Hit an enemy in Sega’s Yakuza 0 and cash explodes from their body. Bills burst into the air in time with each good smack, notes fluttering to the ground like the victim is a rich kid’s piñata and not a human being the player is battering half to death in back-alley Tokyo or Osaka. Though the Yakuza series has always had a complicated relationship with reality (just check the glowing auras that surround enraged mobsters during combat), these yen explosions are something else. They’re a detail meant to remind the player at all times that cash is the raison d’être of the 1980s Japan she explores.
The yakuza, like all organized crime groups, primarily exists to make money. It accomplishes this through traditional racketeering and the trafficking of people and illicit goods, but also by manipulating the economy through semi-legal techniques. Most important for its portrayal in Yakuza 0 are jiageya, yakuza or yakuza-run eviction businesses that strong-arm property owners into sales that benefit lucrative, large-scale real estate developers hoping to build on an occupied plot of land.
Jiageya became especially prominent in the second half of the 1980s same time that Japan was entering into its “bubble economy. With so much money changing hands and with real estate values skyrocketing, the yakuza were eager to capitalize. Jiageya are infamous for forcing land sales in ways that banks and above-board real estate companies could never directly employ. Tenants who refused to sell could find themselves neighbors to yakuza who move into nearby properties, blaring music and destroying the surrounding area in between bouts of verbal (or occasionally physical) intimidation. Often enough, the jiageya would get what they wanted and these forced sales yielded enormous profits, with banks, real estate firms and criminal groups gaining huge amounts of money and increased bureaucratic power.
Yakuza 0 is centered on an especially dramatic example of jiageya activity. In it, various factions vie for control over a valuable piece of undeveloped land in the middle of Kamurocho (the series’ analogue for Shinjuku, Tokyo’s entertainment/red-light district, Kabukicho). “The Empty Lot” is nothing more than an ugly patch of back street strewn with bits of rebar and industrial trash, but it’s also the final step in buying up an entire area of the city that’s soon to be the target of a massive gentrification project.
The game is set in December 1988, toward the tail end of the economic boom. Series mainstays Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima are still young, both having been exiled from the fictional yakuza Tojo Clan after Kiryu is framed for murder and Majima is involved in an unsanctioned hit. As Kiryu, the player explores a virtual Tokyo, earning incredible amounts of money by both beating up rival gangsters and running a real estate firm. As Majima, she makes a fortune through street fights and managing a hostess club in Sotenbori, the game’s version of Dotonbori, Osaka. As the story unfolds, both men find themselves embroiled in the labyrinthine schemes of various factions vying for control of the Empty Lot. The plot contorts around this central point, sudden twists and reversals of loyalty ending just about every chapter in Yakuza series tradition. Regardless of the details, though, the focus never shifts far away from its thematic heart: greed.
On a moment-to-moment level, gaining cash is the player’s basic objective. Yakuza 0 does away with its predecessors’ experience points, gating new combat moves and increases to Kiryu and Majima’s health bars and damage output behind skills that can only be unlocked with an injection of money. Learning a spinning kick move might cost ¥400,000. Late in the game, getting a few extra millimeters of maximum health unlocked can run ¥50,000,000 or more.
At first, beating roaming enemy gangs is enough to buff a character up. Dozens of yen notes visibly swirl around a street fight, waiting to be automatically tallied up and added to the player’s wallet as soon as the fight ends. In true bubble economy fashion, though, these immediate riches are never enough. Kiryu has to spend money buying and investing in property to truly cash out from his real estate firm mini-game. Majima needs to recruit women to his hostess club in another character specific sidegame by offering expensive gifts that make his business more attractive.
Before the player realizes it, three or four hours might go by accumulating far more money than is necessary to buy another upgrade—to become strong enough to keep playing the game. Those obsessed with making their characters as tough as possible (or scaling the mountain of filling the game’s “completion percentage” menu option to a full 100%) will find these diversions par for the course. The majority of players happy to explore at random and see the story through to its end, though, might start to wonder what the point is of earning so much more money than they’ll ever need. Maybe, the game quietly suggests, there really isn’t one.
An indictment of greed isn’t just implied by Yakuza 0’s play design. It’s also central to the game’s plot. Kiryu finds himself working for Tachibana Real Estate and is soon mixed up with jiageya, witnessing exorbitant pay-offs and gang-led evictions firsthand. Majima, hoping only to regain entry to the Tojo Clan, is involved in a scheme for control over the Empty Lot that involves murdering ordinary civilians. In both cases, Kiryu and Majima end up disgusted by the machinations of their bosses. They’re the heroes of the game because they draw a line in the sand, refusing to get carried away by a love of money.
Though always eager to paint despicable characters as basically sympathetic, Yakuza 0’s irredeemable villains are those who can’t resist the allure of wealth. This has been true in past games, but it’s exaggerated within the hypercompetitive context of the bubble economy’s real estate boom. In Yakuza a gangster can still have a heart of gold, even if their job involves cracking endless skulls in service of the criminal underworld. (Series hero Kiryu runs an orphanage in other entries; Majima’s trouble in Yakuza 0 almost all boils down to him caring too much for other people.) In the series’ logic, the truly evil yakuza are those who are motivated only by a lust for power and money.
Yakuza 0’s villains are, specifically, yakuza obsessed with taking ownership of the Empty Lot, even if means putting the property owner through hell and murdering anyone who stands in the way of their goals. Condemning greed is a good message to impart—using the excesses of the past to say something universally true (if a bit obvious) about humanity is always worthwhile. But, Yakuza 0 isn’t quite as successful at choosing its targets as it thinks. While the villains are rightly demonized for seeing other people opportunistically, Majima is valorized for standing up to their plans, even as he runs a hostess club where his employees are treated like well-dressed livestock. A nominal hero, much of Majima’s money later in the game comes from his ability to manage a club minigame where he shuffles women in and out of conversations with clients, increases their traits (“Sexy,” “Funny,” “Cute” and “Beautiful”) by changing their appearance and extracts as much personal profit as possible from turning humans into a financial resource.
This is one of the most direct examples of Yakuza 0’s understanding of women as living capital—elsewhere, for example, photo cards with models in bikinis are used as game collectables; finding them unlocks viewable softcore porn videos. While this junior high titillation isn’t a problem in and of itself, an unquestioned willingness to turn women into rewards and resources shows that the game hasn’t applied its standards for heroism and villainy as thoroughly as it might have. The evil yakuza see people as potential profit. The good ones, in their own way, do the same.
Yakuza 0 benefits from hindsight, its creators knowing that the excesses of the bubble economy would lead to the financial collapse of Japan’s “Lost Decade,” the ‘90s marking an end to decades of rapid post-war economic growth. It’s a game that uses its historic setting for more than window dressing. By placing itself in the ‘80s, the story finds room to blame the avarice of jiageya and yakuza groups directly without forgetting to implicate the ignorance (and greed) of the banks, politicians and real-estate firms who enabled them, too. In stressing that human life is worth more than money, it approaches a solid criticism of capitalist excess. If Yakuza 0 followed through—if it was willing to apply this viewpoint to every character in its story—it would accomplish this fully, without any unfortunate caveats.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen, VICE and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), edits Bullet Points Monthly, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.