Kabukichō, Tokyo is routinely referred to as the city’s red-light district; a violent, debauched place that lures tourists and locals alike, though that definition has been often disputed. Even journalists who should really know better are prone to commit exoticization: Jake Adelstein’s memoir Tokyo Vice, which recounts his 12 years as a police reporter at the Yomirui Shimbun, relays the particulars of his Kabukichō education with puerile relish.
Despite Adelstein’s rigidly binary gender politics, he does turn up one useful bit of analysis. “You can look at Kabukicho [sic] as an example of the sociopathology of Japanese life, or you can look at it as a microcosm of relationships in general … [hostess clubs are] not about sex, they’re about the illusion of intimacy,” he says.
Late capitalism demands the subjugation of human life
Illusion is one thing Yakuza 0 understands. Kamurocho itself is a fictionalized version of Kabukichō; every mainline title in the Yakuza series is set there to some extent. Yakuza 0 adds Sotenbori, a riff on Osaka’s Dōtonbori district. As was adeptly parsed by Reid McCarter at Paste, the game is set just prior to the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in the 1990s―a collapse the country has only recently began to recover from. The game’s story, systems, and art direction foreground the acquisition of wealth above all else, without overlooking the ultimate emptiness of greed. You gobble up far more cash than you can possibly use over the course of Yakuza 0, but there is always more to be had.
The central plot business concerns the Empty Lot, a tiny unbuilt patch of land in Kamurocho, nestled within a winding series of alleys. The machinations of all the various factions in Yakuza 0 end up coming back to the Empty Lot, in the way that the conspiracies in noir detective stories like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown consist of immeasurably wealthy people fighting over the development rights to land that, to the naked eye, looks useless.
The lot is a filthy square hemmed in by the ass-end of each surrounding building; air conditioning units, ventilation ducts, and one stark fluorescent light staring straight down. A man is killed there at the start of the game, and his death sparks the unraveling of several convoluted schemes whose perpetrators have one goal: to acquire the lot and secure their dominance over Kamurocho. Its power is in potential profit; it is an abstraction of wealth, part of a vast invisible financial scaffolding that seeks to sustain itself and its cadre of benefactors at all costs.
But that scaffolding is visibly straining in Yakzua 0, even as the power players trapped within scramble like rats over scraps. That the game’s two protagonists eventually converge is no surprise; that the cramped, muddy Empty Lot would warrant the attention of yakuza in Osaka, a city 300 miles from Tokyo, is a succinct illustration of the game’s absurdities.
The last bare patch of land, to them, is a promise
The lot is a void: as a crime scene it is marked by the stain of death, of absence, but as a development site it is desirable for that same emptiness. Elsewhere the game bluntly illustrates that late capitalism demands the subjugation of human life, as tenants are forced out of their apartments and women shuffled around cabaret clubs like profit-maximizing chess pieces, but here the symbolism is all the more potent for its restraint. The void consumes. It lies at the heart of Kamurocho like a black hole, drawing the entire city beyond its event horizon.
Everything in Kamurocho and Sotenbori is built to the sky, massage parlors and karaoke clubs and sushi shops beneath apartments beneath offices; all draped in sizzling neon and covered in flyers. The streets are lined with arcades and cabarets and fine goods stores … and garbage. Trash piles up everywhere, bags spilling into the street. These places are overflowing with bodies, and violence, and they remain indifferent to basic quality of life. The priorities of the ruling class lie elsewhere.
The real estate moguls and gangsters―though the two are not mutually exclusive here―have devoured everything available to them. The last bare patch of land, to them, is a promise: that this will never end. That their power will last forever. That the bubble will never burst.