Jake Adelstein, the first non-Japanese reporter to work for Japan’s largest newspaper, had his 2009 memoir about working with the police adapted into a 10-episode series for HBO Max, “Tokyo Vice.” Half of that meal was saved for review, and so far it’s an interesting blend of familiar flavors and unusual spices. How it ends We’ll learn together, but so far, pretty good.
I can’t swear that one publisher’s idea to pass the title on led to the product idea to get “Miami Vice” executive producer Michael Mann to direct the pilot, but anyway, it happened. (He’s also an executive producer.) Like this series, the films Mann directed (among them “Manhunter,” “Heat,” “The Insider,” and “Blackhat”) can go on with style — and elegance, and are just a snapshot away from the shallow and he Big temptation in a show shot against the glamorous neon backdrop of modern Tokyo. But he catches it here — a slow-motion walking shot at the top, some major focus shifting. The series often comes alive in its tiniest and noisiest episodic detail: the stuff in Jake’s little room above a restaurant; the crowded cell of the newspaper office; Shops, restaurants and street life. It’s a sexy story with a touch of Anthony Bourdain.
Ansel Elgort (recently loved and hated as Tony in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) plays Jake, a young Missouri man who stands out among and above the Tokyo crowd. (He’s Jewish, which makes him an even more curious character. “Do Jews eat sushi?” he asked in a job interview; this thing about controlling the world economy comes along, too.) We meet him two years before the actual beginning of the story, in a private room in a fancy restaurant where he proposes Yakuza that he might want to back out of a story, before going back to 1999, where he’s still an English teacher for Housewives.
He soon proved, for rhythmic emphasis, not to be ugly American but at home and in love with the local culture. He speaks fluent Japanese, has friendly relations with shopkeepers and chefs; In the corner store they call Jake San. He practices martial arts. Hops in dance clubs. In the meantime, he is studying for the exam that qualifies him to work for the largest newspaper in the country. He’s set, which is when his troubles begin. Everything there is managed by the book, and it’s a pretty big book. And rule-followers make poor heroes.
Created by Tony Award-winning JT Rogers (“Oslo”), “Tokyo Vice” who previously worked with Adelstein (his childhood friend) on a deserted adaptation for the big screen, avoids the dilemma of making this a story of a white American showing the Japanese how it’s done from By making Jake a little savvy, a big lug he stumbles as far as he succeeds, and by surrounding local characters with the same motivation, experience, and/or knowledge better. He has ambition and energy, but, like Luke Skywalker in a movie heavily influenced by Japanese film, he’ll need direction.
“Why do I feel like the greatest investigative journalist who ever lived?” Jake asks one of his colleagues, after he published his first article.
“Because you’re American,” says one of his friendly co-workers, “so you think you’re more talented than you really are.” In the short term, this will be true.
Despite everything he knows about his adopted country, there is a lot he misses.
“I try very hard to get it right, to fit in with their system, and is mentally tyrannical, which I did not expect from a newspaper,” he complains, when he is only expected to report, or reprint, the official police copy of any case. He was told ‘You can’t think’, but that wouldn’t happen; A routine investigation leads him to gather clues like Nancy Drew, and we’re far away.
It’s a big show, with a lively supporting cast of friends, foes, and people who just met along the way, but it’s about five characters who somehow seem ready to become allies. Alongside Jake, whose constitutional curiosity allows much of the explanation, there is Hiroto (Ken Watanabe), a police investigator in the Organized Crime Division, who prefers to find the truth rather than just clear up a case, as his boss prefers; Samantha (Rachel Keeler), a fellow American, works at a bar hostess, where we first saw her sing “Sweet Child of Mine” in Japanese; Amy (Rinko Kikuchi), Jake’s assignment editor, is tempted to follow a story to the end, but is hampered by her hidden bosses; The Sato (Shu Kasamatsu), a delicate yakuza with a thing for Samantha. Jake is the hub they go off of, but they each have their own business other than himself.
Of all these characters (and globally good performers), none is structurally significant to the series’ success as Detective Watanabe – perhaps not even Elgort, who gets from Watanabe the same kind of older man support that Jake gets from Hiroto. Seriously serious, curly from the brow and in need of a bit of a shave, he’s a classic noir, with the quiet, worn-out salad of late-period Bogart, Stewart or Wayne.
Like many of its more potent adventure stories, “Tokyo Vice” doesn’t shy away from clichés; It’s a basket of metaphors, familiar not only from police action and newspaper dramas, but from gangster and Western films: a rookie reporter and a veteran cop, each resenting the conservative restraints of his superiors; The blatant editor who doesn’t know a good story if it’s written in 20-point font and plastered to his face; ballroom girl looking for something better; A good man bonds with a bad man; Old school gangsters with a sense of honor and facing competition from less refined rivals.
Even when one gets to know them, one hails them as old friends, because they are handled so well here and give the series a solid core that allows it to focus on the character. (Note Jake’s initial conversations with Sato, which focuses on pop culture, carries a limit of danger, and transcends the danger of the past.) The plot’s machinations are less important than the people it holds; And it’s our worrying about them—adding to the feeling that things could go wrong at any moment—that keeps “Tokyo Vice” interesting and, in the deal, makes us care about the characters more. There are reasons why metaphors are allegorical.
where: HBO Max
when: Anytime, starting Thursday, April 7
evaluation: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17)