Tokyo Vice Series-Premiere Recap: What Really Happens

Tokyo Vice

Week 1 (Episodes 1-3)
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

Tokyo Vice

Week 1 (Episodes 1-3)
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 5 stars
Photo: HBO

“This thing can stop a bullet?”

“No, they will not shoot you in a public place … these are for knives.”

Thirty seconds into Tokyo Vice — Michael Mann’s dank-ass return to the collective, vice-coated neon-TV dreamscape — and dudes are strappin’ on their bullet … uh, knife-proof vests under dark suits and lacquered hair, to which I say: Hell yeah. The pair of lonely dudes in question are expat reporter Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) and Tokyo PD detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), and together, they’re taking on the yakuza.

We open in media res on a yet-to-be-revealed game of patterns, codes, fire, and bullets in the all-consuming inverted fractal galaxy of the Tokyo underground. Adelstein and Katagiri are preparing for a staked-out dinner meeting with the “number-two yakuza.” The plan is to get into the restaurant and to their table first with their backs to the wall, but that all changes instantly when the receptionist tells them the yakuza arrived early and moved the meeting to the private lounge away from backup. They’re already sinking a level or two deeper into enemy territory. Adelstein and Hitigari find themselves sitting across from the first of many diamond-cut faces smoldering behind a freshly lit cigarette. “We know what you’re investigating,” the No. 2 yakuza threatens Adelstein. “Walk away, it will be like it never happened. Publish it? There’s nowhere you can hide.”

Loosely based on the 2009 memoir of the same name by Jake Adelstein, Tokyo Vice shares far more than half its title with its de facto ’80s predecessor. Michael Mann serves not only as executive producer (as he did as Miami Vice’s unifying creative force) but directed the pilot with clear intent to establish the series tone and signature, as he described to Juan Morales in an interview for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

And so, in Tokyo Vice’s cold open, Michael Mann’s visual signature, still as distinct to him as they are ubiquitous among legions of imitators in the digital age, is the juice that drives the action. Cut to “1999 — Two Years Earlier.” Jake Adelstein is studying for the entrance exam to Meicho Shimbun, Japan’s biggest newspaper, where he’ll be the first foreign reporter. In the slick montage leading up to his exam and preliminary interview, we’re given a rush of details about Jake’s solitary expat life — teaching an English class, grabbing quick meals at sushi bars with a book open in front of him, blowing off steam at the club, his tiny apartment decked with Japanese books and clippings about the yakuza — all framed within the distinct “palette, compression of nighttime Tokyo, the intense graphics and the overall ambiance of lighting,” as Mann describes.

Jake is asked why he wants to be a crime reporter in Japan (fair question) in his entrance interview, his motivation being that his fascination with using forensic evidence to “reason what actually happened” originated from his coroner father taking him to crime scenes and showing him dead bodies and murder files. Normal enough. Despite accidentally missing the last page of his exam (brutal, hate when that happens), Jake is given high marks for his excellent written Japanese, though in the same breath, is reminded that no foreigner has ever worked at “the greatest newspaper in the world.”

Another man on the panel asks pointedly, “You’re Jewish […] Many here believe Jews control the world economy. What do you think?” “If we did,” says Jake, “do you think I’d be happy with what you’d pay me?” It’s a nice little sparring of wits, establishing Jake as a clear Mannian protagonist — a tall, dark, and handsome outsider driven by an unwavering impulse for greatness in a subterranean field that chose him as much as he chose it.

Jake’s first official day at Meicho Shimbun isn’t much warmer. Right off the bat in his direct report, editor Eimi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi) is like, Here’s our format, rookies, stick to it, and you’ll probably never get a chance to add the “why.” When he addresses her by her first name, she publicly reprimands him for his informality to a superior. In his next meeting with the lead editor of the police beat (Kosuke Toyohara), Jake is called out again for being a foreigner, and later that night, when the new recruits are treated to drinks, his newfound friends and fellow reporters tell him “everyone here thinks you’re a spy.” Tokyo Vice is shaping up to be a show steeped in “subcultures governed by deeply ingrained codes of conduct,” as Mann calls it. The newspaper is the first in a kaleidoscope of subcultures the show will immerse us in through the eyes of someone working from the bottom up (or the from the outside in, to be more precise).

We cut to an ingenious little shot of a Tokyo metro line, pulling back into an extreme closeup on a dead man’s face. Pull back further, and we’re at a fresh crime scene. The deceased has multiple stab wounds (the ones on his hands identified as defensive), and the knife that killed him is still in his chest. We’re also introduced to Ken Watanabe as Detective Katagiri, entering the mad scene like a downtrodden zen master (think Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna in Heat, only not visibly insane). By the way, what an absolute get, am I right? I don’t think there’s another actor who smolders with the authority, intensity, and fiercely meditative aura of Watanabe. Just a dynamite presence.

This is also Jake’s first stint at a crime scene and his first assignment for the paper. But he gets into hot water when he says the victim was “murdered” in his first draft. As we’ll soon find out from badass corrupt cop Jin Miyamoto (played with interminable swagger by Hideaki Itô), “There is no murder in Japan,” and the dominating philosophy is to keep the peace — regurgitate the official police report and go no further. Jake will have to find another way in, and he does by accompanying Miyamoto on a night out on the town. He winds up at Onyx, a club in the Kabukicho (red light) district, where he meets Samantha (Rachel Keller), a fellow American expat and hostess whose own bold ambitions (more on those later) make her an immediate kindred spirit.

“I’m trying really hard to get it right, to fit into their system, which is mentally tyrannical, which is not what I expected from a newspaper, you know?” Jake tells her after buying a bottle and her brief company. “I want to report on what really happens. That’s it. Giving up and going home is not an option, you know what I mean?” She does.

Later that night, Jake watches an old man light himself on fire in the street. He lingers at the scene and finds the matchbook that the victim used to set himself ablaze; on the matchbook is the logo of a mysterious loan company to which the stabbing victim was indebted. Haunted by the image of this man pouring gasoline over himself in the pilot’s final moments, Jake is still fixed on the trail of what really happens.

Kishi Kaisei

As the scope zooms out a bit, loosening its grip on Jake’s perspective, we get a clearer sense of whose point of view we’ll be following in the coming weeks — namely Katagiri, Samantha, Eimi, and Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), a brash young yakuza captain with his own ladder to climb.

At the top of “Kishi Kaisei,” we find Katagiri at a similar professional crossroads as Jake, helplessly unsatisfied with how the stabbing case has been cleared. A low-level yakuza has turned himself in, his prints are on the murder weapon, and they’ve got a signed deposition. “Case closed, all zippered up like a big bag of shit,” is the way Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye would put it. Katagiri raises his suspicions, to which he’s simply told, “Our job is to clear cases.”

But our guy knows his job (to clear cases), and he knows his calling (detective), which are not the same thing if you’re doing either of them right. A master of walking the fine line, Katagiri visits the stabbing victim’s widow under the pretense of tying up loose ends, fulfilling his case-clearing duties on the surface while digging deeper for the underlying truth.

Katagiri finds out that this woman and her husband were gathering information on their predatory yakuza lenders to bring to a lawyer. As Katagiri thumbs through the evidence she has on hand, Jake miraculously shows up at the door to make the same inquiries. The widow turns Jake away, and we get this great, spooky shot of Katagiri taking in Jake’s presence at the scene. They’ll meet again at the end of the episode when Jake show’s up at a yakuza turf dispute on a hot tip, followed closely by Katagiri, who enters the scene like a goddamn sheriff in a spaghetti western (and de-escalates the situation with the serenity of some kind of vibe surgeon). Our two heroes have officially crossed the ethereal plane and met both physically and metaphysically — magnetized by kismet.

Read the Air

Later, in “Read the Air,” once Katagiri and Jake have established a burgeoning friendship, he’ll explain his place as a “peacekeeper” in Tokyo.

“The root of the yakuza runs so deep, we cannot get rid of them. The cops are encouraged to maintain peace among the different camps. Tokyo has been stable these last few years. But now, Tozawa has come to try and claim a local gang’s territory […] but you didn’t tell the world so they can pretend it didn’t happen.” For now, there is the hope of no retaliation so the peace can hold. In the meantime, Katagiri throws Jake a bone, takes him on his first raid, and allows him exclusive coverage of the arrests. Passed through Eimi, an editor who, as Katagiri later notes, must be a person of wisdom and discretion, knowing what to say and what to leave out. A bond is made between a young expat reporter with fire in his belly and a world-weary cop with a renewed, if not cautious, sense of purpose.

Speaking of folks with fire in their belly, how about that Sato? Is this guy a firecracker or what? Plucked from the obscurity of a fish market, he’s our closest eyes and ears to all the yakuza intrigue, struggling to hold back his fists (and fashion tips) as the Oyabun organization holds back on retaliation against the Tozawa clan. Really looking forward to watching his arch unfold. You might say he’s the yakuza refraction of Jake — embodying the Mannian lone-wolf persona for whom the “action is the juice.” Like our other point-of-view characters, Sato still finds himself partially on the outside looking in, and his temper isn’t doing him any favors. When a fellow yakuza insults him in front of their whole gang, he does not heed his mentor’s earlier call to “read the air,” learn when to fight and when to negotiate, and punches the guy’s face in. You really feel the weight of a lesson hard when Oyabun severely reprimands him. The only person Sato really vibes with ‘round these parts is Samantha, who’s clearly intrigued by his fashion sense and his ability to capture her aura by adorning her with the “right” dress rather than viewing her as an adornment.

By the way, if there’s one true standout in the second and third episodes, it’s Rachel Keller’s (unforgettable in Fargo season two and Legion) Samantha, a badass leather-clad motorcyclist by day and sultry power hostess by night. Samantha (unlike Jake) is an expat who’s mastered the codes of her domain and moves through the Tokyo underground with an earned, unflappable confidence. Her passion, in her words, is for Tokyo itself — “bars, karaoke bars, gorgeous Onsens, way too much manga.” You might say her ambitions to save up enough money to start her own club and bring some of her fellow hostesses with her are the most immediately ambitious of anyone in the show. But what’s beneath the surface? When Jake asks her this very question over an impromptu dinner, Samantha delivers a phenomenally phony backstory that is something out of an erotic thriller. But Jake’s not buying it. “Tell me one real thing,” he nearly pleads. Impressed and thrown by Jake’s perceptiveness, she reveals that she hasn’t talked to her family in four years. It’s an olive branch extended to a fellow outsider who just confessed to having his own family issues. It’s Tokyo, baby, and everyone out here is just trying to survive, both haunted and propelled by a nagging impulse to “make their mark.”

As for Jake, we leave him at the end of “Read the Air” in the hands of the yakuza. Plucked from a night out at the batting cages with the fellas and thrust into an anonymous black car, he’s framed behind a shroud of reflected neon in the final shot, his expression one of purpose and resignation — not to death, but the next big scoop. The situation has escalated (finally), and it’s bringing him closer to the heart of what’s really happening.

Off the Record

• I highly encourage everyone to read that Mann interview I mentioned up top. He articulates with precision what he brought to the show and what exactly he intended to provide for the rest of the series. “Given the volume of content now available, the show has to have a signature. It has to have an identity that stands it apart from the miasma of everything else. That signature is what I tried to impart in the pilot.”

• While I prefer when shows like this stick with one director (rare and nearly impossible, I know) so the visual ideas and identity are airtight from start to finish, episodes two and three quickly assuage any doubts I had about Mann passing off the reins. From the get-go, director Josef Kubota Wladyka does an excellent job picking up the baton, visualizing the internal and external power battles, hierarchies, and code systems that dominate our main characters’ lives.

• Every so often on Film Twitter, there’s a call to bring smokin’ cigs back to film and TV. You’ll be pleased to know that call has been answered and then some in this joint.

• I very much appreciate the slow, methodic (and melodic) reveal of Jake’s backstory. By the time we get to his abrupt summary for Samantha, it’s like the last word of a beautiful haiku. A good mystery should be like peeling back the layers of an onion. If things keep going as they are, the mystery of each POV character’s past should be some of the most exciting and poetic investigations in this epic crime story.

• I thought it was worth mentioning in its own right — the whole goddamn cast is fire. Between all the different factions of fascinating Tokyo drifters, we’re looking at a truly memorable, expansive ensemble in the making here. Particularly excited to see more of Eimi, my new favorite ice queen. Word on the neon-soaked streets is she’s front and center in the All the President’s Men–esque fourth episode. I can’t wait!

• Also worth pointing out that there’s a lot of Japanese spoken on this show, which is rad. It’s like 50/50 English to Japanese, or at least it feels that way.

• “You’re an American, so you think you’re more talented than you actually are.” LOL.

Tokyo Vice Series-Premiere Recap: What Really Happens