Michael Mann returns to the scene of small-screen urban crime with tokyo vicewhose title implies a connection to his iconic ’80s hit miami vice but whose story proves to be a unique investigation of the Japanese underworld and the unlikely duo that attempt to drag its ugliness into the light.
Loosely adapted by showrunner JT Rogers from Daily Beast contributor Jake Adelstein’s memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, the 10-episode HBO Max series (April 7) is a sensually stylish affair about the tangled ties that bind the police, reporters, and the country’s reigning Yakuza clans. Electrified by a low-current buzz of danger, sex, and secrets lurking just out of sight, it trades traditional shootout-and-car-chase mayhem for a consistent mood of anxious dislocation and menace, aided by stewardship from Mann that gets things started in thrilling fashion.
Mann directs the holy hell out of the maiden episode of tokyo vice, employing deep-focus, diagonal visual lines and intense close-ups—often framed right up against his subjects’ faces or on/over their right shoulders—to create forceful engagement with the action at hand. There’s a dynamic fleetness to his handheld camerawork, which glides and zooms with lively sharpness, and that’s matched by an editorial structure that’s swift without ever being hasty; his cutting suggests fear, frustration, alienation, exhaustion and anger without the need for a single corresponding word. No one shoots a nightclub (or conveys the way in which power and desire flows between patrons) like Mann, and he expertly uses light, shadow, and silhouettes to establish his shady milieu, where nothing is precisely what it seems. The aesthetic foundation he sets for the entire series is, in fact, so stirringly economical and poised that it’s almost inevitable that the ensuing installments, although capably helmed by Josef Kubota Wladyka (Catch the Fair One) and Hikari, can’t quite match the premiere’s breathtaking elegance.
While Mann’s formal artistry is the initial lure of tokyo vice, its lasting appeal is its portrait of crime-plagued Tokyo circa 1999, and the efforts of Missouri native Jake (Ansel Elgort) to make his mark as a fledgling reporter for the nation’s leading newspaper. An expat who’s fled his country—and fraught home life—Jake is an outsider determined to get his foot in the door, both with his media bosses, most notably editor Emi (Rinko Kikuchi), and on the police beat to which he’s assigned alongside two close comrades (Kosuke Tanaka, Takaki Uda). Thought the West Side Story headliner’s public reputation has taken a hit in recent years due to allegations of misconduct, he nonetheless exudes sturdy, likable confidence and unflagging ambition as Jake, a neophyte who quickly discovers that—regardless of his impressive Japanese-language skills, fondness for the nation’s food , and embrace of its traditions—he’s still a gaijin fish out of water.
Jake’s fundamental problem vis-à-vis his superiors is that they demand he simply report the who, what, where, and when, while he’s most interested in the why. Two immediate incidents—the stabbing death of a local man, followed by another individual’s decision to light himself on fire in front of evening onlookers—hammer home that he’s expected to play by the rules. Unable to be a drone, however, Jake continues snooping, and that soon leads him to Detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), a law enforcement veteran who takes a liking to Jake’s persistence and industriousness. Moreover, he sees in Jake a kindred spirit driven to dig beneath the surface to locate the truth, which is also what Katagiri does both in his day-to-day investigations (for a police department that prioritizes clearing cases above solving crimes), and in his competitor—and arguably more important—role as the unofficial liaison and peacekeeper between Tokyo’s rival Yakuza outfits, run by old-school Ishida (Shun Sugata) and fearsome upstart Tozawa (Ayumi Tanida).
Jake’s relationship with Katagiri builds at the same gradual, natural pace as his budding bond with nightclub hostess Samantha (Rachel Keller) and her frequent doting customer, Ishida henchman Sato (Show Kasamatsu). Both Samantha and Sato are in their own hot water, the former due to a past that won’t stay hidden (thus threatening her big plans for the future), and the latter because of rising tensions between Ishida and Tozawa. A love triangle between Jake, Sato, and Samantha seems inevitable, but at least in its first five chapters, tokyo vice refuse to resort to predictable twists. Instead, its prime focus is on its characters’ navigation of an environment rife with mysteries buried under layers of rituals and codes of conduct—the most pressing of which, for Jake, concerns the aforementioned fatalities, which he deduces are linked to a loan- shark operation that preys upon its victims in an exceptionally sinister manner.
“Instead, its prime focus is on its characters’ navigation of an environment rife with mysteries buried under layers of rituals and codes of conduct…”
The clash between Jake’s individualism and Japanese society’s regard for loyalty, obedience and conformity is central to tokyo vice, whose drama is bolstered by its familiarity with everyday cultural customs. That authenticity enhances what is often a slow-burn show that cares as much about what it feels like to live in Japan—especially as an American—as it does about the intricacies of Jake and Katagiri’s Yakuza dilemmas. Providing entry into a foreign world that’s at once easily recognizable and yet difficult to fully grasp (a notion amplified by dialogue that’s efficiently subtitled), the series generates seductiveness by constantly teasing tantalizing things—bombshells, danger, and greater comprehension of its setting’s time- honored conventions—without ever resorting to dull exposure or crude plotting.
As with Mann’s feature-film version of miami vice, tokyo vice is in love with the night and, in particular, with images of resolute men strolling through dark streets and neon-lit nightspots. In that and many other respects, it plays like a serialized noir about the search for self and truth by figures too convinced of their own abilities, too beholden to their own principles, and too plagued by their own demons to worry about the peril they’ re-courting. It’s macho romanticism of a most alluring sort, one in which crusaders do what they know is necessary, feel guilty about their failings, and carry onwards—a process that, as Katagiri makes clear to Jake, often necessitates a healthy dose of alcohol to help alleviate the pain.