“Tokyo Vice,” HBO Max’s new neon series set in Japan’s largest city in 1999, is a story of investigative journalism mixed with a mafia murder plot, all wrapped up in gritty neo-noir. As a fan of dark movies and books, deep dives into investigative journalism, and Japanese literature, the odds of me enjoying this show were extremely high – and it didn’t disappoint.
At one point in the show, two characters even recite haiku by my favorite Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho. It seems my only interests that aren’t in the first three episodes of the show are baseball, which is huge in Japan (in fact, there’s a batting cage scene), and Phish, who has been touring in Japan in 1999. So there is still hope for “Tokyo Vice”. to completely tick all my “personal favorites” boxes.
The series is a bit like “All the President’s Men” and “Zodiac” meets “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas”, with a bit of “Lost in Translation” thrown into the mix.
HBO Max released the eight-episode crime drama with a bang on April 7, releasing three nearly hour-long episodes. HBO Max will release two episodes each Thursday until the finale is released on April 28.
Like a lot of good noir, “Tokyo Vice” leans into certain tropes while establishing a unique angle to tell its story.
“Tokyo Vice” is loosely based on journalist Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan”. The series follows a fictionalized version of Adelstein (played by Ansel Elgort, “West Side Story”), an expatriate rookie reporter for Japan’s largest newspaper, as he finds his footing and searches for a big, meaningful story to write. In real life and in the series, Adelstein was the first American citizen to be hired as a journalist for a Japanese newspaper, written in Japanese, which revealed the secrets of the Japanese underworld and the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
Elgort does a good job portraying Adelstein as somewhat clumsy and naive, but ambitious, earnest and idealistic. In the second episode, Adelstein tells another young journalist how the words of his coroner father inspired him to become a journalist: “Every day the knowledge of the world increases a little, and this newspaper is a testimony to that.” Then he adds, “And that’s what we have to do. We are increasing the knowledge of the world every day.
The pilot episode was directed by perhaps the most qualified person to direct a series about crime and journalism with the name of a city and the word vice in the title: Michael Mann. Mann produced “Miami Vice” (the TV series) and directed “Miami Vice” the 2006 film. ) and “The Insider” (1999) about journalists and the tobacco industry.
Mann does a great job of directing it, throwing us straight into a tense confrontation between Adelstein, Detective Hiroto Katagari (Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai,” “Godzilla”), and some yakuza gang members. Then the show jumps back two years to 1999, where the action of the first three episodes takes place, to provide some of Adelstein’s backstory while showcasing the cool and dramatic black landscape of the Tokyo nightlife. “Tokyo Vice” also features Rachel Keller (the TV series “Fargo”) as Samantha, an expat working as a nightclub hostess, and Sho Kasamatsu as Sato, a rising yakuza member.
The real story begins when Adelstein shows up to cover a crime scene where a man has been stabbed with a sword, only to be told later by a cop, “there is no murder in Japan.” Later, Adelstein witnesses a man committing suicide by lighting up in public and discovers what he believes to be a connection between the two incidents. Like any stubborn journalist, Adelstein is not so easily deterred. Despite his superiors’ wishes to write only what the police tell him, he begins to investigate suspicious deaths and finds sources in the Tokyo police and the city’s underworld.
Like a good piece of investigative journalism, “Tokyo Vice” hooks you with its lede – a journalistic term for the start of a story – then turns on a flashlight and whisks you into a dark world you never knew existed. .
Mike Andrelczyk is a staff writer at LNP. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.