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'Tokyo Vice' offers a stylized tour of Japan's criminal underworld

An American crime reporter (Ansel Elgort) allies himself with a frustrated police detective (Ken Watanabe) in the HBO Max series <em>Tokyo Vice.</em>
HBO Max
An American crime reporter (Ansel Elgort) allies himself with a frustrated police detective (Ken Watanabe) in the HBO Max series Tokyo Vice.

I come from small-town Iowa, which may be why I've always been drawn to stories about men and women seeking their fortune in the big city. Whether it's Pip in Great Expectations or Peggy in Mad Men, there's something deeply satisfying about watching heroes learn the unwritten rules of urban life, and letting us learn them, too.

The rules are gnarlier than usual in Tokyo Vice, a new HBO Max drama based on the memoir of the same title by Jake Adelstein. Adapted for TV by Adelstein's childhood friend J.T. Rogers — who wrote the Tony-winning play Oslo — this eight-part series tells the tale of an American crime reporter who intends to take Japanese journalism by storm, but first must learn how to navigate the churning opacity of 1990s Tokyo.

In his most appealing work to date, Ansel Elgort stars as Jake, a good humored if cocksure Missourian whose excellent Japanese enables him to become the first foreign reporter ever hired by Japan's biggest newspaper. Yet this is hidebound Japan, and he soon learns that the paper doesn't want him to be Woodward or Bernstein. They want him to do what Japanese crime reporters do — rewrite police press releases and avoid asking questions that might rock the boat.

But Jake's a born boat-rocker, and even though chastened by having his work endlessly rejected by his editor — she's played by Rinko Kikuchi — he can't resist asking about the guy who's knifed to death on the bridge or the salaryman who sets himself afire on the street. Wandering the dark alleys of Kabukicho, Tokyo's seamy entertainment district, he befriends Samantha, an American bar hostess with a Past (played by Rachel Keller), and a volatile gangster named Sato (that's sleek Show Kasamatsu) who doesn't quite fit into his crime organization. Their exploits serve as even riskier counterpoints to Jake's own.

For all his drive, Jake keeps floundering until he allies himself with a frustrated police detective, Hiroto Katagiri, played with downbeat charisma by Japanese star Ken Watanabe — who you may know from The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha. Annoyed by his department's lack of crime-fighting ambition, Detective Katagiri becomes his source — and mentor.

The first thing to be said about Tokyo Vice is that it's exceedingly pleasurable to watch. The pilot was made by Michael Mann who's always known how to capture the treacherous seductiveness of cities, be it the South Beach of Miami Vice or the LA of Collateral. Setting the visual template, Mann's restlessly sharp eye captures Tokyo's intriguing swirl, from its shadowy backstreets and glamorous watering holes to the teasing neon that paints the night.

If you're unfamiliar with Japanese organized crime, Tokyo Vice makes a good introduction to the yakuza — starting with the spectacular tattoos the series is overly addicted to showing. We see their shakedown tactics, finger-chopping violence and strutting panache. We see their hierarchical structure based on samurai notions of loyalty and honor. And, in a larger sense, we see how the yakuza have insinuated themselves into every level of '90s Japan, from hostess bars to banking to the decision-making of the authorities who'll do anything to avoid gang war. Seasoned with a bit of nudity and bloodshed, that's the vice part of Tokyo Vice.

Personally I'm more interested in the Tokyo part. It's not simply that '90s Japan is bursting with unabashed sexism and xenophobia. There's such a premium on keeping the surface of life placid that Jake can't even use the word "murder" when writing of a man who's been knifed to death. As a cop patiently explains to him, "There is no murder in Japan" — meaning, the cops and the media prefer bland talk about "unexplained deaths."

Although Tokyo Vice is not wholly innocent of exoticism and cliché, the series does a nifty job of taking us around Tokyo back during the heyday of the yakuza. And as it slowly unfolds its story, you sense the menace that could, at any moment, claim Jake, Samantha, Sato or Katagiri. You see, while those in power may say there's no murder in Japan, that doesn't mean some bad guy won't kill you.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.