Night has fallen in the fictional Kamurocho district of Tokyo. And Kazuma Kiryu, the primary protagonist of the ongoing Yakuza series, has frankly seen better days. In just the past few chapters of Yakuza Zero, he’s been framed for murder, dealt with incessant yakuza-related drama, helped a dominatrix become more confident, among other random things. Poor Kiryu can’t catch a break with every drunkard or nobody yakuza egging fights with him along the neon-saturated streets. They’re fights he never loses, of course, but remain annoying nonetheless.
The moon hangs high when Kiryu ducks to a local food stall—bruised knuckles, cut-up face and all. The space is a welcome quiet to Kiryu’s busy, prolongedly violent life; a place of solitude and reflection. He orders a beer and takoyaki (a popular Japanese snack of fried octopus balls).
In Yakuza Zero, like all other Yakuza games, eating at restaurants is a constant, though often overlooked pastime. Food equals health in the Yakuza series, so eating your fill is essential to surviving the onslaught of spontaneous street fights. But the restaurants represent something else too. As with playing arcade games, night club boogieing rendezvous, and other menial activities, eating is an escape from Kiryu’s harsh reality.
As Kiryu bites into the takoyaki, he lets out a rare gasp. “This is tasty,” he grumbles, as his health shoots up to a full-bar once more. Then he turns around, and it’s back to the wild streets of Kamurocho. Later, when the game’s other protagonist Goro Majima drinks fancy liquor, he sips it slowly, enjoying its taste as it’s described to the player in exquisite detail. Then Majima exits the dive bar, and returns to his chaotic life of juggling a hostess bar, a cabaret, and solving mysteries (of the murder and fist-flying variety).
Yakuza’s use of food as a sanctuary reminds me of something else entirely: one of my favorite anime of the past few years, Wakakozake. Wakakozake is a short series—every episode spans about two minutes—that follows a 26-year-old office worker named Murasaki Wakako. Wakako’s no brawler like the protagonists in Yakuza Zero, but she’s still strong-willed and as busy as can be. She works tirelessly all day, and her only place of relaxation comes at the end of her work day, when she goes out to eat.
Wakako is more particular than Kiryu or Majima might be at an establishment. Though nonetheless, similar to those perpetually bruised boys, she ventures from fancy restaurants to seedy dives, always pairing her food and drink carefully. It’s here where she reflects on her hard work day, where all her troubles melt away as she relishes in the exquisite taste of the food and alcohol she consumes to wind down.
Food for Wakako doesn’t just provide nourishment, but it’s mentally healing. It’s the getaway she needs; her well-deserved end of the day treat. For Kiryu and Majima, food is similar. Just like a bout of racing toy cars or enthusiastically belting “24-Hour Cinderella” at a karaoke bar, food is a rare, pleasant escape. After all, life’s kind of a mess for these two ex-yakuzas, but food will always be there to heal them (both literally and figuratively). And, albeit briefly, help them forget about the dudes outside who want nothing more than to kick their teeth in.