The Yakuza series is plagued by the lack of an easy elevator pitch.
In the 15 years since its debut on the PlayStation 2, it has defied the packageable soundbite to help sell the idea in the west, widening the gap with the series’ runaway success in Japan. The pitch, a semi-open world mob drama that flip-flops between serious and silly and steeps itself in Japanese culture over multiple games and crisscrossing narratives, had a difficult time translating to American sensibilities.
Publisher Sega seemed ready to give up on localizing the titles for good as each new release trended downward in sales by the end of the PlayStation 3’s lifecycle.
On the precipice of a new generation, the Yakuza series’ fortunes have been reversed. The series is more critically and commercially successful than ever in the west, thanks in no small part to the skillful localization efforts that have bought the games a new lease on life.
“We actually don’t take credit for being the reason for its success,” counters Scott Strichart, Localization Producer at Sega and self-described patriarch of the Yakuza localization family. While Strichart is humble about how big a hand his team has in the overall prosperity of the series, Yakuza’s creator and producer Toshihiro Nagoshi disagrees with him and has credited the localization for its international upswing.
“A good localization is not gonna win you points, but a bad localization loses points,” Strichart insists. “The credit we get is shared with the original writers.”
In its early days, Yakuza was given an English dub of dubious accuracy and treated as somewhat of a low priority after that, leading the audience to distrust that the translations were authentic and the content was uncensored.
“In the original release in 2005, the localization was pretty cool in concept. There were a lot of big-name actors attached,” says former Sega Communications Manager Jonathon Stebel, who worked primarily on the Yakuza series. The western release of the first game featured voice talent like Mark Hamill, Rachael Leigh Cook, and Michael Madsen. But the translation “didn’t really carry the spirit of a good localization,” Stebel admits, noting that the characters differed significantly from the original script.
After the poor sales of Yakuza 4 and spinoff Dead Souls in the United States, Sega stayed quiet on the subject of Yakuza 5 until PlayStation announced it was funding the localization after receiving numerous fan requests. To Sega and the localization team, this groundswell of support for the series presented an opportunity. While the digital-only PlayStation 3 release of Yakuza 5 in the west in 2015 was too late in the game for a concerted campaign, the upcoming release of the PlayStation 4 prequel Yakuza 0 seemed far more promising.
At the same time, Sega had recently acquired Japanese RPG developer/publisher Atlus and was currently in the process of merging the U.S. branches. Atlus’ American branch had built a strong reputation over the years as a boutique publisher of distinctive Japanese games that leaned heavily into the original culture and writing. Just as preparations for Yakuza 0 were spinning up, Atlus’ localization stable joined Strichart to essentially create a new team within Sega.
“Atlus first and foremost knows exactly how to handle Japanese products and Japanese IP, and they do so with a lot of love and attention to detail, so the same strategies that were done previously were not necessarily done [for Yakuza 0],” Strichart recalls. “That was the start of it all.”
Even years after its release, Yakuza 0 is still praised for its elaborate story and characters. “Just the other day, it was nominated for a Golden Joystick award for a five-year-old game,” Strichart brags like a father boasting about their child’s accolades. “It’s just that cool a game. It’s that good.”
The critical and commercial reaction to Yakuza 0 changed a lot of mindsets at Sega and overwhelmed the calendars at Sega of America. Suddenly, Yakuza was not just something they do every so often — now, Yakuza was a priority. According to Stebel, the publisher was looking toward its localization branch in hopes of doing more with Yakuza and doing it quickly.
“Sega of Japan and the RGG studio [Ryu Ga Gotoku is the Japanese name of the Yakuza series, and translates roughly to “Like a Dragon”] team really started trusting our team more and more with the localization process. We just wanted to get western fans caught up,” Stebel explains.
Since Yakuza 0 released in America in 2017, Sega has released two remakes, three remasters with entirely new localizations, a new main series title, a spin-off with an optional English dub (for the first time since 2005), and an upcoming main series title — Yakuza: Like a Dragon — that launches in November. It is an understatement to say that the team has been busy even before pointing out that they are still not completely caught up.
Localizing each game is a gargantuan task for Sega of America, with English versions often releasing a year or more after their eastern counterparts. Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 5 each have scripts with around two million Japanese characters, which make up entire words or parts of words, and hundreds of difficult-to-translate jokes, concepts relating to Japanese-specific relationship dynamics, and more.
The soon-to-be released Yakuza: Like A Dragon features a side quest in which an American character approaches the protagonist and begins speaking English, which the protagonist does not understand, causing unintended confusion for players using the title’s English voice track.
“I was playing the game,” Strichart describes, “And I'm like, oh no, this guy’s speaking English, this is an English thing. Then this crowd happened around my desk, like, haha, you know, Scott, you're gonna have to localize this, what are you gonna do?”
Strichart reached out to the developers in Japan with a request: “Acknowledge the fact that this is absurd and have a slow turn to the camera and a wink and a nod.” The developers animated this hard punch to the game’s fourth wall and sent it back with no issue.
While the series has certainly been more successful than ever, there are still hurdles left to overcome in the west.
“We've essentially added two audio languages, five text languages to subtitle tracks, and we're launching on five platforms at the same time,” Strichart begins, “so the next thing that has to happen in order to grow the franchise is simultaneous shipping. We can't sit around and wait to launch a title like six to nine months after the Japanese release and expect it to have the same kind of impact.”
Strichart notes that this is going to require significant cooperation with the Japanese studio and completely readjusting timelines, but believes that’s the inevitable next step for the series.
For older Yakuza fans, the future has never been more bright. It once looked like the series was doomed to obscurity, with every new entry locked to Japan. For new fans, the developers have worked to accommodate this sudden surge in popularity with new characters and stories.
The games have always nimbly navigated the middle ground between melodrama and ludicrousness, serving up histrionics right next to farcical adventures through Tokyo’s Red Light District. It seems only appropriate that the series has found its key to western success in those same kinds of middle grounds, between both old fans and new ones, through the herculean efforts of the localization team.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon launches for Xbox, PC, and PS4 on November 10.