Have you been caught in the spell of “Tokyo Vice,” the enticing and intriguing HBO Max series that explores the dark corridors and Yakuza-clouded world of Japan journalism?
Ansel Elgort, who was Tony in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” stars as a newbie gaijin (foreign) crime reporter named Jake Adelstein, who is trying to earn his stripes in the daunting world of Japan’s gloomy and structural media world, based on Jake Adelstein’s novel about a fish-out-of sea element. While Elgort appears to speak and write fluent Japanese, he cannot appease his bosses because he asks too many questions, doesn’t abide to demeaning orders since he smells opportunity in the shadowy world of Hiroto Katagiri, the veteran police chief played by legendary Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, who has the power and voice to emphatically ban a cub reporter’s story, reasons not needed.
Elgort is one of the executive producers of this hypnotic drama, which explores the underbelly of Tokyo’s 1990s club-and-crime scene, where an apparent murder cannot be reported as such, unless the cops say it is. The reporter is an eager soul with a thirst for that prime story that will put him on the map, but in the three (of eight) episodes I’ve watched, he’s still got a lot of tough challenges to confront. His fashionably long tresses, tall and lanky frame might project a model, but clearly, he’s a loose cannon uncertain what to make of Rinko Kikuchi’s Emi, his contemporary boss who oversees his assignments but always trashes his work. So he’s still working on his fame to turn around his shame.
Director Michael Mann, who helmed the pilot episode, projects a film noirish universe, with its obvious hooks: crooked Yakuza agents pressuring clients to pay protection fees; hostess bars where Samantha, a transplanted haole played by Rachel Keller, is trying to work out her status since she speaks and adapts to Japanese ways. Samantha and Adelstein become friends as he conducts his own investigations to discover there is a link between the demise of two Japanese nationals whose deaths might be related, even in the manner of death. One, with multiple stabbing wounds; the other, a gasoline-stained guy who lights a match in an spectacle of a fiery finale; different but decidedly with similar hooks.
Action aside, a pleasant surprise was to discover an Island name in the credit rolls – that of Haiku, Maui native Destin Daniel Cretton, who is one of the producers for at least six episodes of “Tokyo Vice.” Suddenly, it became “Tokyo Nice,” with a local spin in the story and action.
Cretten, of course, is known primarily for shaping and directing “Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings,” the mammoth Marvel box office hit, which made Simu Liu a major action film star.
This, along with other yet-to-be-completed projects, including a sequel to “Shang-Chi,” will keep his name on the front burner for the next few years.
All the episodes of “Tokyo Vice” are streaming now and the spoken Japanese is sub-titled for gaijin viewers.
It’s gritty, atmospheric, and preciously dark, and part of the fun is to recognize quick shots of Japan’s bevy of tucked-away sushi bars and ramen shops, amid the crowded streets and alleyways of marketplaces and the network of subway trains.
And oh, about Elgort’s nihongo – no, he’s not fluent in the Japanese lingo but had to memorize lines, but managed to be a convincing conversationalist because of his diction and delivery. Apparently, he became a master of his lines and even could ad-lib, properly, the manner and the message in Japanese. …
And that’s Show Biz. …