Sega's 'Yakuza' Games Get a Second Life in the West, Embracing a Distinctly Japanese Brand of Weirdness

Kiryu_Battle in Yakuza Kiwami 2 Courtesy of Sega
Kiryu_Battle in Yakuza Kiwami 2 Courtesy of Sega

Yakuza Games have been wildly popular in Japan since their debut in 2005, and for good reason: Set in the world of the Japanese organized-crime groups called yakuza, they have over-the-top fisticuffs, high-stake schemes and dramatic plot twists. When protagonist Kazuma Kiryu isn't busy brawling, he wanders the captivatingly seedy vice district of Kamurocho, based on the Tokyo nightlife area of Kabukicho, singing karaoke and gambling. The release of the critically acclaimed prequel, Yakuza 0, in 2017, pushed the series' popularity beyond Japan.

To take advantage of the more powerful PlayStation 4 hardware, Sega is rolling out modernized remakes and remasters of earlier games in the franchise. Remasters of Yakuza 3, 4 and 5 have not yet been confirmed for release in the West, though the second, Yakuza Kiwami 2, debuted on Aug. 28. (Kiwami means extreme.) In addition to overhauling the visuals and combat system, Sega's designers have beefed up the games with new cutscenes and dialogue.

Anime's surge in popularity in the West has made audiences more receptive to Japanese-style storytelling. "Our audience is primed and ready to step into a Japanese protagonist and already equipped with any knowledge they need to exist in that space. It's just so different from what it used to be 10 years ago," says Sam Mullen, Sega of America's director of production. "If you like silly Japanese content, you'll love Yakuza."

The English localization team—which translates the original Japanese text and dialogue with an eye toward cultural distinctions, tone and character development—was passionate about keeping the remakes authentic to Yakuza's distinctly Japanese sensibility and humor. This meant moving away from past marketing strategies that positioned the games as a Tokyo-style riff on the Grand Theft Auto series. While the Yakuza games are set in the world of organized crime, they are also full of odd diversions, like Kiryu running a cat café or filming a zombie-themed music video alongside thinly veiled caricatures of Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg.

Embracing that weirdness wasn't an easy sell at first. Sega of America's localization team "had to go around the marketing department and other groups within the company, because everyone had misconceptions about Yakuza," says Mullen. "The first thing they always want to talk about is the gritty criminal element. It's like, Oh God…we tried that. It didn't work. Because, ultimately, it was disingenuous."

"Yakuza as a franchise is not about the yakuza as a criminal organization," says localization producer Scott Strichart. "It's about a man navigating that underworld and finding his own morality. Becoming more authentic and genuine about what the game is has actually brought a lot more people to the table."

But staying authentic to the series' genre-bending mix of soapy crime drama and absurdity demanded more creative license from the English localization team. After passing through three translators, a trio of editors refined the material to make it sound more authentic to English speakers. "We do put a tiny bit of spin in there, where we recognize that a direct translation just essentially kills the humor," Strichart says. "It's all about maintaining the balance of humor and drama."

Keeping English-speaking players in on jokes also requires unpacking some of the unspoken aspects of Kiryu's character—things a Japanese audience would understand implicitly. In keeping with Japan's masculine ideals, Kiryu is unflappable, able to keep a level head no matter how stressful or bizarre the situation. While Japan's version doesn't talk much, the English Kiryu shares his inner monologue, and the Kamurocho locals routinely poke fun at his stern demeanor. To "create more glue between the audience and the protagonist," Mullen says, "a bit more flair was added. He explicitly owns stoicism as a character trait, rather than just a consequence of him being the player vehicle."

What makes the Yakuza games unique is that the seemingly tough-as-nails man at the center of them is actually a lousy criminal. Softhearted and trusting, he devotes as much time to helping old ladies recover lost handbags and putting handsy nightclub patrons in their place as he does to busting heads.

"Kiryu's a terrible yakuza," Mullen says, laughing. "He's only in the yakuza for about 10 minutes a game!"

Editor's note: The current Sega of America marketing team started at the tail end of Yakuza 5, and handled the full release of games in the series from Yakuza 0 onward. The prior team, referenced above, consisted of different members.