When one thinks of the wonderful holiday season, they don’t often imagine shirtless Japanese hunks pummeling each other in the pristine snow. Typically it’s more Santa Claus and acts of generosity that come to mind, which is understandable. But what if we could merge the two? That’s what the Yakuza (or Like a Dragon as it is now known) franchise does, as it’s more jolly than you might expect and is, in some ways, the ultimate Christmas gaming series.
This Christmas directive seems to come from the top as Sega itself is quite fond of the holiday, given the existence of the festive Christmas Nights into Dreams, holiday DLC for Sonic Adventure (and now, Sonic Frontiers), and presence of Santa in Shenmue. It makes sense that his enthusiasm would extend to Yakuza — and extend it does.
A good chunk of the Yakuza games actually take place in December, when snow is in the air and everybody in Kamurocho is feeling celebratory. Yakuza 0, Yakuza 1 (and its remake, Kiwami), Yakuza 2 (and its remake, Kiwami 2), and Yakuza 5 all take place during the holiday season. Many pivotal scenes and battles occur in the snow, while Yakuza 2‘s credits are even accompanied by “Silent Night.” This was replaced with J-Rock in the remake, but the point still stands: The setting of the series quite simply has Christmas in its DNA.
The most notable Christmas moment in the series comes from the incredibly ambitious Yakuza 5. Taiga Saejima, one of the game’s playable protagonists, ends up entangled in a bizarre yet mirthful Sub-Story. As people dressed as Santa are being attacked by “Santa hunters,” Saejima dons a Santa suit to confront them. While he ends up being chased by children at first, he eventually runs into the hunters and forcefully imbues the holiday spirit into them. It’s very silly but surprisingly heartfelt, which also sums up the series in general.
Additionally, there’s the Winter Combat snowball fight minigame, which is a first-person snowball shooter that takes place at a local snow festival. It’s clunky, but running around a snow sculpture-littered field while chucking snowballs at random people is a blast and brings back fond memories from my very Canadian childhood during the holidays.
Ignite Your (Holiday) Spirit
The Yakuza games are also filled with themes that fit right in with the most wonderful time of the year. Many of the main characters — Kazuma Kiryu, especially — constantly go out of their way to help others. From lethal situations to goofy first-world problems, Kiryu will put everything aside and do his best to assist anyone who asks him for a hand. Sometimes this nets Kiryu a reward, but he typically doesn’t ask for anything in return. If that isn’t completely in line with the spirit of the holidays, what is?
Throw in the themes of found family and Kiryu’s ongoing commitment to running an orphanage (in part due to his own childhood), and you have even more Christmas-y themes of helping out those in need. No one is left out in the cold in Yakuza, as many of the most noble and kind characters learned their morals from the non-biological families they became a part of. Kiryu’s endless devotion to raising Haruka and giving her a good life is the epitome of true familial love, which is what the holidays are all about.
Another notable holiday moment comes when, in December of 2005, 10 billion yen (about $7.4 million now) rains down from the Millennium Tower — a result of Kiryu and Nishikiyama’s conflict at the end of Yakuza and Yakuza Kiwami. This money is a gift to everyone on the streets, sure, but one person in particular, the homeless Shun Akiyama, takes advantage of this. By investing this money, he becomes rich and opens Sky Finance. Akiyama is committed to giving loans to people who are determined to get it — often without collateral or interest — rather than base their loans off a credit rating. So while the original rain of cash was a Christmas miracle itself, the fact that it empowered Akiyama to pay it forward for others adds another layer of festive charity to the story.
Quite a few of the titles were even released in Japan in December, making the connection extend even beyond the game. But that link goes much deeper, as the holiday spirit fits many of the charitable themes of the Yakuza series and is, at times, its literal backdrop. Playing Yakuza as it snows both in the game and outside may not be the most common holiday custom, but celebrating the season with Kiryu, Haruka, and the gang by walloping thugs and helping out is about as Christmas-y as opening presents.