The first time Kiryu sets foot in Onomichi, a sleepy port town in Hiroshima, he looks like a fish out of water. His pristine white suit has been slightly undone; the sleeves of his red button-up shirt rolled up to account for the warmer climate. He has a baby cradled under one arm—an infant who is essentially his grandson. Kiryu's in brand new territory. And as a player of the Yakuza series, I am too.
The Yakuza series is one that usually positions players across bustling cities. Tokyo. Osaka. Fukuoka. The quietest place the series has ever ventured to before has arguably been Okinawa in Yakuza 3, the sun-soaked islands where Kiryu's orphanage resides. Onomichi, perhaps in an earnest effort to close the book on Kiryu's zany path that truly began with the events of Yakuza 3 and founding the orphanage, feels as if it was designed to remind players of the heyday of the Yakuza mainline series' HD debut.
Over the course of playing Yakuza 6: The Song of Life these past few months, I've slowly fallen in love with the quaint town. Onomichi, in stark contrast to the neon-tinted big city lifestyle, is far more mundane—and celebrates the character of small town life too. The game wastes no time to set up how jarringly different the town is, compared to Kiryu's city-bound lifestyle. On Kiryu's first night in Onomichi, he learns the hard way that shops close early when he needs to buy baby formula. He runs around town asking for help in finding formula, before a new parent eventually lends some to him (but not before a passive aggressive jab or two). The people in town dress far differently than he does; more shabbily, casual, not like an ex-yakuza still keeping up intimidating appearances for some bizarre reason. Even the other yakuza members he meets in town dress like, well, they live in a port town; not as if they're about to sell you some real estate. Kiryu stands out in Onomichi, because it's a town where he doesn't quite belong.
I grew up in a town not completely unlike Onomichi. Instead of a port, we had farms. Stores closed ridiculously early too, except for the lone 24-hour donut shop. We had a rodeo every summer. It was a quiet town where I could bike from the start to the end of it with relative ease. Onomichi, contrarily, isn't a town built with biking in mind though. It's a town traversed only on foot, with a vertical incline for its hills. To get to the tippy top, you waltz through a cemetery. To get to the shrine, you walk through a series of narrow pathways, before ultimately finding some tucked away stairs. Onomichi is constructed compactly, and it's a town that's disorienting to wander around initially. But as with all small towns, you get used to it.
Onomichi feels like home. Or at least home-like. It's not that hard to imagine Haruka, Kiryu's sorta-daughter that he's raised, settling down here with her baby. It's not hard to imagine Kiryu living here either, in peaceful uninterrupted retirement with maybe the orphanage he runs moved to this new relaxed location. It's a town that's peaceful, which is something Kiryu desperately needs after decades spent embroiled in yakuza drama, protecting his family and friends, making passionate karaoke detours, and many stints in jail. He deserves the peace and quiet.
As Kiryu wades through Onomichi, he discovers a seedier underbelly in the otherwise eventless town. Onomichi has its own crime families, hierarchies, and nemeses (even if it all feels as if it's at a much smaller scale sometimes), and now poor Kiryu's embedded in the conflict in his pursuit of finding baby Haruto's father. Kiryu, the man who can't seem to quit the yakuza no matter how hard he tries, is wrangled back in by even the most unassuming of towns, much to his dismay. It feels like Kiryu's doomed to forever live this sort of life; no matter how much he longs not to anymore, no matter what town or big city he happens to find himself in.
The sort of town that Onomichi is, while rare, is still familiar for the realm of video games. Shenmue most notably also takes place in a similarly mundane neighborhood of a city. In Shenmue, the playable Ryo can play an assortment of arcade games, nab collectable gacha toys, and even work a forklift job—the latter essential for the story, and also incredibly dull. But it's dull in an endearing way though, or at least, was endearing for its time. Shenmue was a game that wanted to make players feel like they were living alongside Ryo in 1986 Yokosuka. Even last year's Night in the Woods takes place in a small Rust Belt town that's not exactly on the up-and-up.
Onomichi isn't the sort of town that's completely fading though, even as residents spill their hardships to Kiryu and their struggle to keep some shops open. (Hence, the yakuza stepping in.) The town is just... persisting. With the people Kiryu meets over the course of quests, which sway from filling in for a mascot to an accidental brawl on a baseball field, Kiryu grows to care for the once-strangers in the itty bitty town. Their small town kindness (or passive aggressively-laced niceties) is mostly-unwavering—starting from the sweet bartender who helps Kiryu find a place to stay on his first night, and going beyond that too. Kiryu even rehabilitates the town's stray cats and adopts them into a struggling cat cafe back in Tokyo, because he's just that nice of a guy.
Onomichi reminds me of the sort of open-ish world I'd love to see in more video games. One not bound by nature (yeah, Far Cry) or cityscapes (yeah, everything else), but one that's quaint, digestible, intricately detailed and familiar-feeling. One that feels human, like people might actually live there. The Yakuza series has always had a knack for capturing that end of life: across its slice-of-life oriented side quests, and now with its characterization in Onomichi too. With the farewell of Kazuma Kiryu in Yakuza 6, we can only hope that the next journey for the Yakuza series will be just as human.
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