In Tokyo, there is no murder, only manslaughter, and suicides happen in public so the landlord can’t sue the family of the deceased who set themselves on fire. Also in Tokyo, everybody pays – no one who owns and operates a successful business is without “protection” of the local Yakuza and the monthly fees that are attached to the humble service they provide. These parameters only begin to describe the unseen world of crime happening in Japan. Mostly harmonious until someone is late, or a rival gang goes one step too far, series creator J. T. Rogers peels back the layers of the Japanese neo-noir underbelly.
Loosely based on the novel Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by author and journalist Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort), Jake is an aspiring journalist who moved from the comforts of his home in Missouri to Tokyo to become the first American to work at the biggest newspaper in the city. As he’s called on multiple occasions, gaijin, Jake is fully thrust into a world he doesn’t understand but quickly becomes engrossed in the inner workings of the different yakuza clans, the police, and the nightlife and how all three co-exist.
To avoid the cultural appropriation stigma this show may appear with, at least more than 3 quarters of the series 8 episodes are spoken in the native tongue of Japanese. Bring on the multilingual dialogue. Jake even goes as far as studying the language, becoming fluent in writing, speaking, and understanding to avoid misunderstandings. As an outsider, Jake is always at a disadvantage – not given the same respect as his colleagues, forcing Jake to sweeten the pot to get ahead. Opposite that, Jake uses his learning as an advantage to others ignorance of him, but still, in the early episodes as the show finds its footing, Jake is a fish out of water and Elgort plays the part committing to the dazed expression as he fights his way to stay afloat.
Surrounding Adelstein is an enticing criminal world that is full of potential, ripe for storytelling with infinitely more interesting characters the more we are dragged into this hidden in plain sighted world. As a journalist for the biggest newspaper in the city, freedom of speech is not universal to the new hires nor the seasoned staff. Jake and others are assigned to the police beat and are given redacted information to include in their article. Leave it to an American to want to dig deeper, keep pushing the boundaries where others may stop and move on. Jake’s supervisor Emi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi) recognizes this desire of Jake’s to fully invest his time into a story, looking for the truth.
Quickly, the major players make their presence known in this world of diverse characters. Focused on the police and the inner workings of the lore of Yakuza, Jake pairs himself with detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) who is virtually incorruptible – the cop looking to make a difference in a status and money hungry society. Together, Elgort and Watanabe capture the father/son, mentor/mentee relationship and chemistry, each representing the father Jake wishes his was and the son Katagiri wishes he had. Instead, Katagiri has two brilliant daughters (no real loss there regardless).
When the focus isn’t on Jake and his mission, Tokyo Vice shifts to the Yakuza from the inside with Soto (Show Kasamatsu), an enforcer for clan Ishida and his interests in a Kabukicho district club and hostess Samantha (Rachel Keller). As an enforcer, Soto is inexperienced, playing the role of a seasoned member – he’s excellent with shakedowns and collecting protection money but beyond that, Soto is written with a morality that doesn’t get the attention it deserves from this perspective.
Leave it to the excellent casting and performances of the ensemble cast to highlight the range of volatile emotions. If the streets of New York move fast, this concrete jungle takes the volume up a few levels. Kasamatsu can be sweet one minute and force his intimidation on an unsuspecting character the next. Maybe it’s the language itself but every non-English speaker can be intimidating with the quietest inflection.
Where Tokyo Vice gets into its rhythm is around the halfway mark of the season. Elgort’s confused fugue state becomes more common and understanding the deeper in the weeds he gets. The intensity that kicks the series off with director Michael Mann (Heat, Public Enemies) at the helm setting the tone, is injected a touch of flavor. Whether it’s at a club and Jake dancing like no one is watching to relive the stress of being a reporter or debating furiously over which late 90’s early 2000’s boy band reigns supreme (it’s always NSYNC, never doubt it).
Once Samantha’s religious backstory and how she came to be in her position is explored, more layers are added to an already rich story. Samantha isn’t just a typical love interest, damsel in distress – Rachel Keller brings a seductive mystery to her character that leaves the viewer wanting more.
Knowing where the series starts on the tense atmospheric opening of a meeting between Jake and the Yakuza to where the finale leaves off, wanting more out of this world is an understatement. The eight episodes give just enough culture, verisimilitude, and lore to curb the appetite. But still, there is a lot left to explore from both an outsider’s perspective and from the inside. It’s a dangerous world, but when handled correctly, the pull to be drawn in won’t take much convincing.
What piques my interest in the culture above most things is how the Japanese culture view tattoos – the opening credits feature a close up of a body suit of beautiful ink that is rarely showcased on the members of the Yakuza. Tattoos aren’t looked at favorably in the culture as a civilian gives a negative reaction to Soto’s sleeve at the hospital once her child points it out. Soto’s reaction says more than a line of dialogue could. To keep them hidden, the length of an arm sleeve goes about ¾ of the way down the arm while there are visible ending points on a body suit like Shinzo Tozawa’s (Ayumi Tanida). Always hidden but stunningly artistic when shown off as is the meaning behind the creatures so often used for the art.
Tokyo Vice starts and ends rather quickly. Before you know it, 8 episodes come and go in a flash with a thirst stay in the world wishing it would continue another few episodes. Without the possibility of continuing the story, the finale doesn’t quite feel complete. Almost anti-climactic. Regardless of how somber toned the story shifts in the back half of the season, Tokyo Vice is a solid entry in the crime genre that boasts the neo-noir flare. Tokyo Vice is fully captivating from all aspects told with an authenticity to it that is unmatchable if told from a different creative team. If it wasn’t for Winning Time an argument could be made that this is the best new series on streaming. Just another win for HBO and their original programming might.
Created By: J. T. Rogers
Episodes Directed By: Michael Mann, Josef Kubota Wladyka, Hikari & Alan Poul
Music By: Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Cinematography: John Grillo, Diego Garcia, Katsumi Yanagijima & Daniel Satinoff
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe, Rachel Keller, Hideaki Itō, Show Kasamatsu, Ella Rumpf, Rinko Kikuchi, Tomohisa Yamashita
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Release Date: April 7, 2022
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Based On: Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein