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HBO Max's Tokyo Vice is a Thrilling Newspaper Noir

“Tokyo Vice” is something of a dream when it comes to non-fiction, genre-related entertainment. Loosely inspired by the life of American journalist Jake Adelstein inside late ‘90s Tokyo, it has the thrum of a newspaper story, the bloodied grip of a yakuza thriller, and the mysterious conspiracy of a fascinating noir tale. That this is all built from true-ish events makes its across-the board quality performances even more grounded, pieces to an expansive, seductive universe that balances a fish-out-of-water perspective with traditions in Japanese crime. 

The series is fueled by process and intellectual dedication, and has a perfect director to set the stage: Michael Mann. Like his criminally underrated 2015 tech thriller “Blackhat,” Mann’s pilot episode “The Test” focuses on the knowledge and massive ambition of a young upstart American, Ansel Elgort’s crime reporter Jake, who is first seen at a cryptic meeting with very dangerous, very unhappy Japanese men, who threaten him about a possible story he might run. The show then jumps back two years, where Jake is applying to get a job at Tokyo's prominent Meicho Shimbun newspaper, which includes a grueling standardized test. When Jake does get the job, it’s only the start of his proving grounds, given the cut-throat nature of his workplace, and the way he is written off for being a gaijin not just random people but his own bosses. Mann’s walking close-up shots on Elgort and emphasis on playing with the sound mix further heighten the intensity of his perspective, and how we can get caught up in it.

Jake’s hunger to prove himself as a reporter leads to writing about a mysterious death on a bridge, a man with a sword in his stomach, which he considers to be a murder. But as he’s told, “There are no murders in Japan,” a cryptic statement from his angry boss that becomes more apparent the more Jake digs. Not long after, he witnesses a man light himself on fire, an act of suicide that we learn is related. Knowledge is especially powerful in the Tokyo underworld, and Elgort proves to be a great surrogate as he learns how to properly get in the muck with his crime reporting, how to schmooze the same men who write him off. Should one find Elgort interesting as an actor at all, this role proves to be a good fit for his intensity and commitment—he’s a shaggy, fidgety modern breed of actor, and this works at least for an explanation of how just how miscast he was among the cinematic nostalgia of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” 

Created by J.T. Rogers, “Tokyo Vice” becomes about people trying to get their way in this underworld, navigating the different power structures with various transactions. That element is highlighted by the series' empathetic depiction of Japanese hostess culture, and the life of Samantha (Rachel Keller), another American in Tokyo. She has her own aspirations, and business savviness, that complement her fluency in Japanese. She too understands the desires of people, including the men who try to boss her around. And they are keenly aware that she has her own connections that can uproot heir business easily. 

One can slight “Tokyo Vice” for centering a little too much whiteness in its Japan-set narrative, but it does give rich interiors to many of its Japanese characters. Ken Watanabe is intriguing as Hiroto Katagiri, a police chief who has spent his whole career watching over warring yakuza gangs, while taking care of his family away from the city. He realizes that Jake's desire to get the big picture can help his own cause, even though Jake has much to learn. 

The narrative of "Tokyo Vice" also offers three-dimensional depictions of the yakuza lifestyle, which includes the goings-on of two longtime warring gangs. But the main interest is on a new guy named Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), who is parallel to Jake and Samantha. With the coolest of glances in between his cigarette drags, Sato wears the costume that comes with his own role. But Kasamatsu’s performance has the nuance that fortifies it. He vividly constructs Sato's tough exterior, but then when he sings along to “I Want It That Way” on the car radio—driving Jake home after an impromptu yakuza meeting, one of many unexpected but touching scenes—it also strikes true to his character. 

It's more that “Tokyo Vice” does not give enough time to certain compelling characters, as with Rinko Kikuchi’s Eimi. She is Jake’s fascinating no-BS boss, with the heavy edits and gutting eye-rolls to affirm it, but her individual arc seems more reliant on how she learns to respect Jake. The show does not seem too certain of what it ultimately wants to say with this character, as with a brief look at her home life only hinting at how her power is different when she is caring for her Korean husband. There’s more room for the character in the show’s eight total episodes, but it’s the slowest arc. 

In the five episodes provided for press (of the eight total that will air up to April 28), each director brings a distinct touch to illustrating this world. Josef Kubota Wladyka ("Catch the Fair One") has the unenviable task of following up Mann in the second and third episodes, but counters that pressure with a great emphasis on narrative tension and high-speed moments; Hiraki ("37 Seconds") helms the fourth and fifth episodes, which take the characters back to the pasts they are trying to get away from. It’s also telling to how great “Tokyo Vice” is that when it slows down, like to watch Jake hang with his Meicho Shimbun buddies, that it still feels like there’s very little dead air to the story. The nightlife to Tokyo, with its nefarious spaces and not, offers its own gripping style. 

Among the many ways that it hooks you, the noir world of “Tokyo Vice” feels much different than typical American crime, with action based on calm, firm interactions that exchange secrets, and can be spiked with alternating honor and shame. Everyone is holding their end of a deal, until they decide not to. Aside from making for scenes of uniformly strong performances, it all gives the series an enticing slow burn. The unwritten rules are different in this underground, and “Tokyo Vice” orchestrates a special thrill in trying to get them on paper.  

Five episodes screened for review. The first three episodes of “Tokyo Vice” are now streaming on HBO Max. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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