The HBO Max series Tokyo Vice is a project that has been in the works for nearly a decade, initially announced as a film featuring Harry Potter franchise star Daniel Radcliffe, then later repositioned as a television series with Heat director Michael Mann attached and Baby Driver actor Ansel Elgort in the lead role. It finally arrives on April 7 after several years of on-and-off production due to the pandemic and the complicated logistics of international filming.
While such long development and production periods can often be a sign of trouble, anyone who’s been looking forward to the series can rest easy: The first five episodes suggest that the extra time involved in bringing it to the screen was well spent.
A loose adaptation of Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, the series casts Elgort as Adelstein, an American living in Tokyo who sets out to become the first foreign-born reporter to work for the largest newspaper in Japan. After earning a spot on the newspaper’s staff, he soon finds himself navigating both the rigid institutional rules of Japanese media and culture and the murky relationship between police, criminal organizations, and journalists.
Award-winning playwright J.T. Rogers adapted Adelstein’s novel for the series, which delivers a tightly scripted, moody adventure through Tokyo of the late 1990s, filled with host clubs, tiny bars, packed streets and train stations, loud dance clubs, and colorful, crowded alleys bustling with people buying and selling from every nook. Tokyo Vice takes Adelstein from the aforementioned hustle and bustle of the Tokyo streets and clubs to the crowded office buildings, police stations, and immaculate corporate offices used by both business leaders and the powerful yakuza crime bosses who fight for control of the city.
Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) portrays Hiroto Katagiri, a veteran detective who teaches Adelstein about the complicated relationship between the yakuza and police necessary to maintain peace in the city, while Legion actress Rachel Keller plays Samantha, an American ex-pat working as a hostess in Tokyo’s busy Kabukicho district. Shô Kasamatsu also plays a key role in the series as Sato, a young yakuza whose trajectory in the organization intersects with the lives of both Adelstein and Samantha.
The first five episodes of Tokyo Vice cover a lot of ground, chronicling Adelstein’s efforts to acclimate to Japanese culture and earn a job as a reporter for the fictional newspaper that serves as a stand-in for the real-world publication Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper where the real Adelstein worked. Over the course of the first half of the season, Adelstein is hired as a crime reporter and quickly becomes embroiled in investigations of several cases involving the criminal underworld — all while making powerful allies and enemies throughout the city.
While Mann directs the series’ first episode, Josef Kubota Wladyka, Hikari, and Alan Poul helm all of the following episodes, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings director Destin Daniel Cretton producing and Rogers penning the scripts for the premiere and finale. The series’ creative team does a wonderful job of keeping the tension high throughout the series, blending both the inherently fast pace of life in Tokyo with the demands of Adelstein’s work life and the forces conspiring around him. Adelstein’s activities are frequently juxtaposed against those of Sato, who also finds himself dealing with increasing pressure within his yakuza “family” as rival interests compete for power within the syndicate. The arcs followed by both characters are fascinating and complex, and like so many of Mann’s projects, the lead characters in Tokyo Vice often share more than a little in common, regardless of which side of the law they operate on.
As Adelstein, Elgort is brimming over with energy and idealism, and his performance effectively communicates the tremendous highs and lows of his experience, which frequently walks a fine line between dogged journalism and ambitious recklessness. You can’t help cheering him on, but there’s a sense that Adelstein’s flame is burning a bit too bright, and the intensity that Elgort brings to the character jumps off the screen.
As Sato, Kasamatsu offers up one of the series’ most complicated characters and a performance that proves as effective with quiet moments and carefully chosen words as Elgort’s frantic portrayal of Adelstein. Where Adelstein flies forward through the story, careening from one experience to the next, Sato’s arc is a slow burn that’s just as captivating, and he quickly becomes one of the most fascinating characters in the series.
Both Watanabe and Keller also add additional, compelling layers to the story playing out in Tokyo Vice, as they each find themselves struggling with very different moral dilemmas that shape not only their own lives, but those of Adelstein, Sato, and everyone else whose paths they intersect. That’s no surprise from Watanabe, who brings gravitas to every role he’s in, but Keller’s portrayal of Samantha is just as important and intriguing as the mysteries around her character’s background and aspirations are slowly explored.
In a supporting role, Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi stands out as Eimi, Adelstein’s supervisor at the newspaper who faces her own set of obstacles as a professional woman working in Japan’s patriarchal business world. Although her story never gets too much of the show’s attention, Kikuchi makes great use of the limited screen time her character is given with a compelling performance.
Mann and Cretton also manage to fill nearly every moment of Tokyo Vice with the city’s presence in one form or another. Whether the characters are strolling down a busy street in one of Tokyo’s business districts, a neon-lit alley in Kabuchiko, sipping tea in a secluded garden, or toasting away their evening in a tiny pub or bustling host club, the energies and tone of the region are woven into every scene of Tokyo Vice. Anyone who’s spent time in Tokyo will likely attest to the wide range of experiences it offers the average person, and the series does an impressive job of making all of those settings the characters wander through and the moments they experience all feel like unique pieces of the same puzzle.
In fact, if there’s one shortcoming to be found in Tokyo Vice, it’s the series’ willingness to be a bit too accommodating to its American audience. Much of the dialogue in the series is in Japanese with English subtitles, making the show feel truly embedded within the city that plays such an important role in its story. Adelstein (and Keller’s Samantha, for that matter) are rarely viewed as anything other than foreigners in Tokyo, so it feels right that we should hear their experiences and conversations unfold in Japanese. That the show shifts a little too freely to English dialogue — and often for no plot-driven reason — has a tendency to take you of the moment (and out of the city).
Gorgeously shot and impeccably acted by everyone involved in its production, Tokyo Vice is a fascinating, compelling series that — like the streets of its titular city — holds plenty of surprises around every corner.
The first three episodes of Tokyo Vice will premiere April 7 on HBO Max.
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