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Tokyo Vice is a new series on HBO Max Produced by Michael Mann. The series just recently released it’s 5th episode of nine. An adaptation of the 2009 real-life memoir by Jake Adelstein, the first foreigner to work as a crime reporter at a major Japanese newspaper, building relationships with both the police and the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Which provides for a great meal of Yakuza-drama, gore and bonding between friends. The cast includes Ansel Elgrot as Jake, Ken Watanabe as Hiroto, and Rachel Keller as Samantha.
The series starts off by putting us in the present day as our protagonist Jake(Ansel Elgrot) is in a meeting with some Yakuza bosses with his Japanese partner. This provides for an abrupt and jarring first scene as no context is given and we are thrust right into the thick of it all. After the conclusion of this sequence, the series cuts years back to a younger Jake who is working hard to fulfill his dreams of being a crime reporter, giving us the necessary context and backstory. This is where the series shines initially. since his past struggles provide a more compelling storyline.
The series is shot in Tokyo and the way the series puts you in a 2000s era Tokyo is just brilliant. The city it portrays is never too dirty and neither too straightforward. Like many other portrayals of Tokyo in film, we see Hostess and host clubs, love hotels, picturesque alleys and a sea of neon decorating the sky. But where the series differs is the unique lens Michael Mann puts it through, he is able to define a set mood for the series one of emotion, darkness and gritt. This style really provides a great rhythm for the series. It’s portrayal of the city really levels up the series. Michael Mann only directs the pilot but the distinctive style he develops is carried on and kept intact by all the directors.
As we see Jake finally get his dream job and work at the biggest news trade in Japan, the series ads more of a work-place comedy nature to it’s tone. This tone can be distracting and sometime detracts from the actual plot-line, but provides a more enjoyable experience. The main plot involves jake being paired with a young Yakuza named Sato and a bar-singer named Samantha, who both of them admire. This is a compelling setup, but is never given any true focus, direction or interesting portrayal by the screenplay.
The other setup of Jake with Hiroto who is a Japanese cop who Jake is paired with to take down the larger Yakuza. Hiroto is played by legendary Japanese actor Ken Watanabe who steals every scene he is in, be it with the sheer power in his line delivery or his pragmatism. Hiroto is an honest man and a frustrated detective who is unwilling to take bribes or to stand by as the Yakuza conduct their dealings in his city. Watanabe brings the perfect balance to the character of realizing jake’s potential and how he could help him in preventing an ever closing gang war but also wanting to protect Jake mentoring him. You get a sort of father-son kind of relationship with the two. Which gives shades of the relationship between Walter and Jesse in Breaking Bad. Watanabe really bring a lot of compassion into the character and is really the only totally rounded character in the series apart from Jake.
Ansel Elgrot gives a very different performance to his previous performances as seen in films like West Side Story. He really embodies Jake’s struggles, passion, impatience, frustrations, and smarts all really well. He really finds his comfort in Jake and knocks it out of the park portraying the many sides of Jake Adelstein. His Japanese is also great, he has to deliver a lot of his lines in Japanese and excels at every point.
This is a great Japanese styled detective-mafia drama, often even feeling like an anime brought to life in the best way. A must watch for fans of Japanese media and also for fans of great dark and gritty detective stories.
You can watch the first 5 of the 9 episodes of Tokyo Vice exclusively on HBO Max right now, with the next 4 set to drop weekly. Our review for episodes 6-8 will be dropping this Thursday with the release of the 6th episodes. Also check out: our Review for the 4 episodes of Moon Knight.