In February 2023, a classic Yakuza spin-off game is coming to the West, with Like a Dragon: Ishin. Set in the late 1860s at the end of the Tokugawa regime, it brings many of the most popular Yakuza characters together in one place for an epic story.
A historic setting, it will still feature all the ridiculous side stories, fun mini-games, and violence fans have come to expect.
But who is the main protagonist, Sakamoto Ryoma? What role does he play in this great story? He’s played by Kiryu Kazuma and voiced by Takaya Kuroda, but what else do you need to know?
Warning: This article contains minor story spoilers for Like a Dragon: Ishin
Who is Sakamoto Ryoma in Like a Dragon: Ishin?
In Like a Dragon: Ishin, many popular Yakuza characters play the role of important historical figures. Naturally, Kazuma Kiryu portrays perhaps the most famous samurai in human history. In the game, Sakamoto looks just like Kiryu, except, of course, for the samurai bun.
He even still has the little stubble goatee that Kiryu is famous for. Sakamoto Ryoma began as the lowest class of samurai (goshi), but his swordsmanship is unparalleled in Tosa, his hometown. Ryoma was going to help reform Tosa’s government. That’s when tragedy strikes and changes the course of history for the protagonist.
Thanks to a fight with the Joshi – one of the highest classes of samurai – he ends up in prison, beaten and tied up. His adoptive father and mentor, Yoshida Toyo, broke him out of prison, informing the guard that he would be the one to kill Ryoma when it came time to pass judgment.
However, eventually Sakamoto Ryoma takes the blame for his mentor’s death and must find the real killer to prove his innocence. To do this, he takes the name “Saito Hajime”, and joins the Shinsengumi. The Shinsengumi, a special police force, are home to the only users of the Tennen-Rishin style in Kyoto, the style used to kill his mentor.
With that in mind, Ryoma joins the historical police in Like a Dragon: Ishin, determined to find the man who killed his father and bring him to justice.
Sakamoto Ryoma, from historical terms compared to Like a Dragon: Ishin
Ryoma’s story is very different from that of the historical figure he portrays. He was still a low-ranking Tosa samurai, but he fought the government as “Saitani Umetaro” during the Bakumatsu. He fought for democracy, the abolition of the feudal system and a “moderate modernization and industrialization of Japan”.
More than just a skilled samurai, he played a key role in the alliance between Satsuma and Choshu – the Satcho Alliance. As a neutral third party, he was able to bring together the two parties, which once had irreconcilable differences.
This ultimately created a powerful military force to rival the Tokugawa shogunate. He is also known as the “Father of the Japanese Navy”. He worked under Katsu Kaishu to create a more modern naval force, with Western aid.
Although he was a key figure in the Meiji Restoration, he would be assassinated before it could take place. He was killed in December 1867, alongside his companion, Nakaoka Shintaro. In Like a Dragon: Ishin, Sakamoto Ryoma takes on a new name, that of Saito Hajime.
Throughout Ryoma’s real life, he was constantly at odds with the Shinsengumi and never joined their ranks. Saito Hajime was a real man, and much of Like a Dragon: Ishin, while thrilling and dramatic, is pure fiction.
Sakamoto Ryoma would live to see the resignation of Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1867, but was assassinated soon after at the age of 31. Known as the Omiya Incident, the Shinsengumi would be blamed. Their leader, Kondo Isami, would be executed as a result, but the Mimawarigumi were actually behind the killing.
In both historical texts and Like a Dragon: Ishin, he was a hero and a visionary. The historical man dreamed of a Japan where all men would be created equal, like the American ideal. This made him an excellent character choice for Kazuma Kiryu to portray in Like a Dragon: Ishin.
Kazuma Kiryu is often seen as a man of valor and high ideals, fighting for the weak and standing up for what he considers right. As one of the most respected and idolized men in Japanese history, it was a perfect choice to see Kazuma Kiryu take on this role.
In the upcoming remake of the classic Yakuza spin-off, Kazuma Kiryu will return to battle assuming the role of Sakamoto Ryoma.