The yakuza make for great TV. Much like the American mafia, these Japanese crime syndicates throw up themes and rituals that translate brilliantly to the screen. Exploring their corrupt influence through the eyes of American crime reporter Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort), Tokyo Vice is a sophisticated if depressing drama that is nevertheless well worth your time. After leaving behind an unhappy family background in Missouri, Jake manages to get a job at a prestigious Japanese newspaper, and soon notices links between deaths that most around him write off as non-events. The series is “loosely based” on the book of the same name by Adelstein, a real-life journalist who became the first non-Japanese reporter to write for the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper.
Not absolutely everything works. Elgort is excellent as Jake – and his command of Japanese seemingly consummate – but the character stretches credulity a little. (It is perhaps no coincidence that Adelstein’s stories about his time as a journalist in Tokyo have faced serious scrutiny over their accuracy.) In the series, Jake’s infiltration of the yakuza underbelly and the friendship he strikes up with senior detective Hiroti Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) aren’t achieved without effort, but the extent to which he, a rookie journalist in a foreign country, embeds himself in these worlds is a little too narratively convenient. The job is literally his first as a reporter and within a short space of time, he’s being threatened by one of the world’s most infamous crime syndicates.
There are other issues, too. This review is based on the first five episodes, and by this point a subplot involving yakuza Sato (Show Kasamatsu) and hostess Samantha (Rachel Keller) feels undercooked. But, more importantly, the show as a whole just works. It grips and refuses to let go thanks to a number of factors: the story Jake pursues about forced suicides over unpaid debts is fascinatingly morbid – especially when we watch a man set himself on fire. Everything onscreen including the near-ubiquitous food and drink is almost tangibly vivid. And in Jake’s supervisor Emi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi), Tokyo Vice has a character whose nuances are teased out nicely as his nose for a story becomes undeniable to her.
There are also some enjoyable lines to mull over. “Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas,” Hiroti warns Jake. “A man without enemies is no man at all,” says a yakuza kingpin. Try repeating these mysterious words of wisdom down the pub and see if you can pull them off with the same gravitas. With stories about murderous gangsters seemingly a dime a dozen, it takes a truly great show to stand out. Tokyo Vice is something approaching that, its component parts never feeling cheap or ill-conceived. We’ll always be fascinated by the awful behaviour of forces like the yakuza. In getting under the surface and examining the morality beneath the immorality, Tokyo Vice is a very interesting prospect indeed.
Tokyo Vice will premiere on Starzplay on May 15