Yakuza: Dead Souls is goofy. It's silly. It's a parody. The game looks like it has borrowed pages from both the Left4Dead and Resident Evil handbooks. Yet wrapped inside that hammy exterior is something surprising: reality.
When the game was originally about to be released, the Tohoku Earthquake hit. Yakuza: Dead Souls, with its images of death and destruction, was pushed back out of respect to the victims. The Western release just hit this week—two days after the first anniversary of the quake, and it probably could have been pushed back a month.
However, that's not the realism, I'm talking about. That's not it at all.
It's the yakuza. More importantly, what they stand for. Here that is, distilled in a zombie video game. Their image might be of tough guys breaking the law or fighting over turf, but it's sometimes the yakuza who are helping those who need it most. A famous example is 1995's Great Hanshin Earthquake ravaged Kobe. In the aftermath, police, fire, and rescue worked as hard as they could to save lives and rebuild. So did Japanese organized crime.
"The yakuza are Japan's mafia but unlike other countries, they are
semi-legal entities, regulated by the authorities, but their existence
is not banned," Jake Adelstein recently told Kotaku. The author of Tokyo Vice, Adelstein worked as an investigative journalist in Japan for sixteen years, covering crime and the yakuza.
Rather, Adelstein pointed out, Japanese gangsters have offices, business cards, and even fanzines. "The police call them 'boryokudan' (violent groups)," Adelstein said, "but they insist that they are 'ninkyodantai' (humanitarian groups)."
The majority of yakuza money comes via illegal activities, such as fraud, extortion, or gambling. However, said Adelstein, they actually sometimes help out those in need. It's also part of their PR campaign that casts yakuza as the good guys, and not just evil thugs.
"I jokingly refer to the modern profit driven yakuza as 'Goldman Sachs with guns' but that's actually unfair to the yakuza," said Adelstein. "They actually have some ethical standards."
The ethical standards Adelstein is talking about is the yakuza code. In theory, Adelstein said, yakuza are not supposed to steal or loot, rob people, use or sell drugs, rape, or do anything that disrupts "ninkyodo" or the "noble way."
For yakuza, the Japanese character "nin" (任) is very important as it appears in "ninkyo" (任侠). Incidentally, it also appears in "Nintendo" (任天堂), underscoring the company's possible gangster connection.
"And even though it may not be written down," Adelstein added, "the prevailing rule of thumb for yakuza is 'Katagi ni meiwaku wo kakenai' or 'Do not cause trouble to ordinary citizens.'"
This makes yakuza the ideal heroes for, well, a zombie invasion. Instead of running around stealing stereos of simply thinking of themselves, they're out to help others and follow their code.
The characters in Dead Souls are far cartoonier than in the other Yakuza games. While Dead Souls' dialogue, story, and voice acting is top shelf, the controls and shooting aren't nearly as good in other zombie games (and the camera is a mess), but this core element—having yakuza handle a disaster—feels very authentic. It feels authentic, because it is.
After the Tohoku Earthquake, yakuza, once again, offered humanitarian aid and assistance to those in need—something Adelstein covered first hand as well as detailing in the book Reconstructing 3/11—for which he's giving his royalties to charity, like "a good yakuza."
Yakuza: Dead Souls was completed in advance of the recent disaster. It does not reflect it. And in-game images of helpless Self-Defense Members ineffectively dealing with the crisis as gangsters step in to clean up are overstated. However, time and time again, these gangsters have shown themselves worthy of their own 'ninkyodantai' (humanitarian group) moniker.
In Dead Souls, Sega presents a crazy "what if" scenario, switching out a real disaster with fantasy. So what if zombies did invade Tokyo? Would you want a band of yakuza thugs to get your back?
"Hell, yes," said Adelstein. "They're tough, self-sacrificing (for their pals), and know how to use guns and grenades which are illegal to even own in Japan, by the way." And it's not only a zombie invasion in which you might want their help.
Culture Smash is a daily dose of things topical, interesting and sometimes even awesome—game related and beyond.