Something that I often see in discussions of Yakuza 0 and the Yakuza franchise as a whole is that it’s commonly referred to as “melodrama”. I’ve seen it in reviews, on forums, in videos–I even used the term when I did a preview of 2017 games. I want to talk about Yakuza 0 in the context of melodrama, but before I do that I need to talk about what melodrama is. Because when I wrote that thing at the beginning of 2017, my whole experience with the Yakuza franchise was a couple of trailers I had seen. Yet I assigned the word melodrama to those trailers without a whole lot of context. And that’s not just a me thing. Describing Yakuza 0 as melodrama is not uncommon. So that begs the question; What is melodrama?
It turns out that’s a really hard question to answer because melodrama has been used to describe many different things. The term has its roots in opera, was assigned to early Hollywood pulps, and later became the term used to describe the 1950s family dramas of Douglas Sirk and his contemporaries, twenty years after those films were made. The history of melodrama is actually a fascinating study into the concept of genrefication. But for the purposes of this essay I am using the version of melodrama pioneered by Peter Brooks, Christine Gledhill, and Linda Williams that takes into consideration all of the above and what narrative tendencies these seemingly disparate genres share. It is by far the broadest version of melodrama and the one that most people probably mean when they use the term today.
In “The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation”, Gledhill says that “Characteristically the melodramatic plot turns on an initial, often deliberately engineered, misrecognition of the innocence of a central protagonist. By definition the innocent cannot use powers available to the villain; following the dictates of their nature, they must become victim, a position legitimated by a range of devices which rationalize their apparent inaction on their own behalf. Narrative is then progressed through a struggle for clear moral identification of where guilt and innocence really lie”. Now, it might be weird to talk about innocence in a game about gangsters. The game opens up with our hero beating a man in order to extort money from him. Right up front, there’s a suggestion that innocence is a bit of a murky idea. But the game does draw the line of where innocence lies pretty definitively, and it does so at murder.
With Kiryu that innocence is very literal. He is framed for the murder at the empty lot, and a lot of his journey is driven by a need to clear his name. Majima’s innocence lies more on the moral side of things. When tasked with killing Makoto in order to regain entry into the yakuza, he’s unable to go through with the hit and winds up protecting her instead. This is a feature that distinguishes our innocent heroes. The villains are willing to kill with abandon, and so are plenty of Majima and Kiryu’s allies. Lee, Nishitani, Oda, and Tachibana have all killed or been willing to kill in order to achieve their ends, and they all pay the ultimate price for doing so. Majima and Kiryu never cross that line, leaving their enemies in the hands of the law. So therefore we have “a clear moral identification of where guilt and innocence really lie” and Yakuza 0 is a melodrama with our sweet, innocent crime-boys Kiryu and Majima, right?
Well, maybe not. It’s true that by the time the credits roll Kiryu and Majima haven’t killed anyone. They’ve punched, kicked, supplexed, beaten with a bat, stabbed, shot, and kicked into a river plenty of guys, but they’ve never “killed” anyone. But they almost do. In their final showdowns, Majima and Kiryu both make the decision that they are going to kill Lao Gui and Shibusawa respectively. The only thing that stops them is the intervention of Sera, in the case of Majima, and Nishiki, in Kiryu’s case. They are both pushed to the point where they are willing to compromise their innocence, and the only thing that holds them back is the intervention of a third party. They both show a capability and willingness to kill that suggests they aren’t so morally clean.
When Nishiki tackles Kiryu he says, “You can’t cross that line. You cross it once, and you can never go back… Don’t go getting ahead of me. Brother. Hold out. Someday, if the time ever comes where you have to cross that line, then I’ll cross it with you”. Hold out. There’s a clear message here that Kiryu probably can’t keep his innocence forever. It’s just worth holding onto as long as he possibly can. Turns out, that’s not very long. During the epilogue, when Kiryu dons his gray suit for the first time, he says “I’m not feeling black or white these days. This is where I’m at right now”. It’s a clear (if a bit blunt) indication that there is no “clear moral identification of where guilt and innocence really lie”. Kiryu has decided to embrace a level of moral gray. After all, he’s a gangster. That’s really the only place he can be.
Kiryu aspires to follow in the footsteps of Kazama, a man with plenty of red on his ledger. Kazama wants Kiryu to live the life of a civilian, but Kiryu is determined to not run away. He thinks back on his journey and admires the people who tried to set things right, without giving any concern for the fate that it brought them. He says “If I can do this without running away, then whatever path is left, that’s the one I’m meant to walk”. Kiryu has been forced to run away throughout the game: from the Dojima family, from his home, from Kamurocho. But after seeing Tachibana and Oda die holding their ground, Kiryu has decided to hold out in a different way and is willing to abandon his innocence in order to set things right, regardless of the consequences. I’m not suggesting Kiryu will kill. In fact, my limited knowledge of the other Yakuza games tells me that he won’t. What I’m saying is that Kiryu has come to an understanding that the place he occupies now, whether he kills or not, is not a place where he can claim to be innocent.
So then what about Majima? His reason for not killing has little to do with crossing any lines. Instead it’s about making things right for Makoto. Sera tells him “Her hands will be clean, but only because yours are soaked in blood. There’s no way in this life to repay someone for killing on your behalf”. Majima is less worried about his own innocence than he is about Makoto’s. This may explain why his post-game transformation is much more extreme than Kiryu’s. He embraces a similar place of moral ambiguity, saying “Right, wrong… Nobody’s got a clue what the difference is in this town”, but his reasons for embracing this position have nothing to do with making things right. Majima also thinks back to the people he’s met along the way and says “I seen a few guys who lived like idiots, and they died like idiots. But that batshit crazy lifestyle, I’d say it made ’em some of the finest bastards I’ve ever known”.
“So I’m gonna have more fun and live crazier than any of ‘em” is Majima’s new philosophy. Instead of holding out, Majima’s plan is to hang on. Kiryu will compromise in order to make things right, whereas Majima will do so for the sake of it. Majima wasn’t forced to run like Kiryu; in fact he couldn’t run. He has spent the entire game being held captive in Sotenbori. And the people he’s inspired by, Nishitani and Lee, are people who died not holding their ground but making escapes. Kiryu and Majima are very different characters with very different experiences, but the important thing is that through it all neither of them were able to keep their sense of innocence.
So going back to the original question, it would seem that Yakuza 0 is definitively not a melodrama. But while that’s true, I want to suggest a different way of looking at that question. Film critic Rick Altman has argued that genres are “autocratic monarchs dictating a single standard for all subjects”, and specifically in regards to the melodrama debate said “two generations of genre critics have done violence to the historical dimensions of genre by laying so much emphasis on generic fixity”. Getting caught up in asking whether or not something technically fits into a genre or not can take away from actually analyzing the work in a meaningful way. Saying something doesn’t fit into a genre does nothing other than say that certain works can’t be analyzed in certain ways. It’s an inherently exclusionary and limiting practice. So even if Yakuza 0 isn’t a melodrama, it can still have melodramatic aspects. It can still use the rhetoric of melodrama to tell a story that doesn’t wrap up in the way most melodramas do, which is itself something worth analyzing. The question shouldn’t be “Is Yakuza melodrama” but “In what ways does Yakuza 0 use the language of melodrama and what is the effect of doing so”?
The most obvious parallel to draw is that melodrama is the genre of excess, and Yakuza 0 is an excessive game. The action is excessive. The acting is excessive. The lighting is excessive. The music is excessive. The character design is excessive. It’s a game that shows no restraint in the way it presents itself or the things it chooses to present. The best example of this is when Kiryu is trying to escape Kamurocho through the sewers. All of a sudden lights appear in front of him, and the camera cuts to Kuze, who is shirtless, riding a motorcycle at high speeds, yelling, and dragging a pipe along the side of the sewer. As he approaches Kiryu and raises the pipe, Kiryu lifts his arms to block his face. The two collide, Kiryu gets knocked down, and Kuze loses control of the bike as he looks back at his work. Then the actual fight begins. Nothing about this scene actually makes sense if you think about it for more than five seconds. How did he get a motorcycle in the sewer? Why would you even think to do such a thing in the first place? Why did Kiryu raise his arms and take the hit instead of ducking? Why is Kuze wearing sunglasses in a dark sewer? But asking any of those questions misses the point. It’s ridiculous, but it’s supposed to be.
Because Yakuza 0 is not just an excessive game but a game about excess. It’s set in the decade of excess (the 1980s) in the country perhaps most effected by the decade of excess (Japan) and revolves around a profession that was heavily involved in perpetuating and profiting from that excess. You cannot spend five minutes in Yakuza 0 without being reminded of money. When you punch people, money flies out of them. Kiryu and Majima don’t unlock new skills through experience points but through the same money system that is used to buy everything else in the game. Both characters have minigames in which they run businesses and get more money. Kiryu purchases new businesses for his real estate empire by standing outside the front door and whipping out a suitcase full of cash. There’s a scene in which Oda throws money in a man’s face. When Kiryu defeats one of the five real estate kings he grabs a fistful of money from the air and fans himself with it. The cabaret club minigame is underscored with cash register sound effects. The end of each chapter tells you how much money you made and how you made it. There’s a mechanic where you throw money in the air that you learn from a character named Mr. Moneybags.
But it’s not the excess of money on its own, it’s what that excess leads to that Yakuza 0 concerns itself with. The examples mentioned above are mostly fun and goofy, a fantasy of living with unlimited wealth, and the game revels in them. But Yakuza 0 is about the darker side of that excess too. The game doesn’t shy away from the fact that while Kiryu can make a billion yen in an hour, there’s also a significant homeless population in Kamurocho. Small business owners are roughed up by gangsters trying to bolster their real estate business. As mentioned earlier, the game opens on Kiryu nearly beating a man to death in order to do a job for a loan shark–pan to a newspaper advertising the “Kamurocho Revitilization Project”, cut to flashing neon lights: the dark result of the excess, the ambitions for future excess, and the fun side of the excess all in the first minute of the game.
But most significantly in Yakuza 0, the excess of money leads to an excess of violence. The whole game is centered around a small, presumably worthless piece of land that’s actually worth a whole lot because it’s the centerpiece of a massive construction project that the Dojima family wants to undertake and reap the benefits of. The lot is nothing more than a tool for excess money and power, and plenty of people die in their pursuit of it. It’s not just Yakuza or involved civilians like Oda and Lee who die either. Shibusawa shoots a cab driver. Awano shoots a woman who dances with him. All in the name of collateral damage. If the violence against Tachibana and Makoto is at least meant to serve an end (as shallow as that end may be), these deaths must be the excess violence.
The idea of using excess as a way to criticize excess is something that plenty of other melodramas have done. A great example is Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind. Sirk’s use of color and mise-en-scène is over-the-top to the point of being laughably fake, but that’s the point. Sirk is using those garish colors in order to point out how artificial a life centered around materialism is. And in Written on the Wind, just like in Yakuza 0, this greed leads to death. One is a 1950s film melodrama, and the other is 2010s action videogame, so there are obvious differences in scale and tone between the two. But it’s not out of line to say that Yakuza 0, although not a melodrama itself, uses excess in the same way a melodrama would.
Melodramas can often be split up into two categories, subversive and nonsubversive. A nonsubversive melodrama either ends sadly and you’re supposed to feel sad or it ends happily and you’re supposed to feel happy. A subversive melodrama generally has an ending that appears happy on its face but doesn’t feel happy. As Douglas Sirk himself said “you don’t believe the happy ending and you’re not really supposed to”. As discussed earlier, Yakuza 0’s ending doesn’t fit into either of these categories. It is explicitly conflicted. The good guys stop the bad guys, but they are irrevocably changed by their experience and they admit as much. There is no happy ending to believe in, but we can’t feel entirely sad about the position our protagonists are in either. The outcome of Majima and Makoto’s relationship might be somewhat tragic, but Majima doesn’t seem too worked up about it. He’s moved on and reinvented himself as someone different, and while we might mourn this change in character, we’re also supposed to love the goofball he becomes. Same goes for Kiryu. Kiryu’s change is into somebody wiser but ultimately with less room in his life for hope or love. Again, we lament the latter but respect the former. Both of these characters are forced to exist in a new middle-ground.
And that middle-ground is where Yakuza 0’s excess lies too. One thing I didn’t mention earlier about a lot of the excessive aspects of the game like the heat actions and absurd cutscenes is that they’re really cool. They’re the reason I bought this game. I saw a trailer where a man threw a wad of money in another man’s face and said “That looks like something I need to play”. The world doesn’t need more media that has some sort of take on the 1980s, but Yakuza 0 does the topic justice. There’s so much horrible about the rampant greed that dominated the decade, especially in Japan where it led to the “Lost Decade” of the ’90s, but the reason it exists is because for a large portion of the population, it leads to a ton of fun. Yeah, there might be trash lining the street or a massive homeless population, but who has time to care about that when I can go play OutRun or go to the disco? I’m not trying to say that Yakuza 0 presents this as a good thing. It pretty clearly demarcates those pursuing unlimited wealth at the cost of the well-being of others as horrible people. What it does is understand why that style of greed exists and that we are all susceptible to it and allow it to happen to certain degrees. When you watch a Douglas Sirk movie, you laugh at the idea that these characters could think their lives are satisfying. You have a sense of superiority at the fact that you would never care about the things they care about. They can only be appreciated if you approach them with a heavy sense of irony. When I played Yakuza 0, I genuinely enjoyed it every second of it, and upon reflection that’s way scarier.