Kazuma Kiryu’s fighting prowess isn’t what makes him a superhero, it’s his tortured soul

Kazuma Kiryu alongside Batman and Superman.
Credit: DC Comics

Kazuma Kiryu alongside Batman and Superman.
Credit: DC Comics

There’s a scene in Yakuza 5. Kazuma Kiryu, currently living in Nagasugai and working as a taxi driver under the alias of Taichi Suzuki, is having a conversation with detective Kazuhiko Serizawa. Serizawa turns the conversation towards current events, which seem to be pointing to a fresh war between the Tojo Clan and Omi Alliance yakuza factions. He asks Kiryu if, like most of the other big hitters affiliated with either group, the Dragon of Dojima will be heading to Tokyo to help settle the matter. Kiryu doesn’t answer. So, Serizawa tries to goad him into going. “You may be the only one who can sail the Tojo through this storm.”, he says.

“The path I walk is mine to decide.” replies Kiryu, having gotten back into his taxi. Serizawa leaves, but not before telling Big Kaz to turn on the radio, which Kiryu does. Then, he hears the news. Goro Majima has been shot. Kiryu pounds the horn in frustration. The latest in his never-ending string of attempted retirements is over.

Just when he thought he was out, they’ve pulled him back in.

Warning: major spoilers for the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series lie ahead

Kazuma Kiryu returning to Kamurocho in Yakuza/Like a Dragon 6.
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Somebody has to save the world…

Given how he reacts, you could be forgiven for thinking that this particular unhappy reunion between Kazuma Kiryu and the responsibility of saving the world is happening for the first time. In fact, it’s occurred on four previous occasions in his life and is already destined to take place one more time in the future. He should, in theory, be getting used to it. Towards the end of his previous adventure, it sounded like he might be. But he isn’t.

Each aborted retirement seems more painful to Kiryu than the last, as though the first carved a wound into his soul and those that followed have slowly opened it up further and further. He can’t stop donning the white and red suit that turns him into his fearsome alter-ego, The Dragon of Dojima. He can’t stop, even though it’s slowly killing him.

Kazuma Kiryu isn’t the first massively powerful hero in pop culture to end up caught in this kind of predicament. If he wants to find like-minded people, all the Tojo Clan’s fourth chairman has to do is open up a comic book from the mid-1980s. Even at a passing glance, Kiryu and the version of Bruce Wayne depicted in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are dripping with similarities. Both are legendary retired fighters who’re starting to get up there in years, only to find their battle-hardened second selves dragged out of the closet, despite Kiryu and Wayne’s best efforts to keep them locked away, by concerning current events that require intervention.

Similarly, the version of Superman depicted in Alan Moore’s "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", while unaffected by the human ailment of age, is pressed back into action following a ten-year hiatus from crime-fighting, by the worrying actions of one of his former foes.

Kazuma Kiryu entering Tojo Clan HQ in Yakuza/Like a Dragon 6.
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This world is theirs

So, back on go the capes and out come the trusty old fists of fury, but for all parties, the worlds they’re delving back into look and feel a little more alien than they did in the past. Kiryu’s reluctant returns to his old stomping ground of Kamurocho in Yakuza 5 and 6 see him find the Tojo Clan out of the hands of both Daigo Dojima, the man he charged with protecting it, and Daigo’s trusted lieutenants, Majima and Taiga Saejima. In their place are unfamiliar usurpers who’ve risen up the underworld ranks during The Dragon of Dojima’s absence and thus require some getting to know before he can hope to deal with them.

Back on the streets of Gotham and having re-assumed the guise of Batman, Wayne finds his old friend, Commissioner Gordon, besieged on all sides by the violent and youthful mutant gang, whose animalistic leader boasts physical prowess over the mature hero. Even the caped crusader’s thwarting of escaped old adversary Harvey Dent does little to make the situation seem any more comfortable. Superman’s opposition also symbolises a shift away from the world he’s grown accustomed to, with characters like Bizzarro and The Prankster, once minor headaches compared to the likes of Lex Luthor, having morphed into murderers.

All three find these changes disconcerting and grapple with the kind of alienation best symbolised by another mid-80s comic book hero, Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan. “I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.” is the line from the atomically-charged version of Jonathan Osterman that’s quoted most often on Twitter nowadays, and it brilliantly summarises the feeling of being completely out of control of your destiny despite having the power of a million men surging through your veins.

As Kiryu admits to Saejima near the end of Yakuza 4, before seemingly walking back his words in the next game: “for guys like us…our lives aren’t really our own”, with the dependency of others and the need to keep their dreams alive being the factors that demand this sacrifice. Left unstated is the idealistic goal The Dragon of Dojima must always achieve to fulfil his duty. The idea of the Tojo Clan as an essential institution built on old-school values, like the ideas of Gotham, Metropolis or America as places where innocent people can live free from the shadow of crime and destruction, must be kept intact. By any means necessary.

Kazuma Kiryu's back tattoo in Yakuza/Like a Dragon 6.
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If the nuisances from my past are coming back as killers…

This, naturally, requires intervention of a violent nature from our heroes. Unfortunately, their actions, while veiled with good intentions and yielding plenty of positive outcomes, also come with a litany of negative consequences. As Kiryu yells from a rooftop at the end of Yakuza 5 after watching yet another of his dear friends get hurt: “Why does this always happen when I get involved? Why does someone else always have to pay the price?”.

In part, the answer to these questions seems to be rooted in the Hegelian dialectic. Each time Kazuma Kiryu makes a fresh pilgrimage to push the boulder that is the Tojo Clan out of harm’s way and back towards his romantic vision for it, his opposition seems to get more and more voracious. Gone are the simple days of wrestling with Ryuji Goda to prove who the strongest dragon is. Standing opposite the thesis that is Kiryu’s traditional vision for the clan are antithetical opposing forces increasingly rooted in complex and shady conspiracies, growing stronger and stronger in an attempt to stop Kiryu from simply reinstating a regime that’s constantly on the verge of collapsing.

With no one able to defeat The Dragon of Dojima and trigger a synthesis that might lead to the formation of a more stable clan via an acknowledgement of the lingering issues that plague it and cause this constant upheaval, some of which Daigo himself alludes to before being battered into submission by Kiryu at the end of Yakuza 4, the cycle can never end. The harder Kiryu tries to drag the clan back to traditional order without resolving the underlying issues causing this order to break and things to descend into shadowy chaos, the more chaotic and shadowy the clan will get. Bruce Wayne fares no differently, with his return to the fray as Batman to fight Dent and the mutants accidentally igniting the return of The Joker, who had spent the entirety of the vigilante's retirement safely locked away in a peaceful state, to a life of crime, creating a problem more dangerous and unpredictable than the mutant gang.

As identified by Superman, who progresses from battling the combined might of Lex Luthor and Brainiac to the pan-dimensional Mister Mxyzptlk, the world of Watchmen isn’t the only one terminally ill with the disease of mutually assured destruction. Sure, the Kiryu Clan from Yakuza 6 may not quite evolve into a destructive army of vigilantes in the same way that the mutant gang, after watching Batman break their leader’s bones, morph into the Sons of Batman, but the stakes are continually being raised, and somebody’s got to take the responsibility to slam on the brakes before disaster strikes.

Kazuma Kiryu meeting up with Akira Nishkiyama in Yakuza/Like a Dragon Zero.
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Never wanting to lose her, knowing that I shall

Why don’t these heroes do just that? Why do they persevere with an approach that they seem to recognise is doomed to actively make things worse? Why do they cling so hard to their visions of an ideal world? The answer is rooted in their identities, which are invariably and deeply scarred by past trauma. The stories of how Batman’s parents and Superman’s destroyed home planet shaped their personalities are part of our cultural rubric by this point, but both figures deal with fresher sources of anguish in the tales I’ve highlighted.

The entire reason Bruce Wayne gave up his precious heroic identity for a decade is due to guilt over the death of Jason Todd, his former sidekick, making the emergence upon his return of Todd’s heir apparent as Robin deeply troubling. Superman’s hiatus isn’t underlined by tragedy, but he quickly suffers one upon returning to crime-fighting, with his childhood friend Pete Ross being tortured and killed in order to expose Clark Kent’s true identity. In the case of Doctor Manhattan, the newer wounds are caused by accusations of his presence causing cancer in friends and former colleagues, triggering a self-imposed exile to Mars which allows him to ruminate on the older suffering inflicted by both the accident that turned him into an all-powerful atomic being and his struggles to live a normal human life despite the disorienting view this state gives him of the universe.

Much like these men, Kazuma Kiryu’s life is littered with damaging psychological events. From the deaths of his childhood friend Akira Nishkiyama and father figure Shintaro Kazama in the series’ very first entry, to the demises of others who’re near and dear to him, such as Rikiya Shimabukuro, as it progresses, it’s easy to understand why he begins to feel so conflicted about coming to save the day. Nishkiyama especially, having been twisted into a cold-hearted killer by the clan while Kiryu was serving a ten year prison sentence, likely serves as an especially bitter pill to swallow. The well of survivor’s guilt within Kiryu keeps replenishing itself with every fresh trip to Kamurocho, but he also can’t live with the idea of the guilt he’ll be racked with if he doesn’t go. There’s no way to break the cycle. No way for it to end without Kiryu’s own inevitable demise.

Kazuma Kiryu writing his letter to Daigo Dojima in Yakuza/Like a Dragon 6.
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Nothing ever ends

Faced with frighteningly similar dilemmas, Kiryu, Wayne and Superman all come to the same conclusion. They’re going to have to bite the bullet. Kiryu goes so far as to write what essentially serves as a suicide note. Addressed to Daigo Dojima, the man to whom he assigned the fate he rejected, Tojo Clan chairman, the letter sees The Dragon of Dojima admit that he’s neglected his responsibilities as a father figure to both Daigo and the clan.

“Instead of facing my past, I ran.” it surmises. So, Kazuma Kiryu stops running. Much like his costumed compatriots, he submits to death’s embrace, finally granting himself the glorious suicide he’s continually flirted with over the years. However, this isn’t the end of his story, because there’s another way out. The identities of Kazuma Kiryu, Bruce Wayne and Superman all end up dead and buried, but the men behind them live on.

Sure, they’ve had to give up a lot to do it, but they’ve extricated themselves from their fatal doom spirals. It’s an imperfect solution that won’t last forever, but at least it grants them some time to spend doing good things for others on their own terms, without having to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders.

And, as the man who erased his name, who once lived in paralysing fear of being pulled back in at any moment, declares in his letter: “Nothing is more vital than time.”

The doomsday clock from Watchmen.
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Credit: DC Comics.
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