“Tokyo Vice” Pt. 1: Journalist’s Neon Descent Into Gang Life Off to Promising Start

Content Warning: Mentions of Suicide

A flawed yet dynamic deep-dive into Japan’s sinister circles of crime, investigative journalism meets Tokyo’s lush cityscape in HBO Max’s colorful new series, “Tokyo Vice.” As American crime reporter Jake Adelstein ventures into the depths of Tokyo, his pursuit of truth starts to uncover a far more sinister agenda seeping beneath the city’s neon streets. Though its first four episodes are somewhat dogged by initially flat characters and tropey plot points, Tokyo Vice’s effective buildup of tension and diversity in representation make a promising start to the crime drama series.

Where “Tokyo Vice” excels first and foremost is its production. The show effectively creates tension through a variety of cinematography techniques portraying Adelstein’s slow descent into the criminal underbelly of Tokyo. Shots of his everyday life peppered with humorous dialogue are first tinted with rosy filters, but are gradually replaced by mafia meetings captured in dim lighting and backed by tense and ominous instrumentals. In one such scene, Adelstein falls asleep under warm lighting listening to lighthearted tapes from his teenage sister but is jolted awake by an emergency news report detailing a bar break-in. Tense drumming beats start as Adelstein hurries to the crime scene and witnesses a man held at gunpoint, the room tinted a dark green. As the show progresses, it becomes clear that the insidious danger of the criminal world has become inextricable from his regular life—this omnipresent threat from the shadows keeps the watcher on the edge of their seats.

However, some plot points are overly predictable, exacerbated by banal dialogue and tropey settings. Specifically, Adelstein’s characterization can simply come off as somewhat one-dimensional at times. While based on the experiences of a real life crime journalist who used journalism to deliver justice, the show’s dramatic antics can make the main character seem archetypal at times. This somewhat generic development is best seen when Adelstein—flabbergasted by the comically unreasonable censorship at Meicho Shimbun, the news firm he works for—is once fiercely reprimanded for referring to a death by stabbing as murder. “Did the cops tell you he was murdered? He was not ‘murdered’ until they say so!” his superior yells at him. The exaggerated contrast between the honest reporter and corrupt media outlet almost plays out more like humor than serious commentary despite it having good intentions in making an important critique of mainstream media.

But the use of generic tropes does not stop there; like any character on a purposeful journey to save society, Adelstein needs to recruit a wise, older mentor who can help the protagonist learn the ins-and-outs of the Japanese crime world. Fulfilling this trope is criminal detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), who guides Adelstein on his pursuit to find the truth when he stumbles upon a suspicious connection between two deaths both supposedly dubbed “suicides” by the police. While this plot point helps carry the story forward, it is admittedly not the most original. However, this can be forgiven as it does help push the plot into action, especially as it starts to get more involved in later episodes. With the intricacies of gang relationships and Adelstein’s role in the delicately maintained peace, the story shifts from more predictable developments to complex, layered plot points as more information is revealed.

In terms of side characters, their initially one-dimensional personalities start developing towards the third and fourth episodes, elevating their often vacuous filler scenes to meaningful minor storylines. Emi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi) is first introduced as Adelstein’s robotic supervisor who epitomizes the mindless regurgitation of facts within Meicho Shimbun—a typical corporate authority antagonist. Yet she later surprisingly agrees to help Adelstein with his story when he shows her key pieces of evidence from the suicides, which brings out her humanity and challenges the audience’s perception of her as purely cold and relentless. She goes from another obstacle in Adelstein’s path towards justice to a powerful ally, eventually helping discover the insidious truth behind the connected murders.

Another important side character is Samantha Porter (Rachel Keller), a hostess that works in Tokyo’s red-light district; she is initially portrayed as a typical street-smart femme-fatale. It is only until later episodes where we begin to see Samantha beyond her good looks and charisma—audiences learn the darker aspects of Samantha’s backstory and begin to understand her deeply complex morality. By defying or expanding on archetypes that many side characters were meant to follow, the show helped bolster its otherwise predictable main plot through a strong supporting cast.

In terms of language, Tokyo Vice does a commendable job of an accurate portrayal. Most of the show is in Japanese, with non-Japanese actors such as Elgort still being required to have a decent grasp of the language. Specifically, it appears that Elgort did need to learn how to speak and write the language—we see in close-up shots that he handwrites and types notes in Japanese, and he speaks with the right cadence and inflections of the language.

Regarding representation, while far from perfect, one of Adelstein’s close office friends is homosexual in the largely heteronormative society, and the boss of a typically male-dominated news firm is female. Discrimination due to xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and misogyny are also seen throughout “Tokyo Vice.” Because I’ve never lived in Japan, I can’t say how accurate the level of prejudice portrayed is, but I think such representation generally brings awareness to these pertinent issues facing society today. However, one big problem is Adelstein’s alarmingly flippant reaction to anti-Semitic comments, as he is a Jewish character. All in all, I think Tokyo Vice definitely makes an effort in accurate and diverse representation, but it still has much room for improvement.

So far, Tokyo Vice earns four out of five stars for its effective building of tension, creative cinematography, focus on cultural accuracy, and promising character arcs, despite some flaws. I look forward to where the yakuza will take us next, and how far Adelstein will descend into the corruption of Tokyo to uncover the truth.

(Fun Fact: The fourth episode of “Tokyo Vice” —“I Want it That Way”—was written by Japanese-American playwright Naomi Iizuka, who was also responsible for creating “Anon(nymous),” the production performed by the Theater 920 class in the fall.)