This is a spoiler-free review of the first three episodes of Tokyo Vice, which premiere Friday, April 8 on HBO Max.
Based on the memoir by journalist Jake Adelstein (2009's Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan) Michael Mann's Tokyo Vice crackles with intensity, offering up an enticing, immersive throwback to a time when the director ruled the roost of cinematic crime dramas. One of the less thrilling retro elements, however, is the story being presented through an Anglo-American lens, but Mann and his team still paint a dense portrait of Japan's policing methods, reporting style, and necessary societal balance with its embedded organized crime.
Once envisioned as a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, Tokyo Vice emerges from a decade of development as a series featuring West Side Story's Ansel Elgort as Adelstein, a "gaijin" crime reporter for Tokyo's largest newspaper, who gets in over his head while investigating a rogue faction of the Yakuza. Not many directors' styles immediately transport you back to a different era of movies, but Mann's does. With his trademark love of urban landscapes and soft neons, on display in everything from 1981's Thief all the way to 2006's Miami Vice, Mann (who executive produces and directs the first episode) gives us boots-on-the-ground Tokyo: from crammed subways to Hostess clubs to newspaper bullpens. It has the lush love letter quality that Mann usually reserves for Los Angeles, and it's so evocative of the '90s that we even get a needle drop from Pearl Jam's "Ten."
Elgort's career has been hit or miss with charisma, but here, as a tall fish out of water, he sort of gets "default presence," as a young man who's worked himself to the bone to become fluent in all things Japan, from the language to the culture, in order to pass a reporter's entrance exam. It is odd that Adelstein thinks he'll be able to do real reporting -- as in, investigative journalism -- in Japan, since someone who's enveloped himself in the city like he has would surely know better, but that hiccup serves as the initial conflict over these first three hour-long episodes. Notorious for their control over information, Japan's police just tell newspapers what to print and then those details are regurgitated without context. Adelstein wants to do real reporting and yet he's traveled to a place where that's not the practice. The cringe buried beneath all of this is that Adelstein, because of his Western stubbornness, will manifest his destiny as a junior scoop.
There've been many East-meets-West dramas over the years and Tokyo Vice most mirrors Ridley Scott's Black Rain in terms of its central cultural conflicts, though this series -- despite its female lead (Legion's Rachel Keller) also working as a hostess for salarymen, like Kate Capshaw's character did in that 1989 film --- is given the room to be more thoughtful and respectful overall. In this instance, adapting Adelstein's book into a series over a movie was the right call, as the sheer time spent in Tokyo does wonders for the tale. Minutes go by without dialogue, just allowing us to be in the city, walking with the flow of commuters or settling in for the night in a tiny single-room apartment.
Kicking things off with three near 60-minute episodes feels like a chore in this crowded era of content, but by the third episode, we're dropped off at a much more satisfying part of the story given the pilot's in media res opening (it starts with thrilling scene and then jumps back two years for the rest of the story). Ken Watanabe plays a veteran detective, Katagiri, who eventually befriends and partners with Adelstein to take down a particular branch of the Yakuza.
Tokyo Vice nicely takes its time bringing these two together, allowing Katagiri to come off like a phantom force over the first two episodes while Adelstein tries to buddy up to a more opportunistic and rambunctious detective played with fun flair by Hideaki Itō. The slow-burn design works well here as Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton also serves as an EP with Mann and the directing duties for episodes two and three fall to Josef Kubota Wladyka (The Terror: Infamy), who echoes Mann's noir template while also dialing up the taut mystery elements.
Tokyo Vice follows standard storytelling steps, here elevated by a magnificent moodiness and gorgeous cinematography.
As these first three episodes take us through Adelstein's foolish fumblings as the first American to work in Tokyo news (with Pacific Rim's Rinko Kikuchi as his strict but ultimately supportive boss), Watanabe is able to come in and give the story more depth and texture. Adelstein, as a character, requires a long lead while Katagiri, because of the ease with which Watanabe inhabits roles, can roll in with much of his backstory told through his stubbled face and what we imagine it must be like to be a cop in city where "murder" doesn't exist without an eye witness.
Other stories being told, which also connect to Adelstein's arc, include Keller's Samantha, who like Adelstein has fled her family in search of independence and reinvention, and Show Kasamatsu's Sato, the younger brother of a Yakuza lieutenant who, like our central character, is making mistakes left and right within the world he's in. Adelstein and Sato are on parallel journeys in a way, both having eyes for Samantha while looking to make their mark. It's too early to call it a "love triangle," but that trope is certainly dangling overhead. After three episodes, Keller and Kasamatsu are more fascinating in their side lives than they are mixing with Adelstein, but all roads must converge, right? Tokyo Vice still follows standard storytelling steps, here elevated by a magnificent moodiness and gorgeous cinematography.
Tokyo Vice is inspired by American journalist Jake Adelstein's memoir about living in Tokyo as the first non-Japanese reporter for one of Japan's largest newspapers. Tokyo Vice captures Adelstein's (Ansel Elgort) daily descent into the neon-soaked underbelly of Tokyo in the late 1990s.