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“Tokyo Vice”–Yakuza on Ice

Tokyo Vice, adapted from the titular 2009 memoir, by Jake Adelstein, retells and also fictionalizes the experience Adelstein had as a 20-something  American expatriate determined to be a reporter for the largest Japanese newspaper. 

The first episode details Jake’s (Ansel Elgort of “Baby Driver” and “West Side Story)  obsession to  pass  the competitive entrance exam for one of the prestigious internships at Meicho newspaper.  Hired in 1999 into a newsroom with strict rules of journalistic procedures Jake fights the beaucratic culture with  the academic high-achieving cockiness of a young Turk.  Jack feels the newspaper’s rules do not apply to him nor should he “pay his dues” as a rookie. Then, he slowly realizes that the police are in collusion with organized crime (the all-powerful Yakuza). The Yakuza have deep traditions like “The Sopranos” and the drug dealers in “The Wire”.  And no one wants to take on organized crime.

His conscience in conflict with the newspaper’s management and some of the police force, Adelstein finds support from a sympathetic police detective, Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai”),  two fellow office mates, and a young nightclub worker, Samantha (Rachel Keller).  Most importantly, his immediate boss, Emi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi from “Babel”), also an outsider.  While trying to excel  in a male-dominated profession, she understands the “stop -the-press” impact of Jake’s exposé of a massive cover-up of corrupt police.  The police are in bed with the Yakuza and benefit by   ensuring the prosperity of Yakuza businesses.

Tokyo Vice is a thrilling police procedural which highlights both the grime and crime of Tokyo.  As with all other major metropolises, Tokyo has its own vibe indispensable to the drama.  Just as Jake feels that he knows the culture, he discovers that he really doesn’t. Jake is challenged by relationships and questions of trust. His is a story of someone in his twenties, alone in a big city in a foreign country, determined to make his own life with no real idea how to do it.

Tokyo Vice is exciting, both visually and dramatically, with an  ensemble cast giving extraordinary performances.  The feelings of self-doubt in a new job, exploring relationship boundaries, and struggling with separating from family are universal themes even when represented in this unusual setting. Overlaid upon multiple storylines, the menace within the mundane is riveting.  Above all, Tokyo Vice is about fitting in and avoiding being “the nail that sticks up only to be hammered down”.

A bilingual experiment in cinematic story-telling, Tokyo Vice’s cast is a one-off.  Few other actors could pull off the demands of these roles. 

For example, native English-speaking actors give dialogue half in Japanese and half in English.  And the Japanese actors do the same.   Ansel Elgort is particularly impressive, speaking Japanese with ease, confidence and a diffident charm, essential in order to believe that the Adelstein character could be accepted in a Japanese newsroom.  Otherwise, Tokyo Vice wouldn’t have worked.

Tokyo Vice maintains a surprising innocence, staying cute on occasion because of Elgort’s baby face, another essential element to the character he plays.  The police and the crimes committed are violent and shocking. Tokyo Vice is everything you want in a classic mobster/gangster story with some eye-popping twists.  Flaws in pacing and backstory–Jake Adelstein’s relationship with his father, his sister’s situation as well as Samantha’s disheartening experience with her Mormon father–are huge gaps, but not insurmountable.  Perhaps in the next season, some of this backstory will unfold.

Highly recommend!

Availability:  HBOmax streaming

Note:  Since Tokyo Vice is bilingual, a hybrid, not strictly a foreign film, the  subtitles will basically flash on and off of the screen. This can take some viewers out of the story a few times, since there is no warning when a character will be speaking in English or Japanese.


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