HBO Max’s ‘Tokyo Vice’: TV Review (2023)

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The only Western face in Apple TV+’s acclaimed Pachinko belongs toWestworld veteran Jimmi Simpson, playing a financial services bigwig transplanted to Tokyo circa 1989. With his murky backstory and seemingly confident grasp of Japanese language and customs, this is a reasonably absorbing character and you can imagine how, even in the very recent past, a studio or network might have wanted to reframe the story around him, just to give American audiences a point of entry in what is already a story of outsiders embedded in a dominant culture.

It’s a trope that Hollywood has worked through over many decades. Sticking exclusively to Westerners-in-Japan stories — so as to avoid that movie where Matt Damon rescues China from dragons — see Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza or Ridley Scott’s Black Rain or Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. See Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai if you’re feeling historical, James Mangold’s The Wolverine if you’re feeling superhero-y, or even Hulu’s Hit-Monkey if you’re feeling superhero-y and animated. For a nice inversion of the formula, check out Netflix’s Giri/Haji, or just check it out because it’s a good show.

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Tokyo Vice

The Bottom LineAvoids some stranger-in-a-strange-land clichés, but suffers from a milquetoast centerpiece.

Airdate: Thursday, April 7

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe, Rachel Keller, Ella Rumpf, Rinko Kikuchi, Hideaki Itō, Show Kasamatsu

Creator: J.T. Rogers, from the book by Jake Adelstein

It’s not an inherently evil or racist genre, but it’s one that’s prone to varying degrees of entrenched xenophobia at worst or gawking voyeurism at best.

Put HBO Max’s new journalistic thriller Tokyo Vice closer to the “at best” category. J.T. Rogers’ (Oslo) somewhat loose adaptation of Jake Adelstein’s memoir at least has a serious-minded approach to its outsider narrative and enough texture and specificity to mostly keep the narrative from going to the places you expect and maybe fear that it will go. Still, Tokyo Vice has a bland, mushy center, a product of performance and presentation more than writing, and a pervasive and unavoidable sense that at no point is the camera following the storylines that deserve the most attention.

Ansel Elgort plays Jake Adelstein, an expat from Missouri who, as the series begins, is about to become the first American journalist at Tokyo’s biggest newspaper. The son of a coroner, Jake yearns to work the crime beat, where his supervisor Emi (Rinko Kikuchi) is going to have to teach him that Japanese journalism isn’t the same as American journalism.

Jake’s immersion finds him forging a bond with world-weary detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) and low-level yakuza Sato (Show Kasamatsu), who shares Jake’s interest in mysterious nightclub hostess Samantha (Rachel Keller). Explorations of organized crime and the Japanese debt crisis circa 1999 ensue, with periodic humor courtesy of Hideaki Itô as a cop and Kosuke Tanaka as one of Jake’s nerdy co-workers.

Jake at least makes for an honorable centerpiece. The Michael Mann-directed pilot goes out of its way to emphasize Jake’s commitment to not being a tourist in Japan. He eats like a local, dedicates himself to the language, and, rather than just going for a job at the Tokyo bureau of a Western publication, he wants to make his bones at a Japanese publication. His co-workers treat him as “other” — especially the boss who tears through the office bellowing “Gaijin!” whenever Jake breaks protocol — and the camera, ever catching Elgort towering above the natives, treats him as “other,” but Jake’s determined not to treat his time in Japan as a waystation. Of course, his earnestness and spongelike appreciation in the face of the close-minded assumptions of everybody around him are problematic in a different way. Jake isn’t above delivering occasional rants about Japan’s lack of journalistic integrity, so it’s possible there’s just no winning with the Westerner in a Foreign Land genre.

Or maybe there’s just no winning with Elgort at the center of this story? He’s fine here — nothing better and nothing worse. When the astonishingly fresh-faced actor shares scenes with the properly grizzled Watanabe, you can’t miss the paternal contrast that the series is going for. But Elgort has been making a career of being “fine” in movies in which so much around him is more than fine, raising the question of the next level a film like Baby Driver or West Side Story might have achieved with a lead who was, well, better than fine. Thankfully, Jake is not a wide-eyed innocent or a condescending Yankee, but he’s mostly just “there,” doing a job with bland purposefulness, a point of entry at the door to a fascinating world that he can never quite enter.

Most viewers will find themselves wishing some other character was at the heart of Tokyo Vice, and it may be the show’s best attribute that there are many options. Facing institutional sexism and at least one other layer of outsider status, Kikuchi’s Emi would be at the top of my list of characters worthy of becoming this show’s protagonist, followed closely by Watanabe, whose natural gravitas goes a long way toward keeping Katagiri from wallowing in “noble cop in a dirty city” stereotypes. Feeling very much like a composite or total fictionalization, even Samantha is a better source of drama and general interest than Jake, with the ever-watchable Keller making smart use of the contrast between her natural girl-next-door persona and Hollywood’s desire to bombshell-ize her. Any time the Fargo and The Society veteran isn’t wholly convincing in this world, it’s because Samantha isn’t. And vice versa, so to speak.

Kasamatsu, who has a varied résumé of Japanese TV roles but is a newcomer for me, is an immediate source of empathy, playing a young man whose desire to escape his past has him walking the line between being a gangster and just dressing like one. It wasn’t always clear to me when the show’s superficial understanding of the yakuza world is meant to mirror Jake’s inexperienced perspective and when it’s simply lacking.

Speaking of superficiality, it’s interesting how Mann seems determined not to play into your expectations of what a Michael Mann pilot called Tokyo Vice is going to look like. The director, whose love of neon and twinkling urban skylines can border on self-parody, delivers a grounded treatment of the bustling city, using familiar imagery like intersecting crosswalks and that dripping neon sparingly. His trademark handheld intimacy is on effective display in the pilot, which has a very Mann-friendly perspective on the extremes people will go to, the compromises they’ll make to do their jobs and do them well.

When Mann hands directing duties off to Josef Kubota Wladyka (The Terror: Infamy) and Hikari for the next four episodes of the five sent to critics, Tokyo Vice becomes a very different series visually — not necessarily worse, just different. The advantages of shooting in Tokyo are still very much on display, but consider that a warning to anybody who’s intrigued mainly by the Michael Mann of it all.

The five episodes I’ve seen each still delivered enough intriguing and authentic story beats per episode to keep me consistently engaged, while at the same time making me wish that this latest entry in a long-outmoded genre might find some way to go a little deeper instead of hovering on the surface of something and someplace fascinating.

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