in a long time, arguably since he made that fateful decision to take the fall for Dojima's murder at the very beginning of Yakuza. In his final chapter, Kiryu acts rather than reacts. He decides his destiny and drives the plot forward with his actions, where in previous games he sometimes seemed to just go along for the ride.
Some of his decisions are rash and ill-advised, but to him they are the right thing to do. Right at the start of the game, he decides to take Haruto into his own care, fully aware of the legal ramifications, and his decision leads straight into one of the series' best and most hilarious fights.
The other main reason Yakuza 6 works so well is that it has grown up. The series has always been made for adults; it's violent and indulges in its red-light district setting. There have been many bloody and gruesome moments in the series, but they've always felt like a very high budget soap opera.
In Yakuza 6, however, the feeling I started to get towards the end of the game wasn't of soap-operas or TV dramas, but much more adult frames-of-reference. Korean revenge cinema, with its twisted and sadistic scenes of violence, and sheer cruelty exhibited by its villains (and sometimes heroes too...) was a much more accurate simile. The main villain of Yakuza 6 is seen by fans as a cop-out; a poorly judged surprise and ultimately a disappointment. For me though, he's the most dangerous that Kiryu has ever faced.
There's one scene in particular, after a boss fight that recalls the bloodbath at the end of A Bittersweet Life, which is probably the cruelest moment in Yakuza series history; a moment that would have previously been portrayed as noble, emotional sacrifice in other Yakuza games, but here was simply shocking in its violence and the desperation of the participating characters. It cemented the sheer threat of the main villain, and was a clear indication that the writers had really stepped up and delivered an ending befitting Kazuma Kiryu.
Other series should take note. Where Metal Gear Solid 4 ended Solid Snake's story with a confusing mess that tried to tie up every loose end, Yakuza 6 focusses on its main star. Where Uncharted 4 basically gave Nathan Drake his cake and had him eat it too, Yakuza 6 has the bravery to ask Kazuma Kiryu to decide his fate and see through his decision with conviction.
I'll never forget my time with Kazuma Kiryu. For twelve years he's been the video game character I most look forward to revisiting as new chapters in his story are released. Now I'm looking forward to never seeing him again.