‘Tokyo Vice,’ a lurid snapshot of Japan’s criminal underbelly
In 1993, a young American expat named Jake Adelstein somehow finagled a job working the crime beat for Japan’s largest newspaper – the first non-Japanese person to do so. Adelstein worked for the paper for 12 years and chronicled his (mis)adventures in his memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat In Japan.
The lurid, sprawling Tokyo Vice (HBO Max) may not be a transliteration of Adelstein’s gonzo book–as in, it’s not all true, but it’s all true-ish–but it’s still an engrossing, layered snapshot of Japan’s seamy criminal underbelly with a careful balance of respect for Japanese culture and an understanding of Adelstein’s fish-out-of-water status. Ansel Elgort, who doesn’t always fire on all cylinders but does have a great look of confusion and mild panic as he frequently runs afoul of local custom, plays Adelstein as kind of mild-mannered bro.
The indelible Tokyo atmosphere is as much a main character as anyone, especially in the Michael Mann-directed pilot, and Tokyo Vice features a ton of great supporting performances. There’s Rinko Kukichi as Adelstein’s world-weary, much-abused boss, keenly aware that her gender has put her up against a glass ceiling; Rachel Keller as Jake’s fellow expat (and presumptive romantic interest) Samantha, who works in a hostess bar that offers company to lonely men at a price; and Shô Kasamatsu as an up-and-coming criminal with a weakness for fisticuffs and for Samantha.
The early episodes of the series find Adelstein struggling as a cub reporter who can’t seem to accept that his job is to transcribe, not to investigate. Adelstein’s hardheadedness eventually bears some fruit, though, leading him to a partnership with a detective (Ken Watanabe) who shows Adelstein the ropes and gets him a story good enough to save Adelstein’s imperiled job.
Adelstein’s travails eventually lead him to a confrontation with the yakuza, the infamous Japanese organized crime syndicate. In one of the story’s weakest moments, the very first scene presages the confrontation, a flash-forward of the kind storytellers use when they don’t trust the audience to become engaged otherwise. They needn’t have bothered with the cheap raising-the-stakes maneuver; Tokyo Vice is plenty captivating even when you know how it’s going to turn out.