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Review: HBO Max’s Thrilling Newspaper Noir ‘Tokyo Vice’ Explores the Dark Side of ’90s Tokyo

Review: HBO Max’s Thrilling Newspaper Noir ‘Tokyo Vice’ Explores the Dark Side of ’90s Tokyo

In his 2009 memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, investigative journalist Jake Adelstein details his time as a crime reporter for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police beat. The Missouri native set out to explore Tokyo beneath the surface — the seedy underbelly of organized crime and its ties to prominent figures in power — and that’s exactly what he got. Playwright (and Adelstein’s childhood friend) J.T. Rogers brings his story to life in a Japanese and English-language HBO Max Original series, and the first-time showrunner does not disappoint. 

Set in the late 1990s, Tokyo Vice follows American expat Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort, West Side Story) as he begins working for Japan’s largest publication. He’s the first non-Japanese reporter at the newspaper, which comes with its own set of problems. As for any outsider, there’s a pressure to fit in in your new surroundings. And while Jake is intelligent and practically fluent in Japanese, some people in the office just aren’t impressed. At the end of the day, he’s still a foreigner, or “gaijin,” as he’s often called. He describes the process of navigating office politics as “mentally tyrannical.”

Jake manages to form a friendship with Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), a seasoned Tokyo police detective who knows how to interact with the yakuza. Katagiri becomes somewhat of a father figure, showing the budding journalist what to do and not do in this line of work. Jake also meets a brooding and intimidating yakuza named Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), who has his own way of being a tour guide. 

All of the characters are more than they seem. They may first appear as tropes — the naïve journalist, the hardened detective, or the sociopathic criminal. But you quickly find out all of those assumptions are wrong. Sato is a very complex and nuanced character who you can tell doesn’t relish violence but will do what’s required of him.

The yakuza aren’t caricatures, but have deeper characterization, as Watanabe explained in a recent New York Times interview, saying, “They’re not just shown as bad guys — we also see how they struggle and agonize. J.T. wrote them as very human characters.” The show also avoids stereotypes with well-rounded, interesting female characters. Samantha (Rachel Keller) and Polina (Ella Rumpf), two of the non-Japanese hostesses at one of Tokyo’s finest clubs, and Eimi (Rinko Kikuchi), hard-working journalist and Jake’s supervisor. 

Director Michael Mann (Miami Vice) sets the visual tone in the pilot episode, with fellow directors Hikari (37 Seconds), Josef Kubota Wladyka (Narcos), and Alan Poul (Tales of the City) maintaining and building on it in subsequent episodes. The atmosphere has a solemnity, given the crime and corruption, but there is some unexpected humor sprinkled in. Most of those moments arise from slight language barriers, or a yakuza making threats only to laugh it off afterwards. 

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I genuinely kept forgetting that it’s set in the 1990s. It’s easy to forget until a character pulls out their Nokia or their pager or the several instances when a smart phone would come in handy. However, any time a character listens to a cassette tape or a nightclub is bumping boyband jams, that’s a good reminder. (Backstreet Boys and NSYNC are quite popular.) 

Like Jake and Samantha, we’re so immersed in the culture that locations quickly become familiar. Tokyo nightlife has an allure that’s both whimsical and dangerous, and it seems like it’s nighttime 16 hours a day. “Neon soaked” is definitely an accurate way to describe the lighting. There’s a warm golden hue in most interiors that’s either dazzling or seedy depending on the location. It’s cliche to say that a setting is a character, but in this instance, Tokyo is without a doubt its own entity. We see how various characters interact with the city and how the foreigners have been there long enough to see it as their home and not just a temporary stay. 

In 2013, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) was slated to star as Adelstein in a film adaptation of Tokyo Vice, but the project never took off. While it’s a tale certainly fit for the silver screen, I’m glad it’s become a series. Television allows for more time with characters, and with this series, you’ll definitely want all the time you can get. Tokyo Vice didn’t have an easy journey to the small screen, though. In March 2020, production was forced to shut down for eight months amid the pandemic, and shooting on location had its own difficulties. There are also the sexual assault allegations against series lead Ansel Elgort that can’t be ignored.

With fascinating characters and vivid urban ambience, Tokyo Vice is a visually stunning crime drama that’ll have you hooked from the start. The creators, cast, and crew craft a Westerner’s unclichéd perception of Japan that’s rarely presented in film and television. It’s a thrilling and engrossing series that you won’t be able to look away from — and not just because of the subtitles.

Tokyo Vice begins streaming on HBO Max on April 7, 2022, with the first three episodes followed by two episodes airing every Thursday until the season finale April 28. 

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