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How Yakuza Made A Legend Of Its Long-Time Hero Over Two Decades

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The voice of Kazuma Kiryu Takaya Kuroda, new English voice Yong Yea, and series chief producer Hiroyuki Sakamoto, explained the complexities of Like A Dragon's iconic lead, and what to expect in the series' new games.

Few video game characters stick around as long as Kazuma Kiryu, the long-time lead of the Yakuza / Like A Dragon franchise--and even fewer have as commanding a presence as him. It's also rare to see one character's rollercoaster of a life play out and evolve over the course of nearly 20 years, with 10 distinct entries telling that story. Though we thought we had closed the book on the Dragon of Dojima at the end of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life back in 2018, his appearance in 2020's Yakuza: Like A Dragon and two new entries that put Kiryu front and center shows that series developer RGG Studio isn't letting go of him anytime soon.

In anticipation of both Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name and Like A Dragon: Infinite Wealth, I caught up with RGG Studio's chief producer Hiroyuki Sakamoto, the voice of Kiryu himself, Takaya Kuroda, and newly minted English voice actor Yong Yea at Anime Expo 2023. While we weren't able to get into specifics of the upcoming games, we talked about Kiryu's budding relationship with co-lead Kasuga Ichiban in the new story, the complexities of building the character over the years, and the nuances of voicing a personality like him. We also got into our favorite substories and karaoke songs, if Kiryu will ever really get to rest and retire, and addressed Kiryu's new idol-influenced haircut.

From left to right: Takaya Kuroda (Kiryu's Japanese VA), Hiroyuki Sakamoto (RGG Studio chief producer), Yong Yea (Kiryu's English VA).
From left to right: Takaya Kuroda (Kiryu's Japanese VA), Hiroyuki Sakamoto (RGG Studio chief producer), Yong Yea (Kiryu's English VA).

This interview was translated through interpreter and independent producer Mike McNamara and was edited for clarity and readability.

After Yakuza 6, it felt like that was it for Kiryu and we were going to move on with Ichiban in the mainline games. What was it like internally deciding to bring Kiryu back to lead two major games?

Sakamoto: When we were planning Yakuza 6, it was supposed to be the final arc for Kiryu. And when we were planning development on Yakuza 7 [Like A Dragon], we wanted to pivot and have a new protagonist, and that was the [conception of the] whole Ichiban story arc. What Kiryu was doing behind the scenes was very important to that story, but we didn't shine too much light on the why or what. And we were planning on going straight into Like A Dragon 8 [Infinite Wealth] with that sort of ambiguity.

When developing the Ichiban arc, we were looking at Yakuza 7 [Like A Dragon] and 8 [Infinite Wealth] and felt that there was a bit of a void in between them. We figured it would be best, and the most seamless transition, to have a story explaining what was happening before going into 8 [Infinite Wealth]. So that's why we developed Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name--that's how we shine some light on the backstory of Kiryu between [those games].

Of course, we're always operating at 100%, especially for a numbered sequel. But if you ask, was it all planned that Kiryu was going to come back? I would say probably not. It was more of a collective decision within the development team thinking that it's important to explain the story and what was happening behind the scenes. We're kind of navigating it as we go and determining what's important to shine light on. And through the spinoff, [we] explain a little bit more about the lore, world, et cetera.

There was an extra scene from Infinite Wealth shown at RGG Summit where Ichiban and Kiryu have a conversation about their love lives. It was so different from what I expected from them. How is Kiryu evolving or changing in these new games? You voiced him for so long and he's been a very stoic character, but it seems like he's breaking out of his shell a little bit. Can you tell me a little bit more about his personality in these new games?

Kuroda: How I feel about Kiryu, I wouldn't necessarily say his character has changed or evolved. I think he's always that very straight-arrowed, honest guy, but also has an awkward component to him. I think it's that side that's really being shown a little bit more, but I wouldn't necessarily say he's changed since the beginning of when I started playing his role.

You know, he's got a certain interest but awkwardness around the opposite sex. And I think personality-wise, he may not be the most experienced in that field. He still wants to sort of be Ichiban's guide or senpai in a way, and kind of the bigger brother or the older, bigger man. And despite his lack of romantic encounters and experience, he's trying to explain [things to Ichiban], but that shows his awkwardness.

That relationship between them, is it like a mentorship situation? It seems like two leads who have a sort of brotherhood. How did that come about with regards to the idea of having dual protagonists?

Sakamoto: With regard to Ichiban, he was obviously jailed for quite some time and has aged almost disconnected and isolated from society and what was happening in the yakuza scene. And, you know, his arc begins where he gets caught up in all of that chaos after leaving [prison]. So I wouldn't necessarily say that there's a super tight relationship between the two so much as the fact that Ichiban was isolated and suddenly reemerged into that world.

And in the Yakuza world, it's not often that you get the chance to see [mentorship from] any chairpeople or members of the leadership class since there's different squadrons, teams, or cliques within that organization. So I think for Ichiban, it isn't really normal or usual for him to have that kind of relationship with someone like Kiryu, the fourth chairman.

It seems like Kiryu is having a lot more back-and-forth and deeper conversations. Was that different for you in terms of how you voice Kiryu this time around?

Kuroda: I think Kiryu is the kind of character where he's finally able to show more of his own personality when becoming closer to certain people--of course, with Date, Haruka, and Majima. When he first meets someone, it'll be a very awkward kind of relationship and he'll maintain a certain distance. But as he gets closer and closer, I think he becomes more talkative and opens up. [It] transitions into more of a dialogue as opposed to a one-way monologue.

I can't say much about Yakuza 8 yet, but what I can say is I think these characters will be a lot closer than compared to Yakuza 7.

[To Yong Yea] I know you're really into the series as well, so in terms of acting and voicing Kiryu in English, how much creative freedom do you have? Are you making him your own or are you modeling after Kuroda-san's performance?

Yea: The foundation of my Kiryu performance definitely draws a lot from Kuroda-san because he is Kiryu, and deviating from that too much would lose the character. But at the same time one of the things we get to do at PCB [Productions]--which is where we record the English dub--with cutscenes, for example, [is] we don't have to match the exact timing of the Japanese VO because we do our own facial capture. I get to really just perform, within reasonable timing for dialogue. And so I get to add nuances, kind of do my own thing with it. I always have Kuroda-san's performance in mind, but I definitely infuse a little bit of myself into it and that naturally happens when you're an actor voicing a character.

With the big cutscenes I hear the Japanese and then we record. Beyond that, with the in-game stuff and smaller cutscenes, we don't listen to the Japanese--we look at dialogue and work together to come up with what's Kiryu's state of mind, and we just perform. It may not exactly match the Japanese, but we still try to find that specific range where Kiryu sits. Because of that, I get to just kind of live in the moment. And so there's going to be a lot of myself in the character as well.

Ichiban and Kiryu have a deep conversation about their love lives overlooking Yokohama.
Ichiban and Kiryu have a deep conversation about their love lives overlooking Yokohama.

The localization process has always been fascinating with Sega and Atlus games, especially with RGG Studio. How closely do you work with the localization team? Are they in there with you directing how they want it done?

Yea: In the booth, we have Keith Arem who is the voice director and casting director at PCB. He's the one who mainly directs my performance. But some folks from the localization team, they're always there listening and every once in a while they're chiming in, [saying] like, "Let's actually change the line to this." or "Let's try this with the performance." And every once in a while, they'll be like, "Actually we have an idea. Now that we've listened to your performance and the line, let's maybe try something else."

So they're always present and it's a very collaborative process, which I really like. We get to really have a back-and-forth, and I get to chime in as well sometimes from my own knowledge of Yakuza games, and say, "Maybe Kiryu would say this," you know? They'll say, "Let's try that," and it might get in, it might not, but it's cool to be able to experiment and collaborate with them. So it's been a creatively fulfilling process.

On the topic of localization, simultaneous global release is fairly new for RGG games. I remember getting Japanese versions trying to figure out how to navigate through them, but now that the games are coming out in the West and in Japan at the same time. How has that changed things from a production standpoint?

Sakamoto: I would say it changed a lot. It was really Yakuza 0 that turned out to be a mega hit internationally, and that's when we started changing our perspective. Until then we'd been releasing international and overseas versions, but it didn't really produce the results that commanded a simultaneous release. But after Yakuza 0, we've taken a much closer look and a different approach to the international audience and fans.

The localization team also really, really understood the game, the world, and the characters. So instead of taking a very rigid translation approach, it was much more natural, going beyond localization, almost culturalizing a lot of the nuance. That gave it a very different perspective on how it was perceived overseas. Beyond Yakuza 0, with the localization team, we took a similar approach to having them very closely aligned with what's happening in the game's world and the lore, and we're continuing that process today.

That also extends to the voiceover process where doing English VO in the past, we had [gameplay] footage that was locked in and we would have to try to match the lip-flaps or just kind of ADR [automated dialogue replacement] to existing video assets. But with Yakuza 7 and beyond, we really took lip-sync into consideration. We would reanimate the English scenes based on performances we were capturing in English. So if someone's playing the game with English audio, it would be a very natural experience for them.

Since you've been voicing Kiryu for so long, I want to ask what are some of your favorite memories--like standout moments in the story, times you've identified with the character, or experiences you've had voicing him.

Kuroda: With respect to the story, I think the experiences that Kiryu has had, and a lot of the emotional journeys that he has gone through, I would say I've probably experienced all of them myself. The character feels very aligned with me, so whenever I'm acting or performing, I would actually look at whoever I'm acting opposite of, see their dialogue, and try to think of how Kiryu--or in this case Takaya Kuroda--would respond. What kind of emotion would they carry, and what kind of nuance would there be?

Having played the whole series, what's your favorite memory from playing it? Like, that moment that really drew you in.

Yea: There's so many great moments throughout the series. But that moment in Yakuza 0 when Nishiki drives Kiryu out [of the city] to talk, they have that one-on-one and Kiryu is like, "Dude, no matter what, you're still my brother. You gotta do it or let me go." That really captured me. And that relationship with Majima and Makoto, oh man, that warms my heart and it's also bittersweet. The way they brought it back in Kiwami 2 and put a bow on it, I was just like, "Thank you!" When Majima thanked her for that knot she released after 18 or however many years, and seeing that conclusion was just really satisfying.

One of the first substories that I played in Yakuza 0 was the dominatrix one, and that gave me the idea that the sense of humor in this series is wild. And yet, when you really think about that story, like yeah it's kinky and it's raunchy, but it's also got a lot of heart. It's about Kiryu just trying to help this woman find confidence within herself. That's the beautiful blend of Yakuza. It's absurd, but it's got heart everywhere you look, and that's what I love about this series, so many standout moments like that.

Ichiban, double cheeked up in broad daylight, has no idea why he washed up on the shores of Hawaii in Infinite Wealth.
Ichiban, double cheeked up in broad daylight, has no idea why he washed up on the shores of Hawaii in Infinite Wealth.

That's the number one thing that I think Yakuza/Like A Dragon can do--the balance between the humor and the heartfelt moments. How has the team been able to maintain and hone in on that dynamic of absurdist humor and the big drama that pulls people in?

Sakamoto: We approach the drama of the main story as this kind of pillar that's going to serve as this North Star for the entire game. And once we have that main storyline, then we can decide the stage or setting and then go into some of the subquests and supporting characters. Once we have those pieces in place, that's where I think a lot of the variety comes in.

There's a lot of latitude in terms of what we can do with the substories and sub-characters. And sometimes we'll have some sidequests that are more focused on the humor or other ones might be a little more serious with that drama. But first and foremost, the main story really defines what the stage is going to be and what kind of room we have to play with for sidequests,

This approach hasn't really changed since Yakuza 1, and we set it in Kabukicho, an open district with strip malls, bars, and shops. A lot of people gather there for different reasons and have a lot of their own drama that they bring to the table. Setting the game with that backdrop already enabled us to think about the wild reasons and stories of why people are all gathering there.

Is it fair to say that these next games are going to have that same spirit even though we're changing settings and telling different stories?

Sakamoto: I'd say the very core of that hasn't changed for the series.

I know Kiryu doesn't really break character even though he's in silly substories like discovering internet chat rooms or watching illicit videos at the video store. What is it like to have dramatic fights and dire situations and then having to do the silly stuff as the voice actor? How do you make those distinctions when you're recording those lines?

Kuroda: I think everyone has these multiple personalities and they'll change depending on if they're in front of a large crowd or if they're spending time with family or friends. You kind of show a slightly different projection of yourself. Thinking about that in the context of Kiryu, there are slight changes but it's all contained within his character and personality. And how do I express that? He always has this layer of almost embarrassment or awkwardness no matter what he's doing. And it's the degree to which that is exposed that I'm really adjusting to.

He would never go like "Wow!" you know, and kind of unleash himself. There's always going to be that kind of awkward facade that he maintains. For me performing the character, there is this exploration or discovery process as we try to find where that balance is going to be depending on the substory. It really comes down to the sounds that I'm able to produce! But also it's about the timing of a particular hit or beat, and that's where the humor lies and adjusting for those moments.

Kiryu takes on a new identity, going by the name Joryu in Like A Dragon Gaiden.
Kiryu takes on a new identity, going by the name Joryu in Like A Dragon Gaiden.

How do you find that balance when you voice him in English?

Yea: That's part of the challenge because there are definitely moments where I'm like, "Man, is this too much? Is this too little? I don't know." But that's why I have my voice director to guide me a little bit. There are definitely some bigger humorous moments in these games as well, and it feels strange sometimes to go that big! I've known Kiryu to just be here [gesturing to express even keel]. But what's beautiful about Kiryu is that within that stoicism there's so much nuance, color, and expressiveness and Kuroda-san brings so much out of Kiryu. And it's stoicism that's not just flat. There's a lot of range within that--and a lot of subtlety.

What Kuruda-san said is right. A lot of it really is in the timing of certain noises that Kiryu makes, certain little things like that just sell his awkwardness, his embarrassment. And so, yes, those big moments exist, but even those smaller moments add to that absurdity and that sense of humor. Finding that balance is just about trying something, listening back, and seeing if it works, and it's about experimenting and playing until it feels right.

So I have to ask about karaoke. Everyone loves "Baka Mitai" and it has become an international hit. But what's been your favorite karaoke song to sing for the game other than that?

Kuroda: Of course I love "Baka Mitai" but one of my other favorites is "Zetsubocho Pride (Pride From Despair)" and I'm trying to figure out if that was in Yakuza 0 or not [Kuroda begins singing part of the song]. Oh, and "Machine Gun Kiss."

What is it about those songs that you love?

Kuroda: It's just the upbeat and uptempo nature of them!

Are you singing any karaoke in English? How's your singing voice? Is it up there with Kuroda-san?

Yea: We'll see! But we are going to record some karaoke at some point and I [have] to step up my game to match Kuroda-san's beautiful voice.

So it's going to be you and not someone to step in and sing it in your place?

Yea: Heh, we'll see.

The localization team also completely rewrites the lyrics for English versions of the karaoke songs, and that's pretty wild. It might just be a minigame, but a lot of us love it. Are you using the same approach for the new games?

Sakamoto: The localization team is very particular and wants to make sure that the meaning and the nuance is all conveyed in the English version, whether that means having to deviate a little bit from the original Japanese. I think we'll probably continue that approach for future lyrics.

Do you think Kiryu is ever going to actually retire and settle down?

Kuroda: I believe so. And this is more of my imagination, but in Yakuza 0, there were some scenes where we get to see Kiryu as a 16 year-old in high school depicting that he had this adoration for the yakuza at that time. But since then, I haven't really seen him adore or admire the yakuza way, so to speak. And he became a yakuza [member] because that's what his surroundings and environment demanded of him.

But really what he wants is that small bit of happiness, that very low-key kind--spending time with Haruka, just eating a meal, or just chit chatting with others is more of what he really wants deep down.

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You're voicing him in English now so I imagine you don't want him to settle down. But do you imagine a world in which Kiryu will finally rest and retire?

Yea: If there's one thing that not even the Dragon of Dojima can beat, it's time. Eventually he'll have to, but he won't go out without a fight. And I very much agree with what Kuroda-san said, where he wants to learn to enjoy the simpler things in life and getting there is just really hard because of the circumstances that he was left in after Yakuza 6. He's walled off from those he loves because becoming a yakuza, it's a bit of a curse. What he wants more than anything is to be able to love fully, and support Haruka, but he can't do that without putting her in danger.

I hope there is some kind of happy light at the end of the tunnel where he can actually just live out the rest of his life, just loving and being loved. Being the legend that he is, he always gets roped back in somehow. It's a status that carries a heavy weight, and heavy is the head that wears the crown, as they say.

I know that the stories have expanded so far beyond the Tojo Clan and the yakuza, so with changing the name of the Western versions to Like a Dragon, is it fair to say that this is also a change of philosophy with the stories you're trying to tell?

Sakamoto: In Japan, the franchise was always known as "Ryu Ga Gotoku" which translates to "Like A Dragon." So every numbered entry we add to the franchise keeps that name, and in Japan, that has become a very recognized brand. But internationally, we launched the franchise as "Yakuza" and at some point, Kiryu isn't even really yakuza, so it became kind of this shift. From the localization perspective, and now that we've also put the focus on Ichiban as another protagonist, I think it was the appropriate time to change how the game translates into Western audiences.

What I've noticed through Yakuza: Like a Dragon and and part of Lost Judgment is the incorporation of more social issues as part of the main story. For example, one of my favorite things about them was how Korean and Chinese immigrants in Japan were portrayed in ways that had a lot of nuance. Have those kinds of things been taken into consideration more and more as the team creates new stories?

Sakamoto: I would say we're always aware and conscious of different social issues and I always keep that in the back of my mind when producing because the Yakuza franchise is a present-day drama. It doesn't take place in a fantasy world or in medieval times. It really is about what people are feeling, interacting with, and sensing in the present day. So I think certain current events or social issues are going to naturally be part of the themes.

My last question is: What can you tell me about that makeover and haircut for Kiryu in Infinite Wealth? Will it be explained in the story? I do like the glasses and new suit in Gaiden and I think it's a good look being an agent and all, but for Infinite Wealth, what's going on?

Sakamoto: I think we've seen throughout the series that Kiryu's attire often represents him, and even his iconic suit has a meaning behind it. That stuff is never done without purpose, so you'll find out.

Like A Dragon Gaiden is set to launch on November 9 this year for PlayStation platforms, Xbox consoles, and PC. The action-based game will act as the bridge for Kiryu's story leading into the next mainline game, Like A Dragon: Infinite Wealth, the RPG entry set to release in early 2024.


Michael Higham

Senior Editor and Host at GameSpot. Filipino-American. Ask me about Yakuza, FFXIV, Persona, or Nier. If it's RPGs, I have it covered. Apparently I'm the tech expert here, too? Salamat sa 'yong suporta!

Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth

Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth

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