I have always wanted to visit Japan, and HBO Max’s crime drama series Tokyo Vice has only further fueled my interest. Based loosely upon journalist Jake Adelstein’s non-fiction book, the series takes viewers deep into the seedy Tokyo underbelly of the 90s. Leading the show as Adelstein himself is West Side Story and Baby Driver actor Ansel Elgort, who perfectly embodies the passion and commitment of a reporter on the cusp of uncovering a deep conspiracy. The pilot episode, directed by Michael Mann, establishes a particularly stylish, engaging vibe that immediately drew me in. The series sets itself apart from the vast array of streaming shows by bringing a sleek prestige and specificity, fully filmed on location in Tokyo.
Oscar nominee Michael Mann stepping in to helm a new HBO Max would automatically present as must-watch television for many. The director behind Collateral, Heat, and Public Enemies has been a longtime favorite thanks to his somber blue-tinted flavor of melancholic film. Whilst Mann only directs the first episode of the series, his style serves as an indelible blueprint that is carried over expertly throughout subsequent episodes. Personally, I have never been crazy about the projects he has directed, but I am a major fan of this show’s leading man, Ansel Elgort. Both Mann and Elgort notably serve as executive producers. Impressively, Elgort appears to have learned nearly fluent control of the Japanese dialect. Much of the show requires the reading of subtitles, so if that’s not one’s thing, be sure to steer clear. Whatever the case, Elgort manages to impress once again with the range of his acting performances accompanied by his boyish good looks. His longer, curlier locks in Tokyo Vice denote a vastly different kind of character than he has played before.
The pilot episode starts us at the presumed ending before flashing us back to 1999; Adelstein and detective Katagiri (an impressive Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins, 2014’s Godzilla) are suiting up in bulletproof vests to attend an ominous meeting with the Yakuza—essentially Japanese organized crime. The leader of the group offers up a warning that casts a dark cloud over the entire show. Stop investigating, do not publish the story or face the dire consequences. Jake appears cool and collected, insisting that he light a cigarette first to think things over.
Two years earlier, and Jake is simply adjusting to life in Tokyo quite comfortably. He speaks the language with ease, and frequents local spots including the Onyx club. Jake flees a potentially dark past and tension between his parents, both of whom he has not seen for several years. His sickly sister has sent cassette tapes that he plays with headphones and a toothy grin. He narrowly passes a test to get into writing for a prestigious newspaper, one of the largest in the world. Jake becomes the first foreigner to ever work there, and is immediately treated as a fish-out-of-water. It is made clear he will be receiving no special treatment—this newspaper must now become his life, and he is expected to start on the police beat like all the others. It does not take long for the curious and naive Jake to become embroiled in controversy. A string of deaths occur, with Jake the only one convinced there is a common thread between them. Rival crime families, raids, gruesome deaths, and several sequences of Ansel Elgort biking around Tokyo color the show with broad strokes of excellence.
Tokyo Vice is padded out with some exceptionally well-written and fascinating characters. Katagiri’s home life with his family is charming and endears him significantly against his hard exterior. Sato (Sho Kasamatsu), one of the captains of the gangs, is obsessed with the Backstreet Boys to a hilarious extent. His love had me second-guessing the lyrical meaning behind “I Want It That Way,” which I don’t think I have ever given this much thought towards. As the lone female lead, Rachel Keller plays Samantha, a hostess working at Onyx nightclub who longs to escape and open a club of her own. In a lesser project, one would immediately assume she will become the love interest for Elgort’s Jake, but that is not the case here, as the writers opt for giving Samantha a juicy and intriguing role in the larger unfolding story.
Admittedly, Tokyo Vice is a slow-burn that takes its time in every conceivable way. It plays things close to the chest, careful to reveal each new piece of information just when the time is right. Creator J.T. Rogers dives deep into the primary characters, and colors the world of Tokyo with a vibrant energy that surpasses that of touristic intent. There feels like a clear understanding for this world and how it works, or at least Jake’s own viewpoint to comprehend its inner workings. As the body count continues to rise, the lurking danger threatens to close in on both Jake and the viewer alike. As the second episode starts, we are gifted a proper intro that acts as a moving tapestry of Japanese art. Accompanied by a moody theme, this sequence was one I was happy to revisit multiple times.
For a patient audience, Tokyo Vice will prove to be a treat well worth one’s time. It places the charismatic Ansel Elgort at its center, and unfolds a fascinating mystery that cuts deeper as we are plunged further into Tokyo’s neon delights. The fish-out-of-water trope still treats cultural aspects of Japan with the utmost respect and observation. Critics were given access to the first five episodes out of eight, with the final one ending in an action-packed bloodbath that made me desperate for what would happen next. Inspired by true events, this stunning and engrossing series makes for a seriously propulsive crime thriller.
Tokyo Vice unravels the conspiracy for viewers everywhere when it debuts exclusively to HBO Max on Thursday, April 7th.