Contains spoilers for the Kiwami 2 subquest In the Name of Art
It’s no secret that some of the subquests in the Yakuza series are absolute gems, tiny things crammed with all manner of ridiculous melodrama, and Kiwami 2 is no exception. In fact, some of its subquests may be the high point of the series. In one example that I’m still thinking about weeks later, Kiryu is approached by a shifty character on the streets of Sotenbori. A famous photographer is looking for male models, Kiryu is told, and if you agree to go with him (and why the hell not), he’ll lead you to what looks like an abandoned office. It’s a suspicious scene, and I was getting ready for some kind of ambush.
Instead, a beefy guy wearing nothing but a deep red speedo enters the room and instructs Kiryu to take off his shirt (for the sake of art, naturally). The ‘famous’ photographer called Poison Mitsuo is very passionate about art, and if Kiryu does a good job of following his directions, striking the right pose at the right time, he’ll drive his photographer into a state of artistic ecstasy. At one point, Kiryu is told to subvert his masculinity and act cute for the camera while Mitsuo rolls around on the floor with his camera, and truth be told, that image alone would be enough to assure this subquest the status of Sublime Masterpiece. But no, it gets even better.
Nonsense escalates and turns into drama when Kiryu finds out that the photos were meant to be published as part of some major contest. Outraged because of this deception, Kiryu withdraws his consent. Mitsuo (still in speedos), unwilling to sacrifice his ‘art’, attacks Kiryu with his goons. Kiryu being Kiryu quickly and thoroughly knocks the artistic hubris out of them, and what follows is an earnest and heartfelt lesson in honesty, consent and respecting other peoples’ wishes. “Making art is about freedom of expression. So if your model isn’t free, then you’re missing the point entirely,” Kiryu lectures them. They all share a moment, and there’s a reconciliation. Kiryu and the photographer shake hands, and one of his assistants captures the moment with his camera. “This is art,” one of them says, and the story concludes.
To me, this could well be the epitome, the Platonic ideal, of the Yakuza subquest as a form. As usually, there’s a setup that piques your curiosity, one or several twists around an increasingly ridiculous situation, an escalation resulting in a quick brawl, and, ultimately, a neat resolution that also serves up a lesson. Nothing about this is subtle, of course. The situations are absurd to the extreme, the moral spelled out so thoroughly that even a goon who just got whacked about the ears is able to get it through his thick skull. But if the Yakuza series shows one thing, it’s that games don't need to be subtle to be ingenious.
One of the main reasons the Yakuza games work so well is the extreme contrast between over-the-top absurdity and drama that is genuinely affecting (even if also over-the-top). It shouldn’t work, but it does. Generally speaking, the silliness is the domain of subquests, while the (melo)drama belongs to the main storyline. And yet, even though the distinction between absurdity and drama is quite diligently upheld at any given moment (the background music usually indicates which mode we’re in), they’re never far apart, and the game often oscillates quickly between the two.
The contrast is present even within individual subquests. In fact, they rely on a symbiotic relationship between silliness and earnestness. Without the delightful nonsense, sober lessons in decency and proper conduct would feel out of place, more at home in a moralistic 19th century novel than in a modern video game. The presence of men in red speedos is essential in creating a little bit of ironic distance between us and the ‘message’ of the story, but it’s also there to disarm and prepare us for the inevitable moment of emotional honesty. Vice-versa, a lesson about consent in art provides a satisfying resolution to what would otherwise be nothing but (entertaining) nonsense; a sort of punchline, if you will, that works precisely because it’s a sudden and complete shift of tone. Both feel subversive relative to each other but, somehow, they end up propping each other up.
The beauty of the best of the Yakuza series’ subquests is that by the end, we don’t know whether we’re supposed to be touched by the conclusion or to laugh at it, and we end up doing a bit of both. As a result, they feel transgressive and wholesome, stupid and clever, nonsensical and meaningful all at the same time. In the usually dire and nihilistic wasteland of AAA video games, it’s hard to overstate just how refreshing a mixture this is.
And while it’s the silliness that captures your attention, it’s that earnestness that’s so special about the Yakuza series and that elevates it above most other games. The lessons of its subquests aren’t there for our own sake, nor even for the betterment of offending goons or dolts. Instead their purpose is to reveal something about Kiryu’s character: On the one hand his kindness and tolerance, even acceptance of things he doesn’t really understand. His principles and willingness to stand up for both himself and people in need on the other hand. There’s a pleasing and endearing balance of softness and hardness, unyieldingness and easy-going-ness about Kiryu that most if not all macho men in video games lack, and the subquests are instrumental in highlighting these traits.
But of course, there’s also the perverse and simple pleasure of seeing our stoic muscle man out of his depth in increasingly ridiculous dilemmas, trying to sort out other peoples’ messes, and wondering what kind of nonsense he’s gotten himself into now.