The Yakuza video game series is one of the most long-running and popular franchises in Sega’s arsenal. Perhaps only second to that feisty little blue hedgehog, the saga of Kiryu Kazama and his rise through the ranks of the organized crime world in the fictionalized Japan is one of the game company’s biggest accomplishments, and is one of my favourite game series. I’ve described it in the past as a version of Grand Theft Auto that supplants that series’ American cultural references and nuances with Japanese ones, while retaining the same chaotic energy that underpins it all. But it’s also very much it’s own thing, introducing a complex and wide-reaching story and a fully fleshed-out world of side characters and relationships.
Though Kiryu is the main protagonist of the Yakuza saga, kind of a stoic and self-serious version of the modern Batman portrayals, his sometime-nemesis Goro Majima is very much his Joker and is equally as important. Nicknamed “The Mad Dog of Shimano”, Majima’s hilarious but deranged style and unpredictability has made him one of my favourite characters, not just in video games but in any narrative art form. He plays the perfect counterpart to Kiryu’s often-humourless (even in the face of the patently absurd situations he often finds himself in) persona and always finds a way to upstage the “Dragon of Dojima.”
I say that the Majima and Kiryu relationship is like Batman and the Joker, but it’s actually a fair bit more chummy than that. Both characters exist well outside the law, though Kiryu treads a lot closer to the institutions of justice (despite being a former and sometimes Yakuza, hence the series title) than Majima does. But each installment game has the two alternatingly facing off in a flurry of machismo in order to prove…something, and then helping one another when the chips are really down. Majima leans more towards the role of antagonist in the earlier games, but is a playable character in Yakuza 0 and in an alternate storyline in Yakuza Kiwami 2 (a complete remake of the original Yakuza 2 and my favourite game in the series).
Yakuza 0, a prequel to the original Yakuza game, depicts Kiryu’s rise through the Tojo Clan after having taken the rap for a murder he didn’t commit. In a parallel storyline, we’re finally given an origin story for Majima in which he develops from a young, serious 24-year-old former mafia member to the deranged, sadistic personality for which he’s best known.
As a young yakuza, a failed hit on another clan costs Majima his eye–cruelly gouged out as penance for insubordination to his own clan, the Shimano Family–and his freedom. After years of incarceration and torture in a prison called “The Hole”, Majima is offered the opportunity for redemption with the Shimano clan, but only if he can earn a 100 million yen quota as a club manager in Sotenbori.
So Majima’s working off his debt in the most popular nightclub in Sotenbori, The Grand. In fact, he’s so good at it that he earns the moniker “Lord of the Night.” It is, as the episode is called, a gilded cage though, and Majima is still under the thumb of the Shimano family. This kicks off a convoluted (in a good way) story about loyalty and the palace intrigue of the various warring yakuza clans. Playing it all from the perspective of Majima is exhilarating in the way that playing as Kiryu rarely is. Which is not to say that Kiryu’s sections aren’t fun in their own way, but playing as Majima feels freeing in both the combat mechanics as well as the story. The stoic Kiryu no-sells every joke, and always takes the honourable–often predictable–route. Majima making the expected choices, though? Could never be him. He flies in the face of Kiryu’s hyper-masculine, emotionless portrayal with an ostentatious fashion sense (he’s rarely seen without his snakeskin jacket) and a kind of gleeful sadism. Even his fighting style is chaotic. Majima uses a fluid style that could best be described as a mix of breakdancing-influenced capoeira and dirty street fighting tricks. He’s also very adept with weapons and instead of just wildly swinging bats and bicycles around like Kiryu does, actually uses weapons with their intended purpose in mind and it’s got a fluidity that Kiryu lacks*. This extends from the trademark dagger–the Demonfire–to less traditional implements like road pylons.
Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the original Yakuza game which appeared on the Playstation 2, features Majima in a unique way called Majima Everywhere and really shows off his versatility as a character. Since the game takes place after Kiryu’s ten-year stint in prison, the “Dragon of Dojima” is understandably a little rusty when it comes to throwing hands. Majima “helps” Kiryu regain his fighting spirit by challenging him to fights all over the city, with an increasingly elaborate justification and often an impressive disguise each time. “Officer Majima” pats you down as you walk by the Millenium Tower, and if you have a weapon in your inventory, a battle ensues (if you don’t have one, Majima is visibly disappointed and walks away). “Zombie Majima” is pretty much what it sounds like, where our favourite Mad Dog has inexplicably joined the undead, along with a horde of his family members. Majima also appears as a bartender, a taxi driver, a pop idol (who teaches Kiryu a breakdancing fight technique), and a demonic vampire-type named Hannya-Man. Finally, there’s Goromi, Majima’s drag persona who works at a hostess club. As usual, Goromi tries to goad Kiryu into a fight, and that’s one of the possible outcomes of the scene, but you can also sit and have a surprisingly deep conversation that reveals a lot about both Kirya and Maj..I mean Goromi.
Being accosted at random to fight Majima sounds, and certainly can be, annoying when you’re just trying to get to your next story objective in Yakuza or at least to a restaurant for some chow when you’re low on health. It adds an unpredictable element that can really mess up your game if you’re not careful. But to me, I’m always happy to see the Mad Dog in my travels, and a lot of that has to do with his voice work. While some may find Majima’s high-pitched “KIIIIIIIIIIIIII-ryu Chan!” grating when he calls out to you on the street to shake you down or irritate you in some other way, it never fails to bring a grin to my face. Prolific voice actor Hidenari Ugaki has provided Majima’s vocal stylings for years, and it’s both iconic and irreplaceable.
Ugaki has lent his skills and his voice to many projects in Japan, in the television, film, and video game realms. Majima is his most enduring role, though, and dates back to the character’s Playstation 2 debut in 2005. Personally, I couldn’t imagine Majima without him.
That being said, the Yakuza games have had ups and downs with voice work, in particular with English translations of the series. Choices made in order to localize the very Japanese setting and cultural nuances to something perceived as palatable to a Western audience have hit like a brick to the face, reaching a low point in the critically-panned Western version of Yakuza 3. Even though I respect him as an actor, the choice to have Mark Hamill voice Majima is questionable at best, and feels wrong to me in many ways.
Majima’s character development across Yakuza 0, Kiwami, and Kiwami 2 is pretty remarkable, and takes a suitably dramatic and circuitous path to get him from the serious, tortured youngster to the maniacal, loveable Mad Dog of Shimano. If Kiryu is the soul of the series, Majima is almost certainly the heart. It may not always–okay, almost never– make sense, but Majima has a way of popping up when you didn’t know you need him, always with the exact solution to the problem at hand. It’s no easy feat to bring levity to a story like the Yakuza saga that features so much self-seriousness, murder, and high drama, but Majima can usually be counted on for just that. In that way, and over the course of the many, many hours you’ll spend either talking to him or throwing him through the window of a Poppo market, he’s the best friend you could ever ask for.
*Kiryu makes up for his lack of flexibility and pizazz with straight ahead brutality, which has it’s own charms.
For the Japanese editions of this post, Sachin Hingoo will be voiced by Minoru Suzuki.