Tokyo Vice gives its crime-world probings the Michael Mann stamp

Mann lends his savvy hand to J.T. Rogers’ compelling neo-noir series adapted from Jake Adelstein’s memoir, with Ansel Elgort as the US reporter cum rube in Japan’s late 90s underworld.

18 May 2022

By Jason Anderson

Ansel Elgort as Jake Adelstein and Watanabe Ken as Katagiri Hiroto in Tokyo Vice (2022)
Sight and Sound

► Tokyo Vice (eight episodes) is on Starzplay via Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Virgin Media and other platforms.

It may be one of the least surprising developments of the prestige TV era to find Michael Mann’s imprimatur on a neo-noir series the name of which riffs on the title of his career-making TV hit. But Tokyo Vice’s creator J.T. Rogers has described Mann’s involvement as a stroke of good fortune rather than an inevitability, the filmmaker having signed on to direct the pilot and serve as executive producer only after Destin Daniel Cretton had to opt out of his plans to helm the first episode.

Still, with its array of stylishly attired cigarette-smoking cops and criminals vying for dominance and forging alliances in a neon-lit night-time world, the show lands squarely in the territory Mann established as his own with his two groundbreaking series Miami Vice (1984-89) and Crime Story (1986-88) and oft-imitated features such as Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004). Adapted from Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir about his experiences as an American journalist on Japan’s crime beat, the series shares much with those predecessors, even if the milieu and the mores under scrutiny would be unfamiliar to Crockett and Tubbs. 

Directed by Mann with a brisk, ruthless efficiency, the first episode is a potent reminder of the filmmaker’s strengths in pacing and packaging. The portrayal of a hungry young reporter’s immersion into increasingly treacherous waters in late 90s Tokyo also demonstrates the clarity and confidence of his storytelling – qualities in shorter supply in his most recent feature Black-hat (2014) and in his previous dalliance with HBO on the disastrous horse-racing drama Luck (2011-12). It’s thanks to Mann’s skill that the weaknesses in the material aren’t the impediments they could have been.

Ansel Elgort in Tokyo Vice

The most apparent one is the central character himself. Ansel Elgort plays Jake with a boyish assurance that was an asset in his breakout role in Baby Driver (2017) but can be more jarring and grating here. Though an early montage depicts Jake’s efforts to subsume himself in his adopted culture – teaching an EFL class, studying aikido, chatting in fluent Japanese with restaurant proprietors like a regular – this gaijin is ultimately not so different from Hollywood’s long line of swaggering interlopers who arrive in the East and make the most of freedoms unavailable to their hosts, a gallery of rogues and racists that includes the hardboiled heroes played by Robert Mitchum in The Yakuza (1974) and Michael Douglas in Black Rain (1989).

Thankfully, Rogers and his writing team seem to recognise the problems with Jake, shifting their attention in later episodes to meatier figures such as the veteran detective – played by Watanabe Ken – who becomes Jake’s mentor (and whose devotion to his two young daughters gives the show an unexpected sweetness), an expat hostess with a secretive past (Rachel Keller), and an assigning editor (Kikuchi Rinko) whose gender means she’s afforded little of the latitude Jake enjoys. The breakout performer among the show’s Japanese cast is Kasamatsu Shō, who exudes the kind of brooding cool that puts him alongside Val Kilmer’s stick-up man in Heat in the most rarefied echelon of Mann anti-heroes. Kasamatsu’s bracing turn as Sato, a yakuza enforcer with misgivings about his own rise through the ranks, is reason enough to endure the stodgier passages of the middle episodes.

Tokyo Vice (2022)

Sato is also at the centre of an outburst of grisly violence, as the tensions between two rival yakuza factions finally boil over. But the belated spike in body count demonstrates how much intrigue the show is able to build without resorting to the more expected displays of viciousness. The use of real locations – something Mann pushed for – adds further texture, even if the realities of shooting during a pandemic mean that the city’s streets and nightclubs look a little roomier than usual.

Even Elgort gets the chance to develop grit and depth, as the brashness that at first serves Jake so well leads to disastrous missteps. Indeed, it becomes clear that many of the police and gangsters who seem to take him into their confidence regard him as an immature rube or – like the mistress of a yakuza boss who’s amused by the American’s recklessness – “clearly insane”.

While at first Mann allows the ostensible protagonist of Tokyo Vice to seem as dashing as any Armani-clad lawman on a speedboat, the extent to which Jake is undone and undermined over the course of the saga may be the smartest of the show’s many smooth moves.

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