I would think that with the video “Why Yakuza 0 is a Masterclass on Managing Tone” this would have been put to rest (though that video is a little meandering and perhaps doesn’t state their thesis clearly enough for the casual viewer), but I was watching some video reviews for the Western release of Yakuza 6, and it’s a point that keeps coming up. From Gamespot:
“The unambiguous objectification of women in these (cabaret and live-chat) mini-games continue to make their inclusion uncomfortable in their own right…but these kinds of mini-games have always perpetuated an unbeleivable inconsistency of character for Kiryu. There’s a conflict between the canonical depiction of him as a strong, stoic, honorable saint, and a version who is a really creepy, bumbling perv.”
No, no, and no.
First, no, the depiction of women in the cabaret mini-game is not “unambiguous objectification.” I can’t comment on the live-chat one, which is new to 6, but the mini-game of going to hostess clubs and talking to the young women there is at least ambiguous as to whether or not it is objectifying these women (well, more so than necessary since, as pre-programmed video game characters, they are literally objects).
The arc of the so called cabaret mini-game is going to a place where you pay loads of money to sit and talk with a girl. Presumably in real life the girls would be bending over backwards to please their customers, but in the world of Ryu ga Gotoku it’s just the opposite. The girls constantly complain about their problems, big and small, and your character has to sit there listening to them and choosing the comment that they will appreciate the most. Partly it is due to the secretive nature of being an organized criminal, but you never get to talk about yourself hardly at all. (More realistically it’s because we, the players, are already familiar with the main character’s story, so just listening to them rehash that for another person could easily get boring.) And if you pick the wrong thing, or ever so much as buy the wrong food or drink for you and her, she gets pissed and her hearts go down, ending your chances of completing this particular side-story.
Eventually, if you play your cards right, spend lots of money, learn all of her likes and dislikes, understand her personality well enough to what kind of responses she appreciates, take her out on dates, and finally rescue her from some serious scrape (being kidnapped, etc.), you will be able to move up from ‘customer’ to ‘boyfriend’ and you can go to the love hotel district together (once). But even then, setting aside whatever your character is getting out of it, for the player there is very little titillation. You literally just go to the love hotel district together, then it is fade to black.
It does smack of white-knight fairy tales, where you will get the girl so long as you do enough things for her, so I certainly wouldn’t recommend basing your own approach to love and dating on this particular mini-game, but I think it is quite wrong to call it “unambiguously objectifying.” It’s really not.
And, when looking at Kiryu (though he’s not the only character you can go the hostess bars with), it is totally consistent with his character. He takes a personal interest in these girls, never asks anything of them, and is always supportive of them in every way. Whether he is giving them encouragement to pursue their dreams regardless of what others think, trying to give them specific advice about the problems they’re having, or offering to beat the crap out of someone who is harassing them, he is totally the Kiryu from the main storyline. It works.
Second (following from the previous paragraph), no, none of the things Kiryu does outside of the main storyline are inconsistent with his character. That’s what makes it work so well and makes it so fun. No matter what it’s still Kiryu, the gangster with a heart of gold, but you’ve thrown him into some weird situation. So whatever the weird side-story is, he always is trying to separate out right from wrong, and make the right decision. It doesn’t matter if he’s got to go on a fetch quest, or star in a weird movie, or dress up as a local mascot, or help some dominatrix be more dominant, he doesn’t judge people except for whether they are hurting anyone else or not. Doesn’t matter if it’s weird, he lives in the red light district of the largest city in the world; he’s used to weird. If someone is not bothering anyone else and pursuing their particular passion with their whole life, Kiryu respects that, and will even help them if he can. It’s, quite frankly, a very Japanese attitude toward life that I’m not at all surprised goes over the heads of many Westerners.
But let’s look at Kiryu for a little bit longer. I think he’s more than used to weird actually, he loves weird. Why does he keep coming back to Kamurocho/Kabukicho? Why is there always a scene where he is shown happy just to be back in this district? Because while he himself is very phlegmatic, he likes to be surrounded by people who are just the opposite. It’s not that he doesn’t like fun and crazy things, he’s just not personally a hype man. It’s why he gets on so well with Majima. He likes being the serious guy who is dragged along to things and often has to use his seriousness to help out his crazy friends. He derives an energy from the excess energy that constantly spills out of others in a place like Kamurocho. He loves it.
Which is why it makes so much sense that when he decides to quit his life of crime and go settle down somewhere else, he doesn’t really settle down at all. He doesn’t go and join a monastery somewhere, he opens a critically understaffed orphanage. He trades the exuberance and energy of a red-light district for that of children. He looks after them with his seriousness, but they all love him because he totally indulges them in their passions. He’s not actually a boring person who wants the kids to calm down and straighten up. He’s a fun older brother who wants the kids to enjoy themselves and pursue their dreams. It totally fits and was a great choice on the part of the writers.
And finally, no, Kiryu is not a “strong, stoic, honorable saint,” nor a “creepy, bumbling perv.” While he certainly is strong (the Dragon of Dojima), he’s only questionably stoic. There are a lot of scenes throughout the series of him screaming anytime anyone close to him dies, or is even in danger. He never lets it interfere with his ability to defeat (i.e. punch) his enemies, he always overcomes every obstacle with fierce determination, but he is not an emotionless hulk. And while he definitely is honorable, it is an ‘honor among thieves’ kind of honorable; he is definitely not a saint. I mean he is a lifelong yakuza member with a big ass tattoo on his back who has no problem with taking the law into his own hands whenever it suits him. He’s not an upstanding citizen let alone a saint.
Which is part of the reason why it totally makes sense for him to not only go to cabarets, but internet cafes for doing risque live-chats. Part of being a gang member is not believing that vice crimes, victimless crimes should be illegal at all. Gambling, drugs, and prostitution are the bread and butter of organized criminal organizations all over the world. They’re illegal activities in which neither party is making a complaint to the police. So Kiryu is not making any moral judgements about any activity where everyone involved, so far as he is concerned, is entering into it of their own free will.
And he’s not a “creepy, bumbling perv” either, but he does pursue all his activities with an earnestness that maybe they don’t always merit. So if he’s convinced that the point of the live-chat is to compliment the girls into taking their clothes off than that is what he will do. Partially I blame this impression on the poor/loose translation, but even in the clips I’ve seen you can tell that Kiryu is presented as being the least creepy and bumbling of everyone in the chat room. He’s the one that actually catches the interest of the girl and to whom she’ll consistently respond. It’s consistent with his character because he doesn’t see himself as mistreating the girl, and he’s honestly engaging in the activity in the way in which it was designed. I mean, if the girl said that she hated doing live-chats and wanted to quit, he would type in to tell her that she should quit if she doesn’t like it. And if she said she had to because some bad people were threatening to hurt her otherwise, he would ask who those bad people were and then go and beat the crap out of them. It’s the same as with the main story.
But maybe these girls who work the live-chat and cabarets don’t really want to be there and aren’t mentioning that fact to Kiryu; they’re just pretending like they’re having a good time. Well, that is where the line between fantasy and reality comes into play. In the Ryu ga Gotoku universe, they’e not pretending. Or even if they are Kiryu’s heart of gold and unstoppable fists will soon become obvious to them and they’ll confess their problems before long, which he will promptly solve with gusto.
But in the real world things are rarely so peachy. Ryu ga Gotoku certainly takes a rose-colored view of red light districts, which is almost certainly necessary to make it as fun and certainly as light-hearted as it is. The drama between characters is real, but it is not a gritty look at how these places are in real life. Which is the only place I can see their portrayal as actually being problematic: that they normalize and sanctify in people’s minds their real life equivalents. It is certainly a risk. Though I should think that overall, the normalization of all sorts of violence is probably far more problematic than normalizing paying someone to sit and have drinks with you, or even to strip down to a bikini for you. I mean, between that and curb-stomping, I know which one I think is worse to have exist in reality.
“If there’s an emotion that drives the experience it’s empathy.”
“…you notice that there’s an innocence to the games writing. A belief that people, at their core, are inherently worth helping regardless of who they are.”