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What Inspired: The Yakuza Series

Back in 1999, Sega blew us away with the release of Shenmue, and as a matter of fact, you cannot deny that nobody was expecting something so revolutionary to be marching into the industry back then. Perhaps it was just the time when developers were preparing for the new era of 3D games. An era where developers strove to deliver the best they could. Fortunately, Sega is no exception. The latter was rocking it with the Sega Dreamcast and the early days of the PS2 with phenomenal games such as Shinobi, Crazy Taxi, Blood Will Tell, and let's not forget Daytona USA 2001.

This sudden change would only result in fueling other developers' ambition to come up with something better, something that will force other competitors to re-think their upcoming decisions. Thus, games like GTA 3, Mega Man Legends, and Devil May Cry appeared out of nowhere. However, among these games, there's one game that is like no other. The game I'm talking about is Yakuza. A new game that would be released by Sega back in 2005. Yakuza is a mixture of weirdness, action, drama, and comedy. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything like it on the market. (Don't try, I already said there's nothing like it.)

Today, I'll be once again I'll be diving into what inspired one of the most popular games out there when I discuss what inspired Kiryu-chan and his crazy adventures. As usual, I'll use facts, as well as some of my own personal analysis, enjoy.

In case if you have missed previous "What Inspired" entries, here they are: Jak and Daxter, The Last of Us.  

 Toshihiro Nagoshi and the dream to make a movie:
Shortly after Nagoshi graduated from Tokyo Zokei University with a degree in movie production he joined SEGA. At SEGA, as part of the second arcade department (AM2), he worked on early 3D titles such as the acclaimed Virtua Racing and Daytona USA. These titles helped Nagoshi to find his niche, a place where he could do his best due to his study of movies being useful at adjusting and implementing the right camera angles in early 3D games. These titles not only helped him find his niche but was also a turning point for him at SEGA. He states in one of his interviews with Otaquest:

"I knew the basics, so I gave them advice along the lines of “If you do that, viewers won’t know where they’re looking from. You should do this instead.” They would say “You know a whole lot about this!”, and internal jobs began coming my way. It was easy to apply my knowledge after that change to 3D."

However, Nagoshi's dream was to always make a movie. After all, that is why he graduated with a degree in movie production. Before finding his niche at SEGA, he was seriously stuck in a dark hole where he felt he didn't fit in. If it wasn't for the sudden change from 2D to 3D graphics, he would have quit the company a long time ago. He states:

"I was really banking on getting a job offer from a film production company. Before the change, I was constantly thinking about when I should quit. I really didn’t fit in. But as a result of technological innovation, I was given a space where I could utilize my skills. I couldn’t help but be thankful. You really don’t know what can happen to you." 
Thanks to the rapid switching from 2D to 3D, Nagoshi would shine at SEGA with how he managed to pull off something other developers could not do at the time. And so he states this once again:
"But when I said I was lucky before, it’s because during the time I began working, 2D was on its way out, and the industry was switching to 3D. When the transition to 3D took place, video games began to need both lighting and camera work. But even though this change had taken place, nobody had actually studied the techniques needed to work in a 3D space."

It did not take long for Nagoshi to be promoted to a higher position after all his hard work. Following his passion and ambition has really carved a way for him that he himself did not expect it would happen. He indicates:

"Fortunately, however, I had the skills to do it. People were quick to point out that I was good at it too. I felt like an actual lifesaver. When I look back on it now, it really did all work out in the end."
The burning spirit of Shenmue lives on:

The more I read about Toshihiro Nagoshi's biography, the more I realize that the Yakuza series was made with the spirit of Shenmue. At the time, he was called by the CEO to get the game finished, and as a result, he had to serve as both the producer and director of the final months of development since Yu Suzuki didn't trust anyone with the project except Nagoshi Toshihiro.

As a consequence of this decision, Nagoshi recognizes this as one of his turning points in his career. He pays a lot of respect to Yu Suzuki as he says there is no developer that he learnt more from than him. He says that in one of the quotes we have managed to snatch from one of his interview on Famitsu's website:

"I've refrained from actively commenting on Yu Suzuki, but I think it's okay to say that now (laughs). To be honest, I learned a lot from Yu Suzuki. As I said before and before new employees, the "value of encounter" is not surprising at that moment, but it can be understood later. I told you that if you try to meet someone with immediate effect or choose a partner, you will become a bad person who chooses people and jobs. So, back to the story, Yu Suzuki was a valuable encounter for me. I was often angry at the time, and I didn't really understand why I was angry ... I once thought, "What a selfish person!" To be honest, I wonder if it was a moment when I felt a grudge (laughs)." 

He adds:

"Of course. Dissatisfaction and resentment will erase the time. So now there are no negative emotions. And the only thing left is thankful to Mr. Yu Suzuki for teaching me. That's why it was a valuable encounter, and after 30 years I was able to say so."

We apologize if the translation seems hilariously weird as we're just using Google translate to interpret the words to you.

Back to the topic, before Shenmue was released, Nagoshi was dissatisfied with how the game went and asked for his own development division, which later became Amusement Vision. However, at the time , he had no choice but to finish the remaining months of development for the game before he could work on his own project .

Unfortunately, his game wouldn't come to existence overnight. Pitching games at the time was a difficult task and games became too expensive to make. His first project was rejected by the SEGA CEO as he complained that the costs of developing a game weren't anything cheap. However, as a type of protest, he developed a simple and inexpensive game that was meant to convince the company that making a game with low costs was possible. The game I'm talking about is Super Monkey Ball. It didn't sell well in Japan, but it was a critical hit overseas. After this success, Nagoshi wanted to know how Nintendo works, after all, one of his goals was to be a sub-contractor for them.
After two years of planning and thinking, Nagoshi ended up making an entry for the F-Zero franchise, which was called F-Zero GX. Nintendo was impressed by the final product and demanded the source code of the game as the game achieved a much higher quality than they anticipated. However, despite these achievements, during the PS2 period, the Japanese game development industry began to see slow stagnation as they couldn't compete with budgets of the likes of Rockstar Games, EA, and Activision.

It was at that moment where Nagoshi had to come up with an idea to save the Japanese game development industry along with other talented developers, and it was at that period where Yakuza would finally see the light of the day. In the end, Yakuza wouldn't come up without Nagoshi paying tribute to Yu Suzuki as being one of the few people who influenced him through his entire career:

"No one has had a greater influence on me making games than Yu Suzuki."

The Dragon of Hope

As I said above, after the release of the PS2, the Japanese game industry would begin to witness slow stagnation. On the other hand, the western industry was kicking with a myriad of games that sold millions upon millions and it seemed like it wouldn't end. This huge difference was a nightmare for the Japanese game industry as some of them lost hope in making something unique, something that wasn't done before. As result, a lot of them gave up on their ideas to follow trends. Nagoshi states this in one of his interviews with Edge:

It became difficult for Japanese companies to compete with western games of high quality and big budgets, like those from EA, Activision or Rockstar Games. Personally, I knew it would happen."

The future looked bleak for the Japanese industry and the western industry was prevailing with their immense domination on the market. However, Japan wouldn't accept this defeat for long. Despite the Japanese developers feeling flustered, they all wanted to create something that would sell well, something that would counterattack the western domination.  Nagoshi expected that such change would happen, and so he states again:

"I knew it would happen to the game business too. All the Japanese developers were flustered. We all wanted to create something that would sell well, but if we wanted to do so, it would have to be sports, or military, or fantasy; they were limited to a few genres."

Everyone seemed to succumbed to the dreadful state of game development with several Japanese developers following the common trends, making games that targeted the most lucrative type of audience. However, Nagoshi refused to accept things back then. He swore he would carve his own path and bring glory to the Japanese game industry without following trends. He states:
"...and since everyone was thinking the same things, everyone was making similar games. But I thought it wasn’t right to follow that direction.

Because I like pushing against the trends, I want to make something completely unexpected. I don’t want to make something that people have already seen."

His goal was ambitious for its time, and as a result, his bosses were frightened to take that risky path which Nagoshi was suggesting. While his project was refused two times, Nagoshi didn't lose hope. He was determined to make his game become a reality despite receiving countless criticism that his work was unneeded. He states:

"The more criticism I received, the more I felt a flame ignite in me to show that these traits could inspire people to play games. This eventually led to me making video games on a much more grand scale. I like making naysayers eat their own words. That’s just the kind of person I am."
At the time, when his first two projects were rejected, Sega was on the verge of the bankruptcy. However, Sammy and Sega merged together in order to get out of their financial struggles. Nagoshi took this opportunity to go tothe new owner and present the game to him for his approval. Again, his project would be met with some hesitation from the owner, but ultimately it was approved.Yakuza was finally given the green light. Nagoshi States: 

"I thought my third presentation would be another ‘No’, but there was another divine wind blowing toward me. Sega was struggling for cash and was very close to bankruptcy, so it merged with Sammy. As soon as it happened, I went in to see the new owner and presented the game to him, looking for his approval. Professionally, this was highly irregular and quite wrong. But I knew if the owner said ‘yes’, it would be good for the entire company. He asked me, “Do you really want to do this? Are you certain, and believe in yourself, that it will be successful?” I said, “Of course. If I’m wrong, you can do whatever you want with me."

Nonetheless, you are probably wondering '' but what inspired Yakuza series? ''. It's simple, Japan has inspired the creation of this franchise. I will talk about all of that in the section below.

Japan and the haven of influence:

Japan was, and still is, a haven of inspiration for a lot of developers. Be it a Japanese or a Western developer, many have taken a bit of influence from the Japanese culture. A culture that helped them hone their game and let it stand out of the crowd of trends. Nagoshi, as a native Japanese, took some inspiration from himself. He states:

"I’m often asked how I did all the research, but it’s Japanese culture – we have a lot of literature, comics, movies, tons of material we can refer to. But I did some of my own, yes. I like drinking; I also like women."

With of all this aside, there's still a vague confusion on which Japanese works inspired Nagoshi Toshihiro to make his game. I think after months of researching, I can finally provide anyone who is reading this with a handful of works that I personally think played a role in breathing life into the Yakuza series. Before I dive deep into the next section, be aware that some of these are just my own observations. Enjoy.

Fist of The North Star (Hokuto No Ken)

When I first played the original Yakuza I had this feeling that Kiryu resembled Kenshiro somehow. Now, I'm not the only one who thought the same thing. There are a couple of signs that proves this, and I think it's obvious with the recent Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise. There's no doubt that the developers and Nagoshi are die-hard fans of the franchise. In addition, the thugs in Yakuza games kind of resemble Hokuto no Ken's universe. How? in the Yakuza game, you'll always end up encountering bad guys that are either harassing innocent people or want to beat you up. Likewise, the same could be said about Hokuto no Ken's universe.

Another sign I managed to notice throughout the years is the link between Lin and Haruka. If you look closely, you'll realize that throughout both Hokuto no Ken and the Yakuza series, Lin and Haruka have been evolving to the point where they were capable of fighting hardships on their own. However, Kiryu and Kenshiro will always act as their guardian angel who will look after them and protect them from all harm. This can be seen in both the last arc of Hokuto no Ken and Yakuza 6. Despite the disappearance of the main characters, they appeared at the last moment to save those who are dear to them. What do you think, aren't both situations a bit similar?
Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO)

If you've played the Yakuza games, you'll find yourself playing a game which was intended to have serious crimes, mafia, and drama. However, the franchise offers some absurd comedy that will never make your experience with the game feel stale. This mixture of comedy and the serious story has seriously paid off, and that's one of the aspects fans loved experiencing in the games. 

Yet, the question is: What inspired this wacky humor?. Well, you see, it's difficult to discover what really influenced Nagoshi to make such things. In my opinion, I believe there's a link between GTO and Yakuza. You see, despite GTO being different than Yakuza, I feel that, its humor somehow influenced Nagoshi's game. If you've watched the anime or read the manga, you'll notice how GTO has tons of absurd of comedy that will not only make your day, but it will be burned inside your memory for ages. Oh, and let's not forget how Onizuka was an ex-yakuza member, and because of that, he punished anyone who dared to make fun of him. (See the first episode). Lastly, I forgot to tell you that GTO was a critical hit and a commercial success back when it came out. Anyway, what do you think of this one? do you see a link too?
Kabukicho and Kamurocho

As you already know, the Yakuza series is set in a fictional area of Japan called Kamurocho. There's no denying that this fictional place looks like it could be a real place, especially when roaming. Have you ever wondered for a second about what might have inspired this fictional setting? Luckily, there's an article that shows photos of Kabukicho, the real inspiration behind the city of Kamurocho. Here's a photo below.

You can read all about the photo comparisons on the links that we will provide you with at the end of this article.

Takeshi Kitano and the twist in Yakuza 6

The first time I saw Takeshi Kitano making an appearance in Yakuza 6, I couldn't help myself but wondering  "why is he there?" I contemplated if it was merely a fan-service or is there a reason? However, after a couple of days spent searching and asking, I have finally found the answer I desire. Here's a quote from Wikipedia:

"Many of Kitano's films are dramas about yakuza gangsters or the police. His 2000 film Brother was deliberately intended to be a hit abroad. Shot in Los Angeles, it starred Kitano as a deposed and exiled Tokyo yakuza setting up a drug empire in Los Angeles with the aid of a local gangster played by Omar Epps. Although 1993's Sonatine did poorly in Japan, it received rave reviews in Europe when it was shown at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Kitano plays a Tokyo yakuza who is sent by his boss to Okinawa to help end a gang war there. He is tired of gangster life, and when he finds out the whole mission is a ruse, he welcomes what comes with open arms."
Does all of this look like a coincidence to you, dear reader? I think not! There's certainly an obvious influence of Takeshi Kitano's works on the making of Yakuza games. After all, both of these were created in Japan. 

Sympathy for the underdog (1971)

There's really no end to how many Yakuza films that inspired Nagoshi. As a matter of fact, the main reason behind the storytelling inspiration was mostly Yakuza movies. After all, that was a strong genre back then. Yet, what most people don't know is that the stories of the first two games in the series were supervised by novelist Hase Seishu, a writer of crime fiction. The main story is presented in chapters, much like Kinji Fukasaku's classic yakuza movie Sympathy for the Underdog. Have you watched this movie, do you think it could have been a direct inspiration for the Yakuza series?

Streets of Rage

Since Nagoshi stated that he took influence from many Japanese works, in my humble opinion, I believe Streets of Rage is one of them. Now, I'm not the only one who thought about this. Fans pointed out that Power Stone played a role as well. Nevertheless, all of these personal analyses remain nothing but mere speculations. In the end, it's challenging to discover where did Nagoshi come out with the mechanics, the gameplay, and the overall design of the Yakuza series. Yet, I think we can all agree that Yakuza truly looks like a blend of Shenmue and Streets of Rage with RPG elements sprinkled on them. After all, he wanted to create something unique, right? 
The ongoing torch:

During the development of Yakuza 4, the developers began to think of a way to end Kiryu's saga and pass on the torch to a new lead character. As you already know, Yakuza's story doesn't contain characters with magic or inhuman powers. The game tells real stories of real drama. This was a challenging decision for Nagoshi and his crew as they did not want to extinguish the burning flames of the series. On the contrary, they wanted to continue in that path and bring more and more Yakuza games. Here is where Nagoshi indicates that 007 James Bond played a role. Nagoshi says:

"Similar to the way the 007 series hires new leads to keep the franchise going, we intend to have different protagonists appear in the Yakuza games in order to keep the series alive. When Sean Connery passed on the James Bond torch, a lot of people complained, but eventually people grew accustomed to the new actors. Each actor put their own flair to the 007 character, so in the same way, we believe that the different protagonists we'll end up using will ultimately be able to carry the torch for Kiryu."
Nagoshi once presented Yakuza to Microsoft and Nintendo
When Yakuza was first released on the PS2, Nagoshi once presented the game to Microsoft and Nintendo. In the end, they both refused it, thinking that it would turn out to be nothing but a flop. However, with the success of the first Yakuza, Nintendo and Microsoft found themselves begging Sega to release it on their console, but that was too late. Nagoshi states:

"...but while we released this game with Sony, I’d done presentations about it to Microsoft and Nintendo. Back then they said, ‘No, we don’t want it’. Now they say, ‘We want it!’ [laughs] They didn’t understand the reason why I created it."
This marks the end of this long article about "What Inspired: The Yakuza Series." I hope you enjoyed it as I spent weeks upon weeks of writing to craft this fine piece. The next article will focus on what inspired "The Uncharted Series." Stay tuned!




  1. This is fascinating. The whole "wanted to be a filmmaker" thing reminds me of Kojima, and considering their similar age it makes sense. Gaming was still in it's infancy, who at that time would have been aiming for gaming? But the film industries' loss is gaming's gain I say!

    I gotta say, I didn't know about this "PS2-Era Stagnation" in the Japanese gaming industry. Scary to think what could have happened if we didn't have people like Nagoshi willing to experiment.

    Thank you for the piece!

    1. Thank you for reading, and I'm glad you liked it.

      Yes. If it wasn't for talented Japanese developers like Shinji Mikami, Nagoshi Toshihiro, Hideki Kamiya, and Kazuma Kaneko who strove to bring the best they could. I don't know what the Japanese industry would have turned into.


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