In the world of the new HBO Max series Tokyo Vice, looks can be deceiving. Based on Jake Adelstein’s memoir of the same name, the show follows a fictionalized version of the author (played by Ansel Elgort), who becomes the first white reporter to work for one of Japan’s biggest newspapers in the late ’90s. In time, Jake builds connections within Tokyo’s police force and warring yakuza factions to gain a better understanding of how the bustling city operates. On the one hand, Jake sticks out like a sore thumb in Tokyo—some colleagues at the paper call him gaijin, a derogatory term for a foreigner. But Jake’s outsider status can also work to his advantage: he’ll investigate leads and reach out to sources with the kind of impetuousness that can uncover crucial information about Tokyo’s criminal underworld—even if it ruffles some feathers.
That Jake proves to be a rigorous journalist in spite of his somewhat dopey appearance—which might be down to Elgort more than anything else—is just one way Tokyo Vice upends expectations. There was plenty of buzz surrounding the project when it was revealed that Michael Mann would direct the pilot in addition to serving as an executive producer. Pilot directors are typically tasked with setting the tone and visual language for a series, and Tokyo Vice couldn’t do much better than Mann: a celebrated auteur who hasn’t worked behind the camera since his criminally underrated tech-thriller Blackhat bombed at the box office in 2015. Cinema’s loss is television’s gain, and considering Mann’s bona fides, one would assume Tokyo Vice would act as a spiritual successor to Miami Vice, the seminal procedural suffused with the filmmaker’s stylish DNA. (Mann also directed the 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice, which has since become a cult favorite.)
Make no mistake, Mann’s imprint is all over Tokyo Vice, which takes advantage of the city’s neon-infused nightlife to establish a moody atmosphere. He lays the groundwork for a tale in which criminals, law enforcement, and journalists have more in common than they might care to admit. (Mann has been the king of the male-bonding crime thriller going back to Heat, and Tokyo Vice ensures he keeps the throne.) But the way that Tokyo Vice has been marketed—and the fact that it has “Vice” in its title—belies a series that is more of a slow-burn investigative drama than an action-packed thriller. When it comes to linking the show to Mann’s larger filmography, Tokyo Vice feels closer in spirit to The Insider than to the likes of Manhunter, Heat, or Collateral. But as long as viewers know what to expect out of the series, and the Mann of it all, Tokyo Vice is an immersive trip that is well worth the ride.
After an in medias res opening where Jake has a vaguely ominous meeting with a yakuza boss, Tokyo Vice picks up with the budding journalist taking a qualifying exam for the newspaper Meicho Shimbun. (Meicho Shimbun serves as a fictional stand-in for Yomiuri Shimbun, the conservative outlet where the real-life Jake began his career.) Having passed the exam, Jake is put on the crime beat, where he’s expected to regurgitate whatever shows up on police reports. As he soon discovers, what law enforcement puts on record isn’t necessarily an accurate retelling of events: there’s an unspoken rule between police and the yakuza, whereby the syndicates will give up a low-level member if an arrest is required in order to keep the peace. In essence, the yakuza are running the city, and the police are fine with the arrangement as long as their activities don’t get too out of hand.
Of course, Jake isn’t satisfied with the grunt work and, with the support of his taciturn editor Eimi (Rinko Kikuchi), starts investigating a string of suicides that may be linked to an elusive loan company. How a loan company would benefit from its clients dying without paying their loans back is one of many mysteries Jake will have to unravel using the relationships he develops among the police and yakuza—potentially at great personal risk. (A good rule of thumb is to not ask the yakuza many probing questions.)
With this setup, Tokyo Vice risks turning into a white-savior narrative: a city teeming with corruption that can only be brought out of the muck because of one plucky journalist. The premise becomes more uncomfortable when one considers that after the series had gone into production, a women said that Elgort had sexually assaulted her in 2014. But Tokyo Vice does a commendable job of balancing its protagonist’s intrepid spirit with the unearned arrogance of, well, a white dude from America. At one point, Jake is reprimanded by Eimi for talking about the suicide victims like they’re numbers on a spreadsheet. A peer at the paper admonishes Jake even more bluntly: “You are an American, so you think you’re more talented than you actually are.” (No lies detected.)
Jake might be the entry point for the show, but Tokyo Vice has a deep roster of characters, including seasoned detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), red-light-district hostess Samantha (Rachel Keller), and low-level enforcer Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), that help make the late ’90s setting feel lived-in. (It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Tokyo is very much its own character in Tokyo Vice.) The authenticity is elevated by the series shooting on location despite logistical hurdles and the pandemic proving to be an even greater challenge for the production than anticipated. But the payoff is arguably the most transporting television experience since Amazon Studios’ globe-trotting crime drama ZeroZeroZero, which had the type of foreboding, stylish atmosphere that owed a debt to Mann’s impressive body of work.
Indeed, if there’s a drawback to Tokyo Vice outside of its controversial lead actor, it’s that Mann limits himself to directing the pilot. Mann acolytes will take what they can get, but it’s tempting to imagine a version of Tokyo Vice where he directs the entire project—achieving a similar feat to fellow auteurs David Lynch (Twin Peaks: The Return) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Too Old to Die Young). The good and unsurprising news is that, after a seven-year absence from filmmaking, Mann hasn’t lost his fastball. In his finest feat of image-making from the pilot, we see a series of trains going in and out of Tokyo before the camera focuses on a nearby victim who’s been stabbed with a sword: a potent metaphor for how the yakuza have penetrated the city. Even a sequence as mundane as Jake taking the qualifying exam for the newspaper is brought to life with intense close-ups and kinetic editing: a race against the clock that will conjure up traumatic memories for anyone who endured the SATs.
The rest of the episodes made available for critics don’t have the same stylistic flourishes as Mann’s pilot, but Tokyo Vice’s slow-burn narrative eventually begins to boil, punctuated by a thrilling knife fight between rival yakuza in the fifth episode. Not quite a crime thriller and not quite beholden to Jake’s journalistic pursuits, Tokyo Vice is best appreciated as an in-depth look at how one of the world’s most fascinating cities operated at the turn of the century—a place that can be navigated only by understanding the rigid codes of decorum between police and criminals that toe the line between order and corruption. It can be a lot to take in from the opening moments, but to give the series its due, Tokyo Vice found the right Mann for the job.