Tokyo Vice Review
The criminal underbelly of Japan is nothing new to Western audiences. The yakuza and the power they hold over the country’s most critical systems is almost always the centerpiece of any media centered around the Japanese crime world. However, Tokyo Vice is less focused on the yakuza’s grip on the city and more about how people attempting to enact change play within the rules. Immersive and accessible, J.T. Rogers’ dark adaptation of Jake Adelstein’s memoir of his time in 1990’s Japan covering the news beat features a propulsive narrative and nuanced performances that give the more generic crime elements a fresh perspective.
Adelstein’s memoir, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan winds up serving as a fascinating look at the media’s relationship with both the police and the yakuza in Japan. Adelstein himself is noteworthy for being one of the first non-Japanese staff writers at a big newspaper in Japan, and that’s where this new series picks up. Jake (Ansel Elgort) leaves behind his family in Missouri to come write about the news – and more specifically, the yakuza – in Japan. Fluent in the language only gets him in the door as he quickly realizes that things don’t operate the same as they do in America.
That cultural divide is only the beginning of the rift between Jake and Japan, but he quickly finds his tenacity for covering bigger stories compels him to learn how to maneuver through the web of corruption that he so desperately wants to expose. Guided by his direct superior, Eimi (Rinko Kikuchi), and a bond he quickly forms with Detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), Jake very soon realizes how to get what he wants in a world governed by loyalty and the value of silence.
The crux of Tokyo Vice is centered around a couple loose threads and suicides happening around the city, tantalizing Jake as he tries to make sense of why suicides are happening in broad daylight and why certain clues continue to reappear at each crime scene. It’s that nugget of something potentially bigger in scope that lets Tokyo Vice’s journalist perspective flourish and take hold on the audience.
The first episode of Tokyo Vice is perhaps the most impressive, undoubtedly due to the direction of Michael Mann (who also serves as executive producer for the show). There’s a level of immersion that the show demands, not unlike HBO’s The Wire, which Mann translates easily with the aid of cinematography from John Grillo. There’s no unnatural explanations of Japanese culture, and yet, there are also no moments of confusion. Jake serves as an audience surrogate and active catalyst to the events that unfold, so understanding how Japanese culture differs from American culture ends up a process of listening and enacting.
Japanese, Korean, and English get swapped around a lot as well, but because Jake is fluent in Japanese, very rarely is English used unless it makes sense in the scene. It helps add to that authenticity the show so desperately seeks to present, so Tokyo Vice never ends up feeling like it’s catering to Western audiences. Instead, it just presents things matter-of-factly while still managing to string the viewer along.
It helps that the narrative itself is keen on explaining the ins and outs of the journalistic process and maintains a steady momentum. While Mann’s dedication to handheld camerawork and closing the distance between the story and the audience feels immediately missed in the rest of the episodes provided for review coverage, the show’s plot gets increasingly more intricate and characters start having their arcs intertwine at a much more rapid rate. Tokyo Vice’s episodes always feel like a stellar work of true crime fiction, slickly produced but not afraid to just revel in the grimy details of a case.
Jake as a character is also a major contributor to how propulsive the narrative feels. Hungry for that big story, his earnestness and naivety always push things forward. Elgort initially presents Jake as smug and overconfident, but very quickly sheds that for a character that is always learning and open to playing by the rules of a corrupt system. Which ultimately is what makes Tokyo Vice a fascinating watch as it delves into the politics of the yakuza and their relationship with the media and the police.
Along his travels, Jake finds himself crossing paths with an up-and-coming Yakuza member, Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), whose clan has an interest in several businesses around the city. The major focus ends up being a hostess club, where Jake and Sato take interest in Samantha (Rachel Keller) – one of the biggest money makers for the club and an enigma to everyone around her. For all three of these characters, their pasts end up being swept under the rug in lieu of hope for something different and more exciting in their futures.
Tokyo Vice shows promise as its story leaves plenty of threads to latch onto, but none feel unnecessary or trivial. They’re all in service of a greater narrative and it will be fascinating to watch how they tie into each other. The first episode hints at the future of the show before flashing back to Jake just beginning to get his feet wet and moving chronologically from there, so it has already been established that things get more intense – but it’s how that unfolds that is most riveting.
There are plenty of reasons to watch Tokyo Vice and its initial few episodes present enough compelling characters and performances that even if the narrative ends upcoming short, it’s still a well-acted and nuanced portrayal of a frequently stereotyped subject. Much like the Yakuza video games, Tokyo Vice offers an accessible glimpse into the darker recesses of Japan and is setting itself up to be the next great crime series.
- Christopher Cross