Directors: Josef Kubota Wladyka, Hikari, Michael Mann, Apan Poul
Writers: Jake Adelstein, Jessica Brickman, Karl Taro Greenfield, Naomi Izuka, Brad Kane, Arthur Phillips, JT Rogers, Adam Stein.
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kan Watanabe, Rachel Keller, Sho Kasamatsu, Ella Rumpf, Rinko Kikuchi
Streaming on: Lionsgate
The greater the odds against the protagonist, the more the chances of drama. And in the HBO Max series Tokyo Vice, we have an investigative journalist, played by Ansel Elgort, covering the crime beat for a Japanese newspaper. There are two things here: Elgort’s character Jake Adelstein (the show is based on the real life journalist’s memoir) is the first gaijin (a foreigner in Japanese) to be recruited by the country’s most widely read newspaper; so there’s some cultural hostility. But more importantly it’s because Japan works differently, where illegal businesses exist in somewhat legitimate forms – the ‘vice’ in the title. Whether it’s prostitution or organised crime, they are allowed in permissible limits. The Yakuza (Japan’s own mafia), the police and the media have a kind of understanding. It isn’t the most conducive climate for investigative reporting – but Jake needs a story.
Luckily for him, Tokyo Vice is set at the end of the 90s, a decade that witnessed a moment of transition in real Yakuza history, with an aggressive, amoral new clan overthrowing the old guard, with little regard for their honourable code of conduct. Yakuza films have a rich legacy of their own, but this is perhaps the first long form deep dive into that world. The opening credits plunge the viewer into Yakuza tattoo art the way the title sequence in The Crown takes us on a tour of the micro-details in the titular object. We glide over an iconography of dragons, tigers, Samurai and fish before propelled into a free-fall through the metropolis, as through being foretold the events of the show.
The Elgort character is on a similar journey in sinful Tokyo as he goes gonzo trying to navigate this unique ecosystem, using and being used in the turf war, fucking and fucking up, in his quest to get his big scoop. There are all sorts of characters major and minor he encounters and forms relationships with: Samantha (Rachel Keller), a fellow expat and a nightclub entertainer with dreams of starting her own club; the wise and experienced detective Katagiri (Kane Watanabe) who acts as a foil to Jake’s rookie energy; his poker-faced colleague Tin Tin (Kosuke Tanaka), a constant source of dry humour; and an editor-to-die-for in Eimi (Rinko Kikuchi). One of his sources is a Yakuza fanzine writer.
Jake has the benefit of an outsider looking at something seemingly ordinary with extra suspicion. A string of deaths fitting into a larger pattern open a can of worms: a malevolent financial scam driving citizens in debt to kill themselves by suicide. Jake is also shown as someone who probably belongs more to this world than he ever did in his hometown Missouri (the actor’s gangly physical type is perfect for a ‘misfit’). The beauty of the TV series format is how we get into the inner lives of not just the protagonist but the other characters as well. We get a female counterpart to Jake in Samantha, whose Japanese is as impressive as his. The two form a triangle of sorts with Sho Kasamatsu’s Sato, a sad-eyed gangster with a soft side and a face that’s made for the film camera – three distinct portraits of youth estranged from their respective families.
For a show about vices, Tokyo Vice’s pleasures are sensuous. The look and feel takes a leaf out of the Michael Mann stylebook: the city is slick and nocturnal (Mann is involved with the show and has directed the pilot). It’s the kind of making that takes delight in the sound of the cigarette paper burning and the clunk of the metal lighter every time one of them lights up.
It’s not just things like the heady, neon lighting, but also the way actors perform through gestures and body language. The venerated figurehead Ishida’s (Shun Sugata) transformation from an ageing, vulnerable leader to a mob boss at the top of his game is charted through a shift in gait – a somewhat slouched posture to more confident and straight. We see the prime antagonist, Tazawa, without clothes, in his body suit tattoo take injections for his liver ailment; he resembles a Komodo dragon, truly naked in a most private moment – a picture of power and powerlessness.
I wish it had more ferocity and focus in terms of subject matter. The final two episodes really dial up the tension but you can see the rush to end the season; inspite of the nearly eight hour runtime, you are left looking for a bit more closure (season two is not the answer). Ultimately Tokyo Vice gets away with its problems by nicely rounding things off things the way they began: Jake and Katagiri going to meet Tazawa.
We get a sense of history between the two countries without it really having to be spelt out. The cultural curiosity and exchange that we see in the making of the show (with its mixed American-Japanese cast and crew) finds resonance in the material itself: a charming joke about a Backstreet Boys number, a line about Levis counterfeit jeans, a Matrix reference. But a bit of perspective would have helped in terms of locating the story in the larger canvas of Japan itself. A scene quietly illustrates this. Katagiri and Miyamoto – two adversaries within the police department, good cop and bad cop – talk in what looks like a fishing spot. As they are done talking, the camera takes over. It shifts perspectives, with their backs now to the camera, and reveals a whole other side to the setting: a boy and girl boating, with a bridge and high-rise in the backdrop. It’s a pictorial distillation of Japan in all its elements.