Ichiban Kasuga from Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth
Ichiban Kasuga from Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth

Previously, I wrote about Yakuza: Like a Dragon and how Ichiban Kasuga was the perfect modern hero. There was a moderate uproar when Kasuga replaced the stoic Kiryu Kazuma because the new protagonist of the series wasn’t a carbon copy of Kiryu, instead a much more neurotic and impulsive character. Still, it felt like the perfect departure point for the developers and a natural way to pivot to turn-based RPG. If the Yakuza series started off as a satire of the hyper-masculine yakuza film genre popular in Japan, what it’s morphed into is something much deeper and impactful. It’s a meditation on masculinity, forgiveness, violence, and how radical goodness can help everyone.

In Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the developers seemed eager to move on from Kiryu, not because he’s a bad character, but because they spent decades with him. It’s something I understand very well after writing two series that stretched on for longer than I’d anticipated. When Yakuza: Like a Dragon came out, Kiryu was a character who appeared near the end, but whose role was minor otherwise, and fans didn’t feel that sense of closure.

If that game had rushed the departure of Kiryu, this game, and the prior spin-off of Like a Dragon Gaiden, were the developers being more gentle. These games have been special for a long time, and the introduction of Ichiban Kasuga as the new protagonist cemented that. Yakuza: Like a Dragon brought so much to the table, but Ichiban’s tender masculinity really made it shine. He’s a character who believes in being good at all costs, even if it means hurting him. He sees the good in all people.

If spoilers bother you, there will be spoilers here. I’m sorry.

Ichiban reflects on greed during the pandemic.
Ichiban on pandemic greed.

Life is Always Complicated

Ichiban, at the request of his old boss, Sawashiro, is to head to Hawaii for a much-needed break as well as finding his estranged mother, Akane. For Ichiban, who grew up as an orphan before discovering his gangster lineage, the idea is bittersweet. He’s already accomplished so much without his mother in his life, and although he’s curious about her, he’s still apprehensive about meeting her. The departure came about because he had taken a job at Hello Work helping former yakuza find a new life and new work, only for an online v-tuber to get him into their sights and ruin not only Ichiban’s career, but the careers of his pals Nanba and Adachi who’d moved on after the events of the previous game as well. The only one spared is Saeko, who Ichiban realizes he has feelings for, asks out on a date, then foolishly proposes marriage to her in the most Ichiban way possible, which only alienates her. All of these things force him to Hawaii for a reprieve.

Only we know better. There’s never a reprieve.

The story that unfolds intersects with the former protagonist of the series, Kiryu Kazuma, whom if you played Like a Dragon Gaiden, you knew was in Hawaii on a mission of his own. Finding Akane wasn’t simple enough and led Kasuga to a world of trouble with Kiryu there to bail him out.

Let’s take a break here to explain this game is long. I played a good chunk of the side quests and clocked in 80 hours before clicking save that last time and getting back to the main menu. The first almost eight hours happen in Japan before you ever get to meet with Kiryu. I’m not kidding.

Kiryu is also looking for Akane, although the revelation of his illness comes to light and that he’s no longer the dragon he used to be. That doesn’t mean he’s not tough, though. He’s still Kiryu Kazuma, although a somewhat neutered one who’s accepted his fate where he will die within the next six months, as well as the deal he made with the shadowy Daidoji to remain “dead” and carry out whatever tasks they need of him, which means they’ll leave his loved ones alone. It’s a raw deal, and it prevents him from doing much of anything beyond completing his tasks.

Throughout this part of the game, Kiryu and Kasuga team together, fight together, and bond in a way we didn’t get before. Kiryu seems content to let Kasuga handle the tough work while being the legendary muscle, and along the way he sees multiple people make mistakes that under most circumstances would be unforgivable. No matter what, though, Ichiban doesn’t care. Instead, he believes in them, gives them more chances, and shows nothing but love and support towards the people in his life. Oh, you tried to kill him when he arrived in Hawaii? Who cares? Ichiban understands you were in a bad place and when push came to shove, made the right decision.

There are multiple cases where people either he trusted initially or started off as adversaries only for the radical goodness of Ichiban Kasuga to shine through, annoy these people to death, and win him over to his side. Everyone has a story and everyone has a reason for doing the things they do. Under the ideological tenets of Ichiban’s worldview, no one is beyond repair, and everyone can atone for their sins. Even if they aren’t forgiven, they can try to be better and have a positive impact on the world.

When things get heavy and Kiryu needs to return to Japan, the game is split where you play as Ichiban for a chapter, then Kiryu for a chapter, and stays this way until the final chapter, which sees you wrap up both stories. With Kiryu on his own, he’s forced to deal with the fact that everyone he meets admires him, if not idolizes him, and cannot understand why the legendary Dragon of Dojima is just ready to give up, roll over and die without putting up a fight, all while under the thumb of some shadowy organization after a lifetime of fighting these kinds of people. Kiryu’s old friend, Detective Date, shows up and through a series of vignettes, reintroduces Kiryu to characters from his past.

Some of those scenes are absolutely incredible and difficult to get through. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll know and appreciate all of them. You’ll want nothing more than for Kiryu to stop keeping his distance and allow these people to express their love to him, and he admits his own feelings towards them. Instead, he sits in the shadows, grunts and moves on. All while stomping his way through Kamurocho and Ijincho on a quest to provide support to Ichiban where needed from back home.

Game Conventions Suck, Get Over It

This is one of those games where the big baddies don’t really matter. There are plots, twists and turns, machinations and whatever else, but the struggles for the characters are internal. Ichiban is dealing with self-doubt after the woman he loves seemed excited to go on a date with him and he blew it with her, all while his life trying to help and give back fell to pieces. Kiryu believes his cancer diagnosis is what he deserves after a lifetime as a yakuza, even though he’s had positive impacts on many different people. In his weakened state, he stopped believing in himself or his ability to show or accept love. Instead, he stuck to the “old ways” that prided itself on stoicism and honor.

Kiryu, surrounded by people who were already believers in Kasuga and his own brand of cringe, if not earnest goodness, showed Kiryu they believed in him just as much as they believed in Kasuga. He was surrounded by good, trustworthy people and they saw him not just as one of their own, but as the best of them.

Kiryu Kazuma from Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth reflects on existence.
Kiryu Visiting Old Friends

Kasuga and his allies run through a gauntlet set up by the well-meaning fanatical cult leader who started to believe he was akin to a god, while Kiryu was dealing with another angry young upstart looking to destroy whatever remained of the yakuza, embarrassing whoever was left and ruining the lives of those being left behind. Kiryu’s finale took us through a place he’s all-too-familiar with, and the way the fights broke down was intentionally familiar.

Because the thing was, this wasn’t just Kiryu stopping a madman, this was Kiryu stopping a madman while showing him mercy, love and kindness. It was him using every last bit of his strength not just for honor, or his loved ones, but to create a better future, one built on the back of the core beliefs of Ichiban Kasuga. When he defeats the bad guy (doesn’t he always?) his demeanor isn’t one of pride or honor, it’s one begging for goodness, to believe in second chances, and that people can be good.

Found Strength

After twenty years (seriously!) of Kiryu Kazuma being the unstoppable badass symbol of hyper-masculinity, the same man we saw grow to be a caring person willing to risk everything for those he loved, we see a man willing to throw aside that hyper-masculinity and accept he needs others. That the most radical thing he can do isn’t to be the hero, but to believe in others while supporting them as well.

That includes finding the strength to get over himself at the end.

As a speculative fiction author, I see a lot of pushes for books focusing on goodness and hope. I think it’s a great thing, and something we need more of, but something about a lot of it doesn’t resonate for me. There’s something so genuine about this series and these games that cuts right through the pretenses.

Ichiban’s story is that of an orphan with no discernible skills beyond hope, love, compassion and throwing a few big punches and how much he’s able to do despite this that works. We see Ichiban homeless, destitute, and left for dead in the last game, by the only person he’s ever loved and looked up to, and he refused to stop believing in him. All of it handled with a deft hand. So much of the science fiction that falls under these same ideas of radical hope feels like they’re about professional managerial class types; scientists, doctors, politicians, having to rise to the moment, but what doesn’t work for me is that revolution never comes from these people. It never comes from the people who are comfortable and happy, or who don’t have experience suffering through the indignities of life. It comes from those cast aside, shamed, told they weren’t valuable to society and to sit back and let their betters handle things.

My son watched the ending with me, and although it was in Japanese and subtitled, he could tell what was happening. He asked me why the guy with the crazy hair (Ichiban) was helping the hurt man through a crowd of angry people with their phones pointed at them, pelting them with trash. He asked me; “Dad, why is he doing that?”

Because nobody is ever truly lost or worth giving up on. It’s so simple.

"You're as rare as they come. To think I'd get to meet you." - Ei-chan
No one is ever truly lost. Not when they have friends.

Ichiban is leading a man who posed as a friend, who betrayed him and was, in fact, one of the architects of this whole misadventure, on the path to being a better person. Even if this person hurt him, got people killed, and ruined so much, Ichiban believes he can work his way back into the world and make it a better place. All Ichiban wants to be is a friend who helps him, is there to catch him when he has doubts or fears, and to be a friend. So they can make things better.

Ichiban Kasuga is one of those characters that is helping reframe the future. Fans of the series got a perfect sendoff for Kiryu, which saw him reclaim his life and future, while Kasuga is fighting for a better future, one person at a time.

The cast of Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth
The Gang.

Don’t listen to people complaining about Kasuga, the Dragon Quest-style gameplay, or optional DLC. That’s just noise. This game is beautiful.

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