If you try and walk down one of Kyo’s main streets in the third chapter of Like A Dragon: Ishin, you’ll find your way blocked by a large crowd who are singing and dancing to the chant “Ee ja nai ka”. From the outset, it looks and sounds like a 19th-century flash mob in action – even Ishin‘s samurai protagonist Ryoma finds himself absent-mindedly dancing along every time the camera cuts to him.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and you discover that Ee ja nai ka – which translates to “who cares,” or “why not?” – was a real form of social protest that was sweeping across Japan in Bakumatsu, the final years of the country’s Edo period. Ishin is set in 1867, as that era came to a close, and as in the history books, Ee ja nai ka was descending into mob violence. Ryoma soon finds himself stepping in to save a shopkeeper from thugs who are co-opting the movement to bully and threaten others. Taking place just three chapters into the game, it’s a fantastic example of developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s talent for balancing its absurdist comic tropes with something a little bit more human – in this case, an educational segue disguised as a throwaway joke.
It’s strange, because there’s a lot of history you can learn through Ishin – it just happens to be packaged between toe-tapping karaoke sessions and mucky innuendo about how “pulling out” of duels sucks. Take Ishin’s main story: in chapter 3, Ryoma is set on infiltrating the violent Shinsengumi to discover the identity of his adoptive father’s killer. In the real world, the Shinsengumi was a violent brigade of samurai who perpetrated a number of high-profile assassinations – in Ishin, the group’s key figures may be portrayed by familiar faces from Ryu Ga Gotoku’s Yakuza series, but dramatic portrayal aside, their revolutionary philosophies largely line up with the real deal.
Even Sakamoto Ryoma, the game’s protagonist, was a real person who fought for his vision of a democratic Japan without feudalism or a caste system. Ryoma was assassinated at 31 – an uncomfortably common end for those who dabbled in Japanese politics at the time. Media portrayals of samurai often romanticise samurai with scenic duels and faultless honour, but reality was a little messier. As part of a hands-on session with Ishin, real-world samurai Ōtsuka Ryūnosuke demonstrated a feudal-age samurai assassination technique: a beheading that can be delivered several steps away from the target, while their back is turned. Bakumatsu was a bloody, turbulent era and that’s captured remarkably well in Ishin – one boss fight that ends with you sparing a bested Shinsengumi samurai takes a grim turn when his superior executes him while he’s still on his knees.
Additionally, it may seem like Ishin takes some creative liberties with guns in Japan at the time – and it does, make no mistake – but I also learned that not only did samurai warriors use guns, but even Smith & Wesson’s revolvers – usually associated with Western cowboy flicks – cropped up throughout Japan along with weapons of war like Gatling guns. Samurai Museum Berlin has its own showcase of weapons, which range from ornate rifles to gigantic hand cannons. Even while rooted in real history, Ishin never loses its light-hearted whimsy. Many of Shinsegumi’s leaders are charming, quippy killers who are hard to dislike…even if one of them has probably offed your dad.
If you’re interested in learning more about Japan’s remarkably rich national history – or you just fancy a side story that lets you shout at a manchild for the gross standards he holds women to – Ishin offers all of that and more. Again, it’s still worth playing with more than a grain of salt – it wouldn’t be a Ryu Ga Gotoku game if it wasn’t intentionally over-the-top. But going into this as an amateur, Ishin proved far more educational than I was expecting and sparked a genuine interest in learning more about Japan’s history. Is it as accurate as the required reading list of your standard history course? Of course not – but hey, it’s much bloody cheaper.
Like A Dragon: Ishin launches on February 21 for PlayStation, Xbox, and PC.