An American Japanophile’s deep dive into the Tokyo underworld becomes an entertaining and intriguing mob mystery in “Tokyo Vice,” a new series on HBO Max starring Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi.
It’s immersive and engrossing, if more conventional than you might expect. “Heat,” “Last of the Mohicans” and “Collateral” filmmaker Michael Mann directed the pilot, which has just enough design, style and panache to remind us that he brought “Miami Vice” to TV much earlier in his career. He sets the tone for the show — more procedural than flash — start to finish.
Set in 1999, we get a taste of Japanese mob rituals and a peek inside the workings of one of the world’s largest newspapers, here named Meicho Shimbun (if the subtitling is correct) but based on Mainichi Shimbun. The series touches on Japanese acceptance of authority, always publishing the “official” police version of every crime.
“There are no murders in Japan” may sound Orwellian, but that’s the way stabbings, shootings and such are reported. Not until the cops call it a “murder” is it so identified. So that slashed up fellow with the knife sticking out of his last and terminal wound will have to wait.
Japanese sexism, racism, xenophobia and mania for boy bands (It’s peak Backstreet Boys era Tokyo.) is touched on.
Just getting a job at the newspaper, which has “never hired a gaijin” (foreigner) requires taking an exhaustive test with maybe a hundred other aspirants.
Everybody smokes, and the new kid is informed that’s something he’ll be taking up soon enough, if he ever learns to hack it as a hack at a 12 million reader newspaper.
And everywhere, there are the teeming masses — from the huge, orderly, deferential and ever-so-polite “scrum” at every police press conference, to the streets and lurid, plush designer nightclubs where the hostesses ply their trade.
The story is told from five points of view. Jake Adelstein (Elgort) — the series is based on his memoir — is the “gaijin” who came to teach English and understand the culture, but whose background pushes him into work where learning about Japanese policing, its underworld and night life culture is crucial to the job. This world is “explained” to him and the viewer — but not OVER-explained — as he experiences it.
Samantha (Rachel Keller) is the “hostess” “bottle girl” playing her own angles, scrambling to make some cash, keeping her own secrets. Tokyo Police detective/family man Katagiri (Watanabe) is a veteran cop straining at the “just keeping the peace/just close-the-case” police work that rarely digs deep enough to get at real criminals or the true “Why?” of crimes. Emi (Rinko Kichuchi of “Pacific Rim” and “Babel” is Jake’s editor, the one who keeps his racist and seemingly anti-Semitic section editor from firing this “half Jew/half-ape” on general principles, if not just cause.
The American, a University of Missouri product (home to a prestigious journalism school), isn’t quick to pick up on the “rules” for news coverage and the strict formula such stories stick to is this gigantic newspaper.
And Sato (Shô Kasamatsu) is a young yakuza, tested, teased and tormented by his mob, a guy whose life intersects with Jake’s and Samantha’s in ways both menacing and potentially helpful.
Everyone has personal tests and slippery ethics about what is the truth. Everyone has secrets they’d like to keep, that they’re afraid of or running away from.
Elgort has made the most of his years being cast as “callow youth,” and this mop-topped fish-out-of-water is a good fit — arrogant, happy to surprise the various Japanese he meets by knowing their language (not that any of them take this revelation well), but sloppy and easily misled by a would-be mentor or yakuza or cop who needs a favor.
Watanabe, a mainstay of Japanese, Asian and Hollywood cinema since the ’80s classic “Tampopo,” classes up the series and lends it gravitas and toughness. And he’s just the headliner among a supporting cast of faces long familiar in Japanese cinema.
The high-stakes intrigues here are fascinating, if somewhat back-burnered. Such series are built on cliff-hangers, which keep us coming back for the next installment. The cliffhangers here aren’t dazzlers.
But the milieu will be lure enough to anyone curious about this Westernized but still exotic culture, its cuisine, tattooed gangsters, accommodating cops and seemingly meek, don’t-rock-the-boat press.
Rating: TV-MA, bloody violence, sex, nudity, smoking, profanity
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe, Rachel Keller, Shô Kasamatsu, Ella Rumph and Rinko Kikuchi.
Credits: Created by J.T. Rogers, based on Jake Edelstein’s memoir. An HBO Max release.
Running time: 10 episodes @ :58 minutes each.