The upcoming release of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a pretty monumental one for the Yakuza series. Not only has developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios shifted genres away from action towards a traditional RPG style, but the western release will be the first game in the main series since the PS2 original to feature an English dub. Previously, Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise and Judgment had English voice-over options, but this wasn’t attempted for past Yakuza games on the PS3 and PS4. With the audience still being relatively niche when Sega was localizing each game, the priority was more on getting titles out rather than focusing on expanding the audience.
Ever since Yakuza 0’s western release in 2017, that has changed. Each successive title has been more popular than the last and an entirely new group of fans has experienced protagonist Kiryu Kazuma’s story and his struggle to find his place in this world. 2020 even brought the series to Xbox platforms, introducing more gamers to the seedy underworld of Kamurocho. The work to expand that audience isn’t done, though, and that’s where the English dub for Like a Dragon comes from.
This past weekend, I had a chance to speak with Scott Strichart (head of localization for the Yakuza series at Sega) and ask some questions about the difficulties of adapting such a heavily Japanese inspired game to English. Not only that, but I wanted to get some insight into how Sega went about casting each character and what fans could expect from this newest entry.
First off, it should be noted that Like a Dragon will feature options very similar to Judgment. In that title, Sega provided not only an English dub with its own subtitles -referred to as dubtitles – but created a second set of captions that more accurately represented the Japanese dialogue. Not content to leave things there for this newest game, Sega went back through each cutscene to resync lip flaps to the English dub. No matter what language you pick, Like a Dragon is going to look accurate when you’re playing.
That description actually leads beautifully into my first question. It was announced roughly a week ago that Like a Dragon would feature karaoke songs in English. Knowing how tough translating Japanese songs are, I wondered what struggles Strichart and his team faced during this process. It turns out that the idea was planted years ago when working on the PS4 remasters for the series. Ex-localization lead John Riesenbach wanted visible lyrics for players and that naturally transitioned into wanting them available for an English dub.
As Strichart explains, “John worked to create this whole system where you could switch between the English and the Japanese romaji. At the same time, we had learned Like a Dragon was getting a dub, so I went to Sega and asked ‘which of the classics are you including?’ I wanted to at least get started on that.” From there, the team went about counting the Japanese syllables and trying to find equivalent English words with enough syllables to work before replacing those words with rhyming schemes.
Surprisingly, most of the already cast actors stepped up to provide vocals. A few turned down the singing role, but Greg Chun (who voices Nanba in the game) jumped at the chance to belt out some tunes. “Mad respect to all those actors that came on and just wanted to do this,” Strichart said, “because I was fully prepared to have to hire some singers for people that weren’t comfortable with it.”
From there, the process was getting each actor studio time, playing the Japanese audio into their headphones, and recording a scratch track to get a baseline for each song. Once that was finished, they each built their verses off the scratch track that was then mixed with background vocals and other ambient effects. With the help of PCD Productions, Sega was able to create new renditions of iconic songs that slot naturally into the same time constraints despite being a radically different language.
Hearing how tough it was to nail these songs, I wondered where the push for dubs came. The original Yakuza on PS2 is notorious for having a really bad dub and was the reason Sega abandoned the concept for the rest of the series. It was shocking to learn that Judgment would be getting one in 2019, especially since it seemed like Sega was all about keeping things “traditional” when it came to the Yakuza games. As it turns out, Judgment was the test case for whether or not dubs would be considered and the data practically shouted at Sega to invest the time and money into it.
“Judgment was a test case… it was like a literal localization kitchen sink,” Strichart notes. “While a majority of what we would consider core fans (ones familiar with RGG games) stuck to the Japanese, we converted maybe 30% to the English dub. That’s probably higher than you would think, but when you look at the self-reported statistics for new fans, the percentage is completely inversed. About 65% of fans with no familiarity with RGG games played with the dub. That told us exactly what we always suspected, which is that the Japanese can be a barrier to entry.”
Not every single bit of the game is available in English, however. To keep some realm of realism there, the parts where Ichiban and his crew travel through Chinatown and Koreatown are left in their original languages. The main cast will be speaking English, but you’ll hear Chinese and Korean being spoken to properly replicate the confusing experience Ichiban would be having.
Longtime fans might stick their noses up at the English track, but those statistics don’t lie. Sega is also not prioritizing the English over the Japanese, or vice versa. Both options are given the same treatment and are there for people with different tastes. You can even swap between them at any moment -though it does require a complete reload of your current save.
Hearing this, I wondered if Sega would potentially go back and record English dubs for previous Yakuza installments. As you could expect, that’s likely not going to happen, but Strichart isn’t opposed to the idea. “If they made me do it, I would,” he gleefully said. The reality is that the release of the PS4 remasters collection and the fact that PS5 has backward compatibility support means that Sega isn’t likely to retouch those installments for the third time. Since you can play all of those games on a single console and Like a Dragon is meant as something of a new start, there isn’t much incentive to provide a complete dub for previous games.
As you might naturally be thinking, where does this leave Microsoft and Xbox? Currently, the only Yakuza games available on the platform are Yakuza 0, Kiwami, and Kiwami 2. While the rest of Kiryu’s saga is probably in the works (I couldn’t get a firm answer here), Sega won’t be doing much else beyond releasing the games. It wouldn’t be fair to PlayStation fans to have a dub locked to PC and Xbox One, not to mention that the currently available titles don’t offer one.
Shifting gears away from the technical aspects, I asked Strichart some questions regarding casting for Like a Dragon. One of the biggest surprises is that acclaimed actor George Takei would be voicing a lead role. That had to a difficult task…right? Apparently not. The team had a relatively simple time getting Takei involved.
“We’ve been trying to push for larger Asian American representation in the main cast, but then we thought ‘who’s a cool old Japanese actor we could potentially tap?’ Jokingly, someone mentioned George Takei. At first, we thought, ‘we couldn’t get Geroge,’ but then the thought became, ‘why not try? Why not reach out to his people and ask what he’s doing?’ There were some talks that had to happen back and forth, but at the end of the day, we said, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool’.”
Strichart then gave me some history of Takei’s career. Way back in the day, Takei had provided the dub for Japanese films that were released in western territories. In some way, voicing a character in Like a Dragon was almost coming full circle in that he was returning to the very thing that put him on the map. With Like a Dragon featuring two sets of lip-syncing, he didn’t need to struggle with matching lip flaps, but it’s still something he has prior experience doing.
For my final question, I wanted to bring things back to the different sets of subtitles. Some fans on Twitter have expressed negativity towards the options available in Like a Dragon. To them, Yakuza in English is sacrilege. As Scott put it, “The game will literally open and be like, ‘Select an Audio Language.’ Once you select Japanese, you will never have to hear English. I promise, there will be no invasion of the English. That’s on top of providing two different subtitle options so you never have to read a dubtitle. I don’t know what else I can give to people to show them that the Japanese track is prioritized and loved.”
That’s really what shines through in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Things were rocky with localization on the PS2 and PS3 entries, but Sega made a tremendous shift forward with the belated western release of Yakuza 5. Since then, each game has only improved with its translations and faithfulness to the original scripts. To say that an English dub is taking away from that is absurd, especially with how hard Strichart and his team work to nail details most people won’t even notice.
I’m still undecided on whether or not I’ll ever partake of the English dub, but I’m happy that more people will be able to experience Yakuza alongside me. If English is what gets you in the door, then that’s perfectly fine. At least it’s not an afterthought like years prior.
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Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can’t find him in front of a game, you’ll most likely find him pumping iron.
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