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A Beautiful Slow Burn: HBO and Michael Mann’s 'Tokyo Vice'

By Alison Lanier | TV | April 15, 2022 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | April 15, 2022 |


Tokyo Vice, the new Michael-Mann-helmed project on HBO Max, just passed the halfway point of its run with the fourth and fifth of its eight episodes airing yesterday. The series is based on the 2009 memoir by Jake Adelstein, the first foreigner to work as a crime reporter at a major Japanese newspaper, building relationships with both the police and the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

As an adaptation, the series is highly dramatized, with the decade-long timeline much condensed and character arcs sharpened drastically. But as much as I hesitate when it comes to dramatized biographies — so much can go wrong so fast — HBO’s Tokyo Vice is its own animal, and it works on its own terms.

The show arrives at a perfect intersection of true crime and prestige television. It leans fully into the tense, pressurized, high-stakes narrative atmosphere that the book evokes but does it with additional style and flare even under the burn of white fluorescent lights on a colorless police room. The show is full of long takes and deliberate wordless moments of looking, testing, weighing. As far as Michael Mann crime capers go, the immersive, attentive approach to editing is par for the course, but the tone is restrained with the expansive time allowances of a miniseries to accommodate the story.

Missouri-born Jake (Ansel Elgort) is an aspiring journalist who has made his home in Tokyo, equipped with youthful energy, enthusiasm, and excellent Japanese. In the newsroom, he works under stone-cold and straight-shooting Eimi (the wonderful Rinko Kikuchi of Pacific Rim and Brothers Bloom). In a fumbling series of coincidences and iffy high-risk choices, he connects with Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) of the Tokyo Police, who guides him along the shadowy and subtle lines of law and discretion in the mob-ridden capital, and with Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), a promising young yakuza with a love of the Backstreet Boys and an open-hearted sense of humor. Both Sato and Jake pursue Samantha (Rachel Keller), a beautiful and savvy American ex-pat working at a hostess club and trying to keep her own past in the past.

I personally was far from thrilled to see Ansel Elgort and his (what I consider) highly punchable face in the lead role. But there’s a particular edge to the sometimes stoic, sometimes casually humorous performance, and in the show’s stylish, patient pacing that suits Elgort. His face, the focus of a high proportion of the show’s shots, is a blank canvas for the emotive narrative moment. And then there’s the obvious impressive element of his learning Japanese for the role — and doing a damn good job. I mean, maybe it helps that he’s playing a bit over-confident and occasionally somewhat clueless … but I digress.

It’s a flat, constrained performance, much like so many of Elgort’s film roles, but in this case, it works with the show’s attentive, patient tempo and matches well with the constrained, measured deployment with drama.

The show does not feel extravagant, but it delivers on a vast and difficult premise. With tactile, emotive flashes of violence, it explodes when it needs to and keeps tension otherwise. Part of its precision is the capability it allows each of its main characters. Each character is deeply immersed in their own world, their own trench, be it ruthless yakuza discipline, as with Sato, or high-level newsroom efficiency, as with Eimi. Each character — except, maybe, so far, Hiroto — has a burning, guiding objective, a personal invective that animates them with clear narrative force.

But these goal-oriented characters are wonderfully multi-dimensional at the same time. They retain their humanity via the show’s patient, private characterization: Jake debates the meaning of “I Want It That Way” with Sato in the wake of a terrifying meeting with the head of a crime family, and Hiroto sings reluctant lullabies to his adorable and demanding small children. Jake is especially effective as a character: both driven and oblivious, focused and fumbling, he comes across as young, capable, and adaptable as he continually finds himself the disdained outsider, able to laugh off embarrassing foibles and keep his sights on the elusive goal of real investigative reporting.

Much of the payoff in the show becomes about how the characters connect and relate to each other, a small constellation that pulls the plot in new and unexpected directions. Like the film Miami Vice, much of the meat of the story is the unspoken ties among people, clear and tangible but only sparingly expressed. In one scene, a jarring moment of violence intrudes on Jake and two friends at late-night batting cages, and the rapid simplicity of the scene — Jake pretending not to speak Japanese, his friends clearly terrified — belies the lasting, cliffhanger impression of concern for one another. The show is crafted as a kind of showcase of these relationships, these moments of unspoken evaluation and connection. And it’s an excellent display.

I deeply appreciate that the show is mostly in Japanese, where Jake’s American presence could so easily justify an easy-way-out reliance on English. It feels like a show that takes its time and swings for the fences, rather than delivering a walk with a story sure to entertain, if not impress. It’s certainly earned my attention for the second half of its run, and I encourage you to come along.

Alison Lanier (she/her) is a Boston-based writer and editor currently studying gender and media at MIT. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Bitch, BUST, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter.