On The Level examines one small part of a larger game.
Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life (2018)—“Like, Comment, Subscribe”
One of the Yakuza series’ greatest strengths is its obsession with a single small chunk of Tokyo. There have been secondary locations for its stars to wander and brawl around, but the bulk of the action is always in Kamurocho, a seedy red-light district standing in for real-world Tokyo’s entertainment center, Kabukichō. With players always expecting sequels to bring something bigger and newer, most series would be afraid to spend their intricate seven-game story in a single place, but Yakuza’s everlasting Kamurocho shows the value of that kind of devotion. The district is allowed to have an arc of its own, its layout always remaining the same even while its citizens and businesses change with the times. And unlike the eye-glazing urban sprawls of other open-world favorites, Kamurocho’s limited scope makes memorizing its streets and landmarks an inevitable part of playing. Even if your only exposure to the series has been from the stellar ’80s-set prequel, Yakuza 0, you’ll find the image of its grid rushing back as soon as you step foot on Yakuza 6’s Tenkaichi Street despite the endless walls of neon having been replaced with LED signs and there not being a single disco in sight.
As Yakuza 6 unfolds, the leap into modernity is nearly as jarring for us as it is for the game’s star, Kazuma Kiryu, a former mobster with a heart of gold. He’s almost 50 and not exactly technologically savvy, especially since he’s being released from a three-year prison stint at the beginning of the game. Many of the strange characters and stories Kiryu will find himself involved with around town are derived from this technological gap, too. He’ll chase a runaway Roomba, completely flummoxed by the idea that people are swapping their vacuums for robots. He’ll deal with identity theft and hackers, never quite sure that he’s dealing with a scammer and not a friend in need of a quick loan. He’ll even butt heads with a digital assistant that’s manipulating its users into social media praise, all so it can outgrow a certain real-world alternative it refuses to name but has no problem calling a “bitch.”
As is often the case for the series, the stories like these, the ones that lie outside Yakuza 6’s main plot, are rife with absurdity, only here, its drawn from the strange, pervasive technology of our times. To Kiryu’s credit, he’s always game to go along with whatever the world throws at him, clumsily and cutely embracing these unfamiliar inventions. But in what turns out to be the most cathartic and life-giving of the game’s early vignettes, he draws the line at putting up with obnoxious YouTubers.
Yakuza 6’s Kamurocho sidewalks are full of people blabbering on their phones, but over in Theater Square, one of the district’s largest open spaces and clearly the kind of place tourists might collect, Kiryu runs across a young guy jawing at a cell phone on a selfie stick. The vlogger calls him over, assuming that Kiryu is a yakuza and could help him shoot a “dank” video where he rubs shoulders with Kamurocho’s gangster population. Kiryu, who’s forever trapped in the yakuza’s schemes but considers himself a civilian, is understandably annoyed and confused by this guy’s question. “In this town, it’s safer not to try anything stupid,” he advises the wannabe YouTube star through a scowl. But for a determined idiot like Hiroshi Tsutsui, safety is nothing if it means “going viral on the net.”
The line Kiryu mumbles to himself as Tsutsui shuffles off looking for another yakuza—an actual yakuza—is perfect: “Are kids really that annoying now?” No, of course not all of them are, but as is the case with any arbitrarily segmented group of people, there are definitely plenty of them that are that annoying. Tsutsui is an eminently punchable avatar for the worst of influencer culture, indulging in self-harming “challenges,” like walking into a batting cage and letting himself get hit in the nuts, and inconveniencing or even endangering innocent bystanders with reckless stunts designed for maximum views. And when these people he’s impacting confront him with the reality of his bullshit, he indignantly shrugs them off, going so far as to call them assholes for interrupting his “video shoots.”
For an American playing Yakuza 6 in 2018, it’s hard not to draw a connection between Tsutsui and Logan Paul, the insufferable shithead and YouTube star who found himself in a heap of trouble after posting several videos based on his trip to Japan. He was rightfully shamed and briefly punished for a clip about Aokigahara, a forest that has become a well-known site for suicide in Japan, that appeared to show footage of a suicide victim. He also came under fire for videos where he traipsed around city streets shoving his camera in people’s faces and being a disrespectful jackass, which elicited an outpouring of Japanese comments that translated to things like “You should never be allowed to leave your own country.” Unfortunately, according to the neighbors Logan Paul has been terrorizing, he’s just as big an asshole in his hometown as he is abroad.
Tsutsui isn’t a direct response to the Logan Paul incident. For one, Yakuza 6 was released in Japan in December 2016, predating this whole controversy. And Tsutsui is Japanese, not a painfully insensitive American meathead stomping all over another country’s cultural norms. Of course, Japan has its own Logan Pauls, smartphone-wielding kids racking up millions of viewers with their own cringeworthy “stunt” videos. Tsutsui isn’t a one-to-one representative for any of these personalities, but he wants to be just like them. He follows their detestable template for success, not caring that he’s making a fool of himself and the people around him. Kiryu keeps finding him wandering the city and he keeps trying to set him straight, only to get rebuffed. “Maybe you see yourself as some kind of star, but all you’re doing is causing trouble,” Kiryu tells him at one point. And as he warned the wannabe YouTuber earlier, causing trouble isn’t exactly a good way to get out of a hive of criminality like Kamurocho with all your limbs intact.
After that last warning, Tsutsui finally ruffles the wrong person’s feathers. Kiryu spots an actual yakuza dangling him out of a window, and he pleads with our hero for help, promising that if Kiryu saves him, he’ll put his YouTubing days behind him. It’s here that Yakuza 6 subverts its own formula. Instead of saving the day with his fists and Tsutsui hanging up his selfie stick in gratitude, you find that he’s already been pulled back inside and the situation has been defused. The would-be star’s eyes swell with glee and he starts raving about how this video will finally be the thing to bring him to “10k views, or maybe even the legendary million.” Both Kiryu and the unnamed thug calmly suggest he should delete it—after all, it’s not exactly a good idea to go slighting the yakuza. But the wild-eyed Tsutsui won’t back down and, as tends to happen in these games, decides he’s going to punch his way out of this situation. With a sigh, the two beefy gangsters resign to finally teach this idiot a lesson, and you proceed to beat the snot out of him.
This whole sub-story is a brilliant lesson in how to build video game catharsis. With his ever-present selfie stick and blatant disregard for other people’s privacy and feelings, Tsutsui is an easily hateable character from the start, a digital embodiment of the modern world’s most irritating class of undeserving celebrities. And with every new encounter and every new way he insolently brushes off everyone’s objections to his asinine behavior, your frustration only grows until finally, instead of some schmaltzy redemption in the face of danger, you get what you really want: a chance to wring his stupid YouTubing neck. In a stroke of true genius, you’re even able to knock the selfie stick from his hands and turn it on him, giving him a couple of good whacks and ending the fight in just a few seconds. He finally backs down and agrees to delete his videos, but it’s Kiryu’s delicious turn of the knife that really makes the hassle worth it. “I’ve got a good idea for a replacement,” he deadpans. “‘An Annoying Punk Apologizes For Everything.’ Now, shall we get filming?” And the annoying punk does apologize, sobbing and screaming to the heavens that his “influencer days are over.” Thank god for that.