Video game adaptations have a rocky history in film. For every good-to-ok one, like Mortal Kombat (1994), Sonic The Hedgehog (2020) or Werewolves Within (2021), there are scores of films that don’t do justice to their digital counterparts. The K:D ratio* just isn’t great for these movies, partly because it’s tough to distill an eight to twelve hour (or more) experience down to two. Similarly, it’s a challenge to whittle down a large cast of characters, all of whom would get significant development and establishment of their connections to the story and each other in a multi-hour game, to a couple of key ones.
But there’s something that keeps studios from making video game adaptations, and which keep audiences flocking to them. Their built-in fanbases, for one thing, are too appealing for a studio looking to capture an audience and video game fans tend to be ride-or-die. If you’ve sunk many hours into a video game, seeing it play out in live-action in a movie is kind of thrilling even if the movie itself is crummy. Is Doom (2005), the adaptation of one of the most popular and groundbreaking first-person-shooters starring Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban, a good movie? No it is not. Have I watched it dozens of times, leaning into its comforting, undemanding familiarity that was bred when I first played the game? You bet. I think that if I’m watching a movie based on a game that I’ve played and am a fan of, I’m already indoctrinated into that universe. I know the characters, the setting, the story without having to have any of that explained to me. That smooths the edges of these adaptations quite a lot, and allows me to infer what’s not actually in the text of the movie.
I am, as you may have guessed, a huge fan of Sega’s Yakuza series. I love the characters (especially Goro Majima) and the epic story that spans several decades and depicts a fictionalized urban Japan across several decades. And I love, most of all, the way it allows you to absolutely clown on an antagonist with your fists, feet, and sometimes, a bicycle. But I got into Yakuza pretty late. Though I dabbled with some of the early entries on the PlayStation 2 and 3, I found them opaque and inconsistently localized, which is a pretty big problem for a game that’s as narrative-heavy as Yakuza. It was only when Sega released Yakuza 0, a series prequel, and started producing the Yakuza Kiwami remastered versions of the first and second games for the Playstation 4 that the series finally grabbed me, and wouldn’t let go.
And so I also came to the little-known and even less-appreciated film adaptation of the Yakuza games, Takashi Miike’s Ryu ga gotoku (2007) fairly recently. Miike’s been one of my favourite filmmakers for some time but his output is so fierce, like a barrage of punches from Kiryu Kazama, that it’s easy for some of his films to get lost in the shuffle. This was one of them.
Like A Dragon focuses on five concurrent storylines set in the world of the original Yakuza game. Tackling five separate through-lines with about eight major characters is pretty admirable for a movie clocking in at just under two hours. There is, of course, Yakuza protagonist Kiryu (Kazuki Kitamura) who is fresh out of jail after having taken the rap for a high-profile murder. He links up unexpectedly with young Haruka (Natsuo) and sets out on a quest to find her mother, who was a childhood friend of his while growing up in an orphanage. Kiryu is also being stalked by the flamboyant and violent gangster extraordinaire Goro Majima (Goro Kishitani), a peculiar figure who is the perfect embodiment of the ‘chaotic neutral’ alignment from tabletop role-playing games. Majima, as he does in the video game, tends to pop up at inopportune times throughout Kiryu’s travels and engages with him in combat. Kiryu and Majima have a clear sense of respect for each other though, feeling at times like friendly rivals even if they’re exchanging deadly blows. Standing between the two, though curiously enabling what seems to be an inevitable confrontation between Majima and Kiryu, is disgraced detective Makoto Date (Yutaka Matsushige). Date seems to acknowledge that this battle will be catastrophic to the public peace, and is mainly focused on keeping collateral damage to a minimum.
Like A Dragon also includes three separate storylines that seem tangential to Kiryu’s arc, before they all kind of come together in the film’s final act. The first is about a pair of bumbling thieves (and an equally bumbling team of cops) embroiled in a hostage negotiation. They’ve taken over a bank that has unfortunately already been drained of its cash reserves, primarily composed of funds from the powerful Tojo Clan crime family. Another pair of inept criminals are a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-esque teens Satoru (Shun Shioya) and Yui (Saeko) that, for reasons made clear late in the film, embark on a crime spree. Finally, there’s hitman Park (Yoo Gong) who’s trying to track down the Tojo clan’s missing ten million yen. It’s this money that eventually ties all the stories–both Kiryu’s and the others–back together. A final confrontation on the roof of Kamurocho’s Millenium Tower, a very familiar set piece in the game, at least attempts to explain the Machiavellian scheme behind it all.
I think one thing that Like A Dragon does really well is making the city of Kamurocho feel vibrant and full of life. By using separate, disparate storylines, Miike taps into the same feeling that Yakuza provides with its side quests and various diversions. More than Kiryu, Majima, or any of the side plots, it makes Kamurocho itself the star of the show. The look and feel of the sets are plucked straight from the game, with street signs and even the city’s geography (both of which you’ll become intimately familiar with as you sink hours into the game) instantly recognizable. Stores like the Poppo convenience stores and the Beam video store on Pink Street are important landmarks in both worlds, and I can’t remember the last time I cheered to see the depiction of a run-down bar, in this case the iconic Serena lounge, which forms your ‘home base’ in more than one installment of the Yakuza series or other key locations in the fictionalized Tokyo.
The action in Like A Dragon is actually pretty faithful to the frenetic scenes in the games. Even though they’re just slightly more down-to-earth than the combat found in any of the series, there’s a thrill when Kiryu’s ‘Heat modes’ (signified by his trademark blue glow) activate and let our protagonist literally kick things into a higher gear. Majima’s theatrical mannerisms and violent proficiency with a baseball bat are very much intact, imbued with every bit of the dark comedy that his digital counterpart embodies. A scene of him strolling down the street with his gang, hollering his trademark “Kiiiiiiryu-chan!” and casually clocking anyone in his way with a baseball bat is divine. Miike has produced better action sequences in his career, but it’s impressive the way that the characters in Like A Dragon move during a fight scene, almost perfectly mirroring their counterparts in the games. Sometimes you’ll see a video game adaptation where it’s clear that no one behind the camera has ever played it, but this isn’t one of them. Even details like the health potions (in the form of ‘stamina enhancing’ energy drinks) that Kiryu consumes to power up are intact, and their introduction plays like a hilarious commercial for these products.
Even more than Miike’s action choreography, the pumping heavy metal soundtrack, costuming, and the sets in Like A Dragon, though, what the movie gets right is how darkly funny Kiryu’s adventures can be. Though the games deal with pretty heady themes in their main stories, there’s always comic relief just around the literal corner. In the games, a lighthearted side quest about joining an idol group or unwittingly participating in a porn film, or racing pocket cars offsets stories about inequality, abuse, abandonment, and outright war. If anything, Like A Dragon leans even further into the comedic aspects of the Yakuza world, but overall the tone works. I think Like A Dragon really succeeds better than most video game adaptations at making you feel like you’re playing the game. It offers enough for a newcomer to the franchise to become interested and invested while dropping in enough fan service for longtime Yakuza players to feel like their beloved characters (including that of Kamurocho itself) are intact.
I’m embarrassed to say that I had prejudged and was ready to push aside Like A Dragon before I gave it a chance. I didn’t think that any 2-hour film adaptation could even scratch the surface of the thrilling, layered, already-theatrical approach of Sega’s Yakuza franchise. But even though it may not have the, ahem, punch of the best of Miike’s work, even other Yakuza tales like Ichi The Killer on the violent end of the spectrum and Yakuza Apocalypse on the more madcap and hilarious end, it feels like a proper distillation of the Yakuza experience and a perfect gateway into the worlds of Kiryu and Kamurocho. By keeping true to the game’s brutal but darkly-hilarious core, Like A Dragon is one of the best video game adaptations I’ve seen.
* Kill:Death ratio, a true gamer’s measure of success
Sachin Hingoo certainly did not set a clip of Goro Majima voice actor Hidenari Ugaki’s ‘Kiiiiiryu-chan!’ as his phone ringtone while writing this piece.