What Arthur Phillips Brings to ‘Tokyo Vice’

A novelist’s eye helps guide the HBO crime series in the direction of nuance and social realism as it approaches its second season

The announcement that HBO Max executives have greenlighted a second season of the hit show Tokyo Vice offers hope that some viewers in America may come to have a deeper understanding of Japan.

That might sound like high praise for a ratings-driven commercial project, but given the level of knowledge that many people tend to have about the Far East, no small amount of education needs to happen. The achievement of the first season of Tokyo Vice was to tell the story of a fish out of water—a kid from Missouri working as a journalist in Tokyo, looking into the city’s layered, dicey milieus of corruption and crime—while depicting social and economic ills that need more study and analysis in our interconnected world.

That’s not to say that viewers will become experts on the complex lender-debtor dynamics that ruined lives and fueled regional instability. But they may at least come to see a bit of the role of debt, capital, and social stratification in Japan today and derive a few lessons from the sad story. Season two is an opportunity to carry on this education.

Onboarding Phillips

Tokyo Vice’s effectiveness flows partly from showrunner J.T. Rogers and other executives having welcomed Arthur Phillips, the prolific novelist and five-time Jeopardy! champion, as a writer and producer.

In an interview with Book and Film Globe, Phillips spelled out his role in the coming segments. “I am a co-executive producer on season two, which means I am part of the writers’ room that has come up with all the stories for the season, I am the writer of record on one episode and an uncredited writer (of many) on some pieces of other episodes,” he said.

Phillips pointed to a parallel between his earlier writing and his work for Tokyo Vice. Phillips’s breakout 2002 novel, Prague, draws on his own experience living among other expatriates in Budapest. Talk about culture shock.

“I was really hired, I think, because I’d been an expat. Not in Japan, but in Hungary. I was fascinated by Jake’s book and his experience, but I think J.T. was drawn to me because I’d lived in a strange place in my early twenties, too, and he was hoping I could bring something of that to the writers’ room,” Phillips said.

Arthur Phillips
Arthur Phillips © Barbara Muschietti).

In the course of his screenwriting duties, Phillips gravitated toward sources offering cultural context. He described having done “research into the history and culture of Japan in the ’90s, especially some of the amazing stories of the yakuza and the ‘water trade,’ the various levels of intimacy for sale in Tokyo, from the explicitly sexual to the explicitly not-sexual.”

The show, to its credit, does not present Adelstein as a larger-than-life James Bond or even an infallible journalist. (Given his youth at the time of the experiences depicted here, that really would have been unbelievable.) The Adelstein we meet in season one has a number of the trappings of a young reporter who wants to change the world but whose ambition at times dwarfs his wisdom. In the second episode, his errors about a major story nearly lead to his firing from the paper. Throughout the series, he freely mixes work and business both inside and outside the office, turning meetings with ostensible sources into social opportunities, and in one scene he smokes crystal meth to get a potential source to lower his guard.

“Jake is in many ways a blinkered character, and part of the story, as the real Jake would be fast to admit, is about him cracking through his shell, his American naivete and assumptions, his self-regard. That was a big part of the character that we wanted to make for the show: not a hero, not even a particularly astute self-observer or observer of cultures in some ways, but a young man with a young man’s blind spots,” Phillips said.

Besides Phillips’s Prague, one of the literary antecedents of Tokyo Vice may be the oeuvre of the late John le Carré. Yes, le Carré’s focus was on Cold War and post-Cold War espionage, rather than organized crime. But the duplicity and double-crossing of Tokyo Voice tough guys who have a foot in either of two opposing yet weirdly analogous worlds will make some viewers think of the machinations of a character like Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

In episode eight of Tokyo Vice, one of the cops tells a member of the yakuza to be grateful for the perspective he brings to the table as someone “working both sides of the street,” before providing a bit of highly sensitive information about what his colleagues on the force are planning to do. During a late-night meeting in a remote warehouse, the gangster uses the secrets divulged to him to put the cop played by Ken Watanabe in a tricky position. Leave me alone if you want us to leave your family alone, he tells the cop.

The influence of le Carré makes itself felt even in episodes that Phillips did not specifically have a hand in writing. In the BFG interview, Phillips said that he first read le Carré at age eleven after watching Alec Guiness in the Tinker, Tailor miniseries, and quickly grew interested in the rest of the canon.

“I read all of it. I was obsessed. I was a little baffled by The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, which was not a spy story, but I gather I wasn’t the only fan put off by it. At any rate, I would never deny his massive influence on me,” Phillips recalled.

The influence of le Carré on his own writing crept up over time, he acknowledged. Though he has written spy fiction, like the short story “Wenceslas Square,” le Carré is not at the root of all of it.

“There’s a spy sub-plot in my first novel, but it’s very minor, and not at all le Carré-esque. And the story ‘Wenceslas Square’ just doesn’t feel like one of his stories to me. But my most recent novel, The King at the Edge of the World, is 100% influenced by him. It just happens to be set in Elizabethan rather than Cold War England. I was very conscious within a few months of starting work on it that he was going to be a godfather of that book, and I very closely studied plot structures of his novels as I was working. I really feel like his fingerprints are all over it,” Phillips said.

Doubters Weigh In

Sadly, controversy has distracted some people. Questions have arisen over the truth of passages in the source, Jake Adelstein’s 2009 book about his time as a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun in the 1990s and early 2000s. On April 29, 2022, the Hollywood Reporter published a long piece detailing the doubts that a few people have voiced about Adelstein’s claims to have gone undercover, gotten into fights, and hidden out from snipers in the pay of the yakuza gangsters he was trying to expose through his reporting.

Maybe a few fight scenes are de rigueur in a show of this kind. In any event, Adelstein has vigorously defended all the accounts in the book and told the Hollywood Reporter that he would be betraying his sources if he granted access to his notebooks for some of the crime stories he has covered. If there is any setting or milieu where journalistic integrity and protecting the lives of sources depend on confidentiality, it’s the world of organized crime in Japan.

Social Realism

It is in illuminating the cultural and psychological dimensions of debt in Japan, what it means to people and what it drives them to do, that the series stands out. Tokyo Vice depicts a problem that was already acute when Adelstein was a young reporter and has grown even more severe. Early in the first season, he is one of the first to arrive at the scene of a grisly crime, where the victim lies impaled. Maybe it was murder, or maybe suicide. Adelstein goes to the home of the dead man and finds a bill from a debt collector.

Here begins the most resonant thread in the series so far, as Adelstein tries to track down the nasty debt collectors and expose their harassing and bullying. His search leads him to the offices of a respected bank. When a staid executive finds out that Adelstein plans to expose the fact that the bank turned down people seeking loans and passed them right along to a predatory lender, and reveal the role of the yakuza in all this, the executive commits suicide. But that death is not nearly so spectacular as the public self-immolation of a man who may have been deeply in debt.

Adelstein voices his moral uncertainties, tinged with guilt, over the death of the bank official, of which he may be the catalyst if not the cause. Tokyo Vice is a show about complexity, and in this regard it recalls another program to which Phillips has contributed, the Netflix series Bloodline.

“One of the things I most admired about Bloodline (and again, this is a credit to the creators, not me), was the effort they made to find nuance and complexity in the Rayburn family drama. The major crime of the show was decided before writing began, but determining whether it was a necessary act or not, justified or not, evil or not, and who bore the bulk of the blame for it—well, somewhat rarely for television, the creators really tried to let each viewer sort that out for themselves,” Phillips said.

In the second season of Tokyo Vice, perhaps the writers and producers will eschew fight scenes and focus more intensively on the social reality of modern Japan.

As for Phillips, his name may well pop up again soon in the credits of a forthcoming film or series.

“After ten years writing TV and film, and after 15 years selling (or trying to sell) my prose to Hollywood, I know this for a fact: there is no point in predicting what will make it to the screen or when. So very soon! Or never! Or somewhere in between!” Phillips said.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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