The Yakuza Movie Is Great Because It Embraces The Absurdity Of The Games

Good video game movies are as hard to find as a decent TV in a skip. There just aren’t that many of them and the few that are ‘good’ are more stupid fun than solid filmmaking, but I’ll take stupid fun over bland failed attempts any day. Just look at the camp ‘90s Mortal Kombats or the more recent Sonic 2, and how they lean into the hamminess of their villains. Those two understand that games aren’t completely serious cinematic spectacles and instead embrace the quirks, something that Yakuza did best of all.

Like a Dragon—the movie, not the latest game—was released in 2007 and tells the story of the first Yakuza, but it pushes aside Nishiki and Kiryu’s brotherly beef for Majima and Kiryu’s test of mettle. We see Majima peeking around corners with his eyepatched-eye, hurling baseballs into people’s foreheads, and shouting Kiryu-san down the streets of Kamurocho just like in the game. It takes everything corny and fun about Yakuza and puts it front and centre. The whole experience makes it clear it's rooted in video games rather than shying away from its origins.

That’s where a lot of these movies go wrong. They’re ashamed of where they came from and try to be something ‘more’, awkwardly shoving themselves into the world of film to be taken seriously. Just look at the Super Mario Bros. movie and how it ditched the colourful cartoony aesthetic for a gritty New York-focused action about lizard people. Or you have the new Mortal Kombat that tried to make a cheesy series about eccentric characters fist-fighting into something dramatic—video games don’t need to be the same as movies to be taken seriously and that means their adaptations don’t need to be like normal movies. Majima wears a lavish golden blazer and eyepatch and has one goal—fighting Kiryu. There’s no need to make that anything more than it is to fit with other movies.

Games tell great stories but they tell these stories through more than cutscenes and dialogue – it’s more often in the environments we explore and in the moments where we’re at the wheel. The witty banter in fights or the quiet conversations we have while walking Kamurocho’s streets is as important to building up the characters as the hyper-focused cinematics. Gutting 30 hours of that for a two-hour flick leaves everything feeling rushed and hollow, so embracing the fun is key—you’ll never be able to cram that much narrative into such a small slot, but you can at least capture its essence.

Like a Dragon does that from start to finish. The narrow busy streets where we normally get into random brawls with goons are on full display with hammy over-the-top fist fights that feel cartoonish and full of life, even featuring the colourful Heat attacks from the games. The choreography is outstanding and we get to see the combat on full display as Kiryu wipes through Yakuza like the unwavering machine he is. It’s as thrilling as doing it ourselves in the game, perfectly capturing the unrealistic oomph of Kiryu’s power as he tackles comically large crowds of baddies. It’s not trying to be another film with a game’s name but embroils itself in its own identity.

It isn’t poking fun at these ideas with little jabs like a self-conscious newcomer—Like a Dragon is confident in embracing its roots. There’s a fully serious moment in the final battle where Kiryu is being beaten down and all hope looks lost. In any other movie, this would be where the hero has an internal pep talk or the Deus ex Machina trope kicks in, but with Like a Dragon, Kiryu pops a stamina potion and he’s back to full speed. He’s suddenly whipping out blue-flame Heat Actions and crushing skulls like he’s quickly paused to rummage around in his inventory. That’s not something that happens in movies—that’s a gaming staple. It’s silly seeing it for real but charming in its authenticity. Games aren’t movies but when they are, pulling from them is a harmless way to give them a unique edge.

Going back to watch Like a Dragon in the new age of video game movies where they’re trying too hard to bring the medium up to its big brother’s standards is so refreshing. Like a Dragon dropped the pretense and leaned into the silliness. And sure, it isn’t perfect—it’s still a video game movie—but it knows that trying to shoehorn 30 hours of story into two is never going to work, so it doesn’t bother. Kazama, Nishiki, Shimano, and Reina are barely featured, instead choosing to highlight the icons and the action.

You’re not going to capture the intimacy of how games tell a story but you can bring the rush of combat and the entertainment of the characters to life in a bizarre way that few other films do. That’s where Like a Dragon really shined. Yakuza tells a better story, but the film nailed its vibe.

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