SERIES REVIEW – An American Japanese lover’s deep dive into Tokyo’s underworld is the fun and thrilling mob crime backstory of “Tokyo Vice”, the new HBO Max series starring Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi. We saw the first two episodes of the new series, which left us with a decidedly positive impression.
HBO Max has surprised us with an engaging crime series set in Japan, although it is more traditional than we expected. Michael Mann, the director of In Your Face, The Last of the Mohicans and Collateral, directed the first episode, which enchants the viewer with just enough style and excitement to remind us that the director, in a rich career, was also the producer of the TV series Miami Vice decades earlier. Michael Mann’s unique style and ‘magic touch’ also set the excellent tone for the first two episodes of the series from start to finish.
“There are no murders in Japan!”
The series, set in 1999, gives us a taste of the rituals of the Japanese mafia and an insight into the workings of one of the world’s most prominent newspapers, published here as the Meicho Shimbun but based on the Mainichi Shimbun. The series touches on the perceived role of power in Japanese society (at least as it was in the years before 2000), which consistently reports the ‘official’ police version of every crime.
“There are no murders in Japan” may sound Orwellian, but that is how stabbings, shootings and the like were reported in the media there. They are not identified until the police call it a “murder”. So the guy who was stabbed (or rather his corpse) with the knife sticking out of the last and fatal wound will have to wait for that too.
“We don’t like American guys around here!”
The series also features Japanese sexism, racism, xenophobia and a mania for boy gangs (the height of the Backstreet Boys era in Tokyo).
If only to get a job at the newspaper, which has “never hired a gaijin” (foreigner), he must pass a gruelling test alongside nearly a hundred other applicants. Everyone at the newspaper smokes, and the new boy is informed that he will soon take up the habit if he ever learns to smoke a hookah at a newspaper with 12 million readers.
But the series also realistically portrays the bustling crowds of metropolitan Tokyo, the police press conferences that can only ever be attended politely and by asking the ‘right’ questions, and nightlife with the nightclubs of the 1990s where ‘hostesses’ ply their trade. A bit reminiscent of the Yakuza game series and two Judgement games, Tokyo Vice is a good example, so if you like those games, you’ll probably love this HBO Max exclusive.
The story is told from five points of view. Jake Adelstein (Elgort) – the series is based on his memoir – is a ‘gaijin’ who has come to teach English and understand the culture. Still, his background leads him into a job where learning about Japanese police work, the underworld and nightlife culture is essential to the job. This world is “explained” to him and the viewer – but thankfully not OVER-explained – as he experiences it.
Samantha (Rachel Keller) is a young American “hostess” whose job involves singing in nightclubs and seducing wealthy guests, driven mainly by making money and keeping her secrets. Tokyo police detective/father-in-law Katagiri (Watanabe) is a veteran cop who dabbles in “just keeping the peace/closing the case” police work that rarely digs deep enough to get to the real criminals or the real “why?” of the crimes. Emi (Rinko Kichuchi from “Pacific Rim” and “Babel”) is Jake’s editor, who prevents his racist and seemingly anti-Semitic columnist from firing Jake, who he calls a “half-Jew/half-monkey”, on general principles but not for just cause.
And Sato (Shô Kasamatsu) is a young yakuza who is tested and tormented by the Japanese mafia and who poses both a threat and a potential benefit by crossing Jake and Samantha’s lives.
Each of the two episodes has personal trials and questionable ethics about what is the truth. Everyone has secrets and demons they wish to keep, fear or run from.
The two main protagonists are on top
Elgort – whose most memorable role to date was in Baby Driver – is convincing as Adelstein, a young journalist with extremely wavy, half-long hair, often arrogant but pushy and sympathetic in his work and private life. Of course, he is often looked down upon, scorned or even tricked, but that does not deter our hero from his often dangerous work.
On the other side, the elder Watanabe, a famous leading man in Japanese, Asian and Hollywood films since the 80s classic Tampopo, brings a natural old school style to the series. He is “only” the main character among the supporting cast of faces long known in Japanese cinema.
Even without cliffhangers, it’s exciting and entertaining
Series like this are built on cliff-hangers that keep us coming back for the next episode, but the cliffhangers here don’t really “shock” and dazzle the viewer. The large-scale intrigues are impressive, even if they are a little subdued. I am looking forward to the third part of the series.
The Japanese milieu will be tempting enough for anyone curious about this westernised yet exotic culture: the exotic cuisine, the tattooed gangsters, the attentive police, and the seemingly gentle but extremely pushy press. My only regret was that the series is only available in HD on HBO Max – on a 4K TV, the picture quality was not at its peak for my eyes, which are used to needle-sharp 4K. It’s a shame because otherwise, the Tokyo visuals in this series are stunning.