‘Tokyo Vice’ Review: Crime And Journalism In The City Of Tokyo

'Tokyo Vice' review

The Yakuza is one of the most famous organizations in the world. Only the Italian Mafia comes close to being the subject of many stories, both real and fictionalized, in the media. The Yakuza have been able to go from criminals to almost heroes in the eyes of audiences, thanks to countless movies, novels, anime, and even video games. However, it is important to remember that the roots of the yakuza are planted in the very dark and sketchy territory, and no amount of romanticization will be able to erase that. 

Tokyo Vice, the new HBO Max series, is based on the memoir of the same name, written by Jake Adelstein during his years working as a reporter in Tokyo. In his book, Adelstein manages to create a very vivid picture of one of the most fascinating cities ever built and how its corners hide wonderful and terrifying things, all at the same time.

The book isn’t only very well written, but it is also highly entertaining. So it made sense when J.T. Rogers, himself an award-winning playwright, began to tackle this story for the screen, even bringing famous filmmaker Michael Mann into the process. 

'Tokyo Vice' Review

Tokyo Vice stars Ansel Elgort, in the role of Jake Adelstein, an American journalist whose goal is set on becoming a research journalist for the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the biggest newspapers in the whole world. The Yomiuri Shimbun is best known for its conservative views on current events and Japan as a whole. So Jake finds it hard to work within the constraints of the strange Japanese guidelines, and things turn for the worse when he starts getting involved with the yakuza and the police.

Reading the source material for the first time is quite an experience. Adelstein really knows how to describe his experience working in Japan as a great adventure, and the situations he gets into are varied enough to always keep you guessing and interested in what is going to happen next.

The show manages to translate this sensation onto the screen, and the results are quite nice. It is hard to write a mystery show. However, from the moment the show begins, In media res, it is already asking questions to the audience and back, and as the plot progresses, each new clue enhances what is happening with new dangers around every corner.

Ansel Elgort might have had a rough patch lately, but thanks to his role in West Side Story and now this, we can say that he is back. His performance will not blow anyone away, but it isn’t bad either. Actually, from a point of view, you can say that Elgort’s performance is actually perfect, as a white man foreign, or “gaijin” as the Japanese refer to him. The character of Jake is one that many would find lame or even bland, but Elgort makes it work with his charm. 

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The next biggest character in the show is Samantha, played by Rachel Keller. Samantha quickly becomes one of the most interesting characters in the show thanks to Keller’s performance, which gives gravitas and spiciness to the whole affair. Her path intersects with Jake’s very quickly, but for the most part, audiences will be wondering how her storyline will clash with others in any meaningful way. It is a slow burn, but the payoff is quite satisfying. If there is a hero in Tokyo Vice, Samantha is the one. 

Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi round out the cast on the Japanese side of things, and they are as wonderful as you expected them to be. Each of them has their own storylines, although it can be said that they are mostly enslaved to Jake’s main story. It would have been nice to see the characters more on their own. However, the actors are amazing in their roles, and they manage to overcome these shortcomings. 

Michael Mann directs the pilot episode, and he establishes the visual style of the show from that point. Mann employs the same digital cinematography style that he used in Public Enemies in this film. And although it can be argued that this style brings a sense of reality to what happens on screen, it also makes the show look cheap in many moments.

Thankfully, we are talking about Japan, and the city of Tokyo in particular. By themselves, the country and its biggest city are full of life and landmarks that feel like they are from another world. By themselves, they are already visually striking enough.

The show tackles many interesting things with its characters. Especially with Jake and Samantha, two Americans who have made Japan their home for whatever reasons. They need to adapt as much as they can, even when there is a refusal to do it, as clearly they are not trying to be Japanese, but to follow their own rules in this strange land. 

The show also goes into detail about how the media works in Japan and how what a westerner might see as logical, doesn’t really apply in Japan or in the corporate culture. The Yakuza is presented in both a good and bad light for equal measure. These are people who have chosen to be outside the margins of society, and they have paid the price for it. The complex system of values and rankings is explored, but it never goes as deep as it could.

Tokyo Vice is a great show. Some acting and the depth of the themes could have been better but the story of the Jewish journalist working in Japan is an entertaining one worth watching. 

SCORE: 8/10

  • Nelson loves all things related to storytelling. He has spent most of his life studying narrative, applied across all mediums; film, TV, books, and video games. Mulholland Drive is his favorite film.