Probably ever. And I don’t say that lightly.
So with all the complaints I’ve given towards protagonists in recent anime, you’re probably wondering what I’d consider a good one. Well he’s not really anime, but in terms of likability from the East, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Shun Akiyama from the Yakuza series. Introduced in the fourth installment of a franchise mainly known for pile driving faces into handrails along with having a main protagonist who never smiles, Akiyama is the guy you play as at the start of the game and I think one of Yakuza 4’s major faults is that they gave us the best character first. The other three are good and all, but they’re not exactly Hanzawa Naoki if he had inexplicable kung-fu skills, now are they?
When we first meet Akiyama, we learn that he’s a loan shark with connections to some of the local yakuza, as well as a bit of a lazy bum who will nevertheless kick your ass (literally, because all of his attacks are kick moves) if you threaten him. Whilst collecting on his loans, he occasionally hangs out with the homeless in order to swap stories and make merry, and we soon learn through some blatant exposition that he’s notorious amongst other loan sharks for not charging interest or setting deadlines for when payments are due. Although it could have been delivered better, the game makes it clear that Akiyama is the nicest money-lender you’ll ever know, as well as that he has an important reason for why he runs his business the way he does. Hell, we even see a flashback of when he was a homeless man up until the events of one of the previous games caused money to rain from the sky, and he managed to get a few bills out of it. Said flashback isn’t given any clarification until later though.
So we know who Akiyama is at this point and that he has a role to play in the game’s overall plot, but all that happens in the first quarter or so of his chapter are things happening around him, with his only contribution being to kick a few heads in. That changes when we meet our mysterious woman of the narrative, Lily. She wants to borrow one-hundred million yen from our protagonist as of this point, and while that’s certainly a large sum of money, Akiyama is certainly capable of lending it. However, it’s at this point that while he doesn’t charge interest or set a deadline, Akiyama requires his customers to accomplished a certain test before he can lend someone the money. These tests are meant to determine how much the customer really wants the money, and in Lily’s case, Akiyama wants her to become a hostess at one of the clubs he owns (which we learn about for the first time here) and earn three million yen in three days.
What I like the most about this setup is how it strikes just the right balance of sleazy and righteous. Akiyama isn’t going to make things easy for the people he helps, but whilst it’s not the most desirable of professions for females, being a hostess isn’t exactly on the same level as being a prostitute or even a stripper. And Akiyama even helps Lily out in passing her test, buying the dresses she’ll wear and recommending the makeup. Admittedly, part of this is due to how Lily looks so much like his ex-fiancee, which his secretary calls him out on. Still, during the game’s sidequests where Akiyama helps out other people, he’s shown to be just the right amount of strict and caring, calling out a woman for not accepting a job as a masseuse in order to feed her kids and so on.
As Lily goes through this test, Akiyama takes her out on a date when she has free time and tells her his backstory regarding how he became the suave jackass with the horrible blazer we know and love, and this is where the Hanzawa Naoki reference I made earlier comes into play. It turns out Akiyama was once a banker who worked hard and honest to rise to the top, only to get screwed by his superiors and left without a job. In his attempts to prove that he was fired on false charges, he ended up losing all his money as well as his fiancee (who went on to marry the man who fired him) and was forced to live on the streets until he managed to collect one million yen from the “rain of money” scene I mentioned earlier. Of course, when you have that much money on you whilst on the streets, other less fortunate homeless people are bound to come after you, and he ended up having to get saved by yakuza (hence the connections). Thanks to their support, Akiyama soon used his million yen as well as his financial skills to invest in day trading, slowly amassing a fortune that he would soon spend into owning business ventures (aka his hostess clubs) so that even more money could come in as long as he kept them successful – which he does.
The important takeaway of course is how he came to have his own personal code as a sort of “rough but fair” savior to those in need, but I really appreciated how Akiyama’s tale of pulling himself out of his gutter came from a near-perfect mixture of blind luck and his own talents. It keeps him humble whilst making him the richest guy in Tokyo, and it really sells you on why he treats his clientele the way he does: because he was once like them, and he hasn’t forgotten that even through his yakuza deals and sexist businesses. And when you get down to it, not a single test he puts his clients through even come close to the pain of being homeless, so he’s mostly justified no matter how you look at it.
I’m not asking for every anime (or Japanese in general) protagonist to be Akiyama, but my problem with them these days is that they don’t have story or even a real reason to be in the narrative. You don’t need a complicated backstory, but some context would be nice. The most we get is an explanation for why they’re there, which isn’t the same thing. I mean Key fans can explain Kotomi or Fuko in Clannad’s narrative all they want, but that doesn’t change the fact that you could have easily removed them from the anime and it still would have made sense. And most anime don’t even get to their level with the fucking main leads. You can make your protagonists’ personalities likable all you want, but if you don’t give them anything to do, your show is still going to suck.
Akiyama, in the few hours we get to play as him, doesn’t exactly have a strong reason to be in the narrative, as Yakuza 4’s story doesn’t really touch on money all too much. His connection to Lily never evolves past what I just described as she has to move on to conversing with the other playable characters, and most of his arc occurred in the past with his present self mostly reacting to the yakuza dealings he’s only loosely involved with by kicking their teeth in or by having things happen to the man who saved him from homelessness. Nevertheless he has a likable personality, a strong reason to be the way he is, and a sizable role as the person who introduces newcomers and old timers to this franchise – plus there is one moment at the end of the game where he sacrifices his fortune in order to help the rest of the characters. Through a series of events that would take too long to explain, money ends up saving his life, causing Akiyama to realize that whilst it may not be everything, humans (and especially him) can’t live without it. Sure, you probably won’t be in a situation where you’d need it to stop bullets, but money is a necessity in life and without it, you won’t even have a chance at happiness in today’s world. That’s a pretty adult message for a series mainly centered on shattering kneecaps and outrunning cops.
I don’t know what his role in Yakuza 5 is going to be – although I do know he’s taking care of Haruka during her idol career in that one – but I hope it does him right.
- 46 GB of free space to download Yakuza 5? WTF?
- I like how Akiyama got to keep his shirt on during the inevitable shirtless rooftop final fight scene that always occurs in these games.
- Incidentally, no the game never explains how he managed to acquire Jet Li-esque Wushu skills.