Yakuza Remastered Collection producer Jon Riesenbach talks about how Yakuza got its unique tone
It’s no secret around here that I’m a huge Yakuza fan, having worked my way through the series and back again with recent releases like Yakuza 0, Kiwami, and Kiwami 2. With the release of the Yakuza Remastered Collection on the horizon (and the release of Yakuza 3 Remaster already available), it was great to get a chance to pick the brain of Jon Riesenbach, Junior Producer for SEGA of America and a long time member of the Yakuza titles localization. I got to ask Jon about his journey through localizing games, surprising moments, and talked about how the team at SEGA has worked to create and preserve Yakuza’s unique tone and characterizations for Western audiences.
Could you tell us a bit about your history with localizing games? How did you get your start?
The thought first crossed my mind while I was teaching English in Akita, Japan as part of an organization supported by the Japanese government to bring native English teachers to elementary, middle, and high schools across the country. I was naturally consuming a lot of Japanese media at the time, both for personal preference and to connect with the students I was working with, and as much as I enjoyed my time teaching, it seemed like a dream job to actually be responsible for creating Western versions of these incredible Japanese franchises (though at the time I had no idea what that actually entailed).
Fast forward two years, I had just gotten back to the states and, after being rejected from a few “normal” office jobs, applied to a QA Tester position at Atlus USA so I could at least make some money and get my foot in the door in the industry. A few weeks testing Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker, and I was feeling confident enough in my Japanese to apply for a translator role within the company (spoiler alert: my confidence was misplaced). Not letting that failure get me down, I then applied for an editing position despite my relative lack of creative writing experience, and got the job! Almost five years and lots of on-the-job learning experiences later and I’m still here, now in a junior producer role handling both the localization as well as project management side of things.
Do you have any particularly funny or surprising localization stories? Anything you never expected you'd need to try and localize?
One of the strangest localization challenges I’ve ever faced showed up on the first game I ever edited for, Dungeon Travelers 2 for the Vita. If you fulfill certain party conditions (having specific characters with you, with certain status ailments, etc.), you’ll get these funny little vignettes that break up some of the dungeon crawling—one of which was all about a type of cake called a Baby Castella, known in Osaka as a “chin chin yaki” after the “chin chin” sound of the bell that is rung when the cakes are ready. The whole joke here revolved around the fact that “chin chin” is also Japanese slang for male genitalia, so of course all the party members were shocked by the phrase. Since a literal translation would have killed the joke, I needed an English equivalent and after long deliberation arrived at “spotted dick”!
In terms of unexpected, figuring out a way to render the Hiroshima dialect in a unique way for Yakuza 6: The Song of Life was certainly a challenge, especially since I was thrown into the deep end and pretty much just told to make it work. The process was a long and arduous one, with tons of revisions and tweaks to the style, but overall I’m really happy with how it turned out in the end!
What attracted you to working with the Yakuza franchise?
It’s funny, I remember having a conversation with a co-worker when SEGA was first moving into our offices about Yakuza and how incredible it would be to work on the series, though we both considered it a longshot that we would ever actually get the chance. The types of projects we were consistently working on at the time were much smaller, so something of Yakuza’s scope seemed like an impossible undertaking!
I truthfully hadn’t been invested in or knowledgeable about the series until I was assigned to lead the main story editing on Yakuza 6, but playing through the game before we began work on it instantly hooked me. I had only ever thought about Yakuza as a hardboiled crime story, but spending time in the sleepy town of Onomichi and getting introduced to the warm cast of characters in the game completely shattered my image of what Yakuza “was”. Yes, there was plenty of action interspersed throughout, but it was so much more than just that. The combination of heart, humor, and drama that RGG Studios has managed to cram into these games makes this series one of the most special out there and something I’m constantly honored to have the chance to work on and represent.
Although the Yakuza series has always been a hit, it's been a bit of a cult classic in the West. What do you think is the reason for its sudden explosion in popularity?
I have to give props here both to Scott Strichart, the series lead, and our marketing team for revitalizing what was really a sleeping giant in terms of game franchises. Yakuza 0 came at the perfect time with fantastic gameplay and stellar localization that pulled people in who may not have known what Yakuza even was previously, and an incredible follow-up in Yakuza Kiwami really set the stage for the newfound popularity we’ve seen recently. As I mentioned before, there’s so much packed into a Yakuza game—drama, comedy, emotion—that there’s going to be something in it for everyone, and the balance of all that in Yakuza 0 helped it spread like wildfire across social media and kick off the revival.
I've been a huge fan of the series since I started playing it, and I've played a lot of the older versions of the game and noticed some significant changes in tone and characterization, especially Kiryu. What do you think the current theme of Kiryu's character is, and how do you maintain that between games?
The easiest way to maintain consistency of character is keeping the same writers working on him! By the time February of next year rolls around, Scott and I will have handled Kiryu’s voice through the entirety of the Kiryu saga, starting with Yakuza 0 and going all the way up to Yakuza 6, and between the two of us we’ve been able to define a voice that’s uniquely Kiryu.
Through the series as Kiryu has grown older, his tone has gradually shifted from a young upstart yakuza to a tired father figure who wants nothing more than to live in peace with his adopted kids—and that slow shift to the sentimental is, in my opinion, one of the defining features of Kiryu’s character. Time and time again, he gets pulled back into whatever shenanigans the Tojo Clan are up to, but at the end of the day he craves that unattainable tranquility.
In the Remastered Collection, it seems like the real star of the show is Yakuza 3, which had the most cut content and maybe one of the weaker original localizations. What was your goal in bringing this new version of Yakuza 3 to life?
In all honesty, Yakuza 3 is one of my favorite games in the series alongside Yakuza 6 due to the slower pace and slice-of-life nature of it. You get to see Kiryu in a different light, both as a father to the nine kids at Morning Glory and as a mentor and friend to Rikiya, the young captain of the small Okinawa-based Ryudo Family. So the first goal I personally set out to accomplish in the re-localization process was really making those interactions shine in a way they didn’t quite achieve previously.
As a whole, I wanted to make sure that one of the most underappreciated entries in the series finally got the localization love and care it deserved, across the board. I personally handled the re-localization of the main story and orphanage side quests myself, and the rest of our team did a fantastic job both breathing life into the old content and handling the new localization content to bring us on par with the Japanese release. Providing singable English translations of the karaoke lyrics in-game is also something I’ve wanted to do since the first Yakuza game I worked on, so I’m thrilled we finally got the chance to add that feature for this collection (I still dream of writing English lyrics for Today is a Diamond from Yakuza 6!).
While Yakuza 4 didn't have much in terms of cut content, what sorts of changes did you try to work on for the updated script of the game?
The biggest thing was just making sure the quality was up to the standard we’ve set through the rest of the series—nothing was explicitly wrong with the original localization of Yakuza 4, but we had the opportunity to give it a fresh coat of paint, liven up the characterizations, and overall just make things a lot more interesting and fun to read across the board.
Since Yakuza 4 is the first game to introduce the multiple protagonist angle, what was your process in revamping Shun, Taiga, and Masayoshi?
Yakuza 4 presented a unique challenge for us: not only were the main story portions of the game significantly larger in terms of text volume, but as you mentioned, split across multiple protagonists each with their own distinct voices. The way we mitigated this was by having four different editors handle the four different characters (I handled Kiryu myself), before I came in and did my own editing pass on the entire main story. This let each character sort of branch out a little further tonally than you sometimes get if you have a single person writing all the lines for every protagonist, and the result definitely shines in this regard—I’m excited to see fans’ impressions when the game launches on October 29 in the collection!
Yakuza 5 is kind of interesting if you think about when it came out, as the last Yakuza game of the PS3 era. Compared to Yakuza 6 and the other games like Kiwami or 0, this is the most "recent" Yakuza. Did you still find it a challenge to update it and localize it differently?
The fact that Yakuza 5 was recent actually made it tougher than you might expect to re-localize! So much of the game reads well in isolation, but then if you compare it side to side with some of our other work, either in the Yakuza Remastered Collection or outside of it, it’s just a bit off. Pinpointing the right tweaks to make among the sea of text in Yakuza 5 (by far the largest of the three in the Yakuza Remastered Collection) was much harder than Yakuza 3, for example, where we knew going in that most things were going to have to be rewritten from scratch.
This is important: who is your favorite Yakuza character? Mine is Majima!
Majima is a popular choice! I love the Mad Dog, but my personal favorite would have to be Haruka—her relationship with Kiryu is one of the most heartwarming parts of the series for me, and I loved watching her growth over the course of the six games she appears in. Like Kiryu, she puts family above all else, even at the risk of her own life (see: the premise of Yakuza 6).
Thanks for answering all of our questions. Is there anything you'd like people to know about the Yakuza series before finishing up?
Thank you for taking the time to interview me! I could talk about this series for hours, but one takeaway I’d love people to go home with is that, underneath the crime drama exterior, Yakuza in my eyes is a series about family. The relationships that Kiryu has with the people around him—Haruka, Majima, Daigo, Kazama, Nishiki, etc.—are nothing short of familial, and the crazy Tojo Clan plots they always get wrapped up in not only create an interesting twist-filled narrative, but also serve to bring those relationships and bonds to the foreground. The series is crammed full of heart and love, and no moments show it better than those.
A huge thanks again to Jon and the team at SEGA for letting us talk about the Yakuza Remastered Collection with them! I’m already working my way through Yakuza 3 Remaster, and I can’t wait for a chance to take Yakuza 4 and Yakuza 5 Remaster for a spin soon!
Are you a longtime fan of Yakuza, or a new fan? Which Yakuza game is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
Nicole is a features writer and editor for Crunchyroll. Known for punching dudes in Yakuza games on her Twitch channel while professing her love for Majima. She also has a blog, Figuratively Speaking. Follow her on Twitter: @ellyberries
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