tv review

Ken Watanabe Kicks the Slow-Moving Tokyo Vice Into High Gear

Photo: HBO Max

The exact moment Ken Watanabe entered the elder-statesman portion of his career was his beleaguered line delivery of “Let them fight” in the 2014 film Godzilla, and he settles fully into that intersection of responsibility and regret as the best element of the new HBO Max series Tokyo Vice. That grimace, that hoarse voice, those scoffing eyes, those slumped shoulders — as Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department detective Hiroto Katagiri, Watanabe is the series’s heart and soul, a man who knows peace is impossible but knows he has to try for it anyway. Much of the marketing for Tokyo Vice (five episodes of which were provided for review) has focused on Ansel Elgort, who is unremarkable as journalist Jake Adelstein, an American expat who begins investigating the yakuza and its involvement in a series of suspicious suicides. But it’s Watanabe and the show’s other Japanese actors — primarily Rinko Kikuchi, Shô Kasamatsu, and Hideaki Itô — whose performances and character backstories are compelling enough to overcome the slightly repetitive dialogue and sometimes workmanlike direction.

To a certain degree, Tokyo Vice is telling a story about modern-day Japan that you may think you already know. The point of entry into such stories is usually a white person (as in Kate and The Outsider), someone who at first gazes upon Japanese customs with a doe-eyed “What’s up with that?” mentality before adopting them as their own. The country’s yakuza, or organized-crime syndicates, have been stylish bogeymen in pop culture made by non-Japanese for a long time (Kill Bill, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). And that duality of white protagonist with Japanese baddies is sometimes about as deep as these stories go, a fear initially caused by Tokyo Vice as well — until Watanabe shows up.

Created by J.T. Rogers (of the mixed-bag HBO film Oslo), Tokyo Vice is an adaptation of the memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, which Adelstein wrote after 12 years spent as a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun. In the premiere episode, directed by Michael Mann, the focus is on Jake and his simultaneous otherness and comfort within Japanese culture. His gangly frame and floppy hair make him stick out in a crowd of Japanese commuters, but he’s an encouraging English teacher, a warmly greeted regular at various restaurants and grocery stores, an obsessive student of the Japanese language, and a rabid consumer of news stories about the yakuza.

When he lands a highly competitive gig at the Meicho Shimbun (renamed for the series), he imagines an All the President’s Men–style career path full of front-page bylines and bringing down bad guys. In reality, his editor (Kikuchi) slashes through his copy, colleagues call him “gaijin” (“foreigner”), and the newspaper has a strict policy of printing only what the police tell it when it comes to crime. That rigidity means the paper can’t refer to the circumstances leading to a dead man on a bridge, with a knife still sticking out of his profusely stabbed body, as murder because the police say it isn’t. Jake, with his gung ho American spirit, takes that censorship personally, and in deciding to investigate, he meets the three characters who will become the show’s co-leads: the aforementioned Katagiri; fellow American expat Samantha (Rachel Keller), who works as a hostess at a yakuza-protected nightclub; and Sato (Kasamatsu), a newly promoted member of the Chihara-kai syndicate.

The premiere episode immerses us in the various locations that will serve as touchstones for Tokyo Vice (neon-lit nightclubs, rigidly impersonal police stations, the neatly organized Meicho newsroom, and Jake’s cramped apartment) before ending with a beautifully shot self-immolation that makes plain the danger the yakuza can inject into “normal” people’s lives. Although the ensuing episodes, directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka (The Terror: Infamy, Narcos) and Hikari are less visually inventive, they methodically build out a sprawling cast with various threads: the many members of the Chihara-kai syndicate and the rival crime group led by Tazawa (Ayumi Tanida), Jake’s friends and colleagues at the newspaper, the other hostesses at the club where Samantha works, and Katagiri’s fellow detectives, including the rakish Miyamoto (Itô). A glossary might have been helpful for Tokyo Vice’s early installments because the series throws out so many characters and story beats so quickly. Too often, the dialogue will refer to “the other night” instead of being clear about whether days, weeks, or months have passed, and that non-specificity is a detriment to understanding what else the yakuza do beyond fighting with one another over which businesses to squeeze, how Jake is growing as a reporter, and how long Katagiri has been trying to get his fellow detectives to care about more than just their clearance rate — all subplots that are supposed to hold our attention.

After doing all this groundwork, though, the series starts to hum at the end of the second episode, when Jake and Katagiri meet. That team-up brings together these individuals, their ambitions, and their fears and evokes a series like The Wire or Gangs of London, which make clear that a city is a living, breathing ecosystem with its own lines of power and its own kinds of currency. Any imbalance or disruption ripples outward, perhaps endlessly, and Tokyo Vice effectively maneuvers these characters to demonstrate the self-imposed and societally dictated cages in which they operate. (And hey, it’s funny! Jake’s friends’ consistent razzing of him and an argument between Jake and Sato about the hidden meanings of various American pop songs are appreciated punctures in the show’s otherwise self-serious tone.)

Admittedly, some stories are more engaging than others, and anyone hoping for a Mann-style burst of violence will have to wait past the eight-episode season’s midway point. As a character meant to be simultaneously charming, gritty, and resourceful, Elgort gets only about halfway there in each mode. He has a great “fuck you” smile while confronting sources and a believably furrowed brow while typing away on deadline, but he never quite captures the single-minded intensity required for someone who abandons his family and walks away from a familiar life for something new. The same goes for Keller, whose backstory is the skimpiest. She nails a prickly moment when Samantha tells off Jake for assuming she’s a prostitute, but the other aspects of the character — like the bonds between her and the club’s other hostesses — never quite read as genuine.

Better served are Kasamatsu, whose Sato is a cross between Michael and Fredo Corleone, fed through a yakuza filter of traditional tattoos and slicked-back hair and freshly promoted to a position of power. Kasamatsu’s scenes with Shun Sugata as Ishida, the de facto head of the Chihara-kai syndicate, provide a glimpse into the personal cost of such a life, while his scenes with Elgort (including an episode-long discussion of whether Backstreet Boys or ’N Sync is superior) remind us of the relative youth of these men who have chosen such divergent paths. Kikuchi also stands out as Meicho editor Emi, whose familiarity with being on the outside of traditional Japanese culture due to her profession and her Korean heritage eventually aligns her with Jake. Like Elgort’s chemistry with Kasamatsu, Elgort and Kikuchi do well together when she plays the straight woman to his silliness; her curt “Don’t be weird” when he suggests they work as a reporting team is a particular highlight.

Best of all, though, is Watanabe, whose Katagiri at first seems mercurial, even morally ambiguous. He walks into a fight between two at-war yakuza groups Jake is spying on, calms the situation by whispering in one soldier’s ear, and puts Jake in his place by demanding his camera and then taking the film out with barely any reaction at all. Whether Katagiri is aligned with one of these syndicates or out for himself remains open for debate as Tokyo Vice continues, and only an actor as grounded as Watanabe could make such a high-stakes question seem immaterial. Which matters more: who someone is working for, or what they are working toward? “If it isn’t money, what the fuck do you want?” one character asks another in Tokyo Vice, and the series is at its most captivating and unexpected when it lets its Japanese characters answer.

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Ken Watanabe Kicks the Slow-Moving Tokyo Vice Into High Gear