Tokyo Vice Review | TV show

Tokyo, 1999. Recent American graduate Jake Adelstein (Elgort) gets a job as a crime reporter at a major Japanese newspaper, the paper’s first foreign-born reporter. With the help of a veteran detective (Watanabe) and a local “hostess” (Keller), he quickly finds himself embroiled in a seething criminal network run by the yakuza.

Broadcast on: Starzplay

Watched episodes: 2 out of 8

The story of a fearless journalist in the face of the malignity of organized crime is not new territory. Yet the concentrated power of Deputy Tokyo, the new detective series starring Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe among a constellation of excellent supporting cast, is such that the material seems alive with intrigue, detail and dark wit. It’s as visually appealing as it is clever, from the footage of its opening credits – complete with close-ups of curvy motion yakuza tattoos – to its pilot episode, which was directed by executive producer and filmmaker Michael Mann.

A shaggy-haired Elgort is Jake Adelstein, a true crime reporter who transferred from the University of Missouri to study in Japan in the 90s and never left, becoming the first foreign employee of one of Tokyo’s most prominent newspapers, Yomiuri Shimbun. Adelstein’s memoirs served as raw material for Deputy Tokyo, and we have the impression that his job at the newspaper was not an initially popular decision. Jake’s boss often scolds him, yelling “Gaijin(“Stranger!”) across the newsroom, and he starts there doing the work of hacking a petty crime: purse thieves, pickpockets, and local perverts.

When a fatal stabbing and a recent suicide both appear to have mysterious connective tissue that no one in authority wants to admit, Jake takes it upon himself to start digging deeper. In this work, he meets a number of ambiguous characters, from the vice-cool cop Miyamoto (Hideako Itō, perfectly terse when saying things like “There’s are no murders in Japan”) to an enigmatic detective played by Ken Watanabe, or the tough-faced, young yakuza young Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), who shares a surprising love for American coaches. What soon becomes clear is that publicly admitting the existence of organized crime in Japan is considered fundamentally unacceptable: so how can a gaijin print it in a newspaper?

Tokyo Vice takes admirable care of the pacing and presentation of its many threads.

In the first episode, Mann’s constantly roving handheld camera follows Jake closely through the city streets, his sparkling crosscuts hinting at the protagonist’s lively, active mind. Created and written for television by Tony-winning playwright JT Rogers, it leaves space for its characters to deliberate and explore, without overloading its episodes with the violent spectacle and OTT plot machinations of so many TV crime sagas.

The show excels at portraying Jake’s adopted home, Tokyo, not just as a blackish puzzle box – which always risks being cartoonish – but also as an ordinary city, with insults playfully exchanged over sake and noodles. That lived-in, naturalistic feel seems to help the actors, too, and Elgort — usually a little too shy on screen — exudes a more engaged and thoughtful energy than he has in the past.

Deputy Tokyo takes admirable care of the pacing and presentation of its many threads, giving the impression of a story that promises to be expansive but never rushed. Instead, in both words and images, it drip feeds a delicious enigma: a misunderstanding that could be a cultural difference or an intentional deception; a wildly tattooed loner yakuza looking curiously lost as he watches children in an arcade shoot toy guns; Jake’s passing mention of his coroner father showing him corpses as a child leaves the audience with many questions about his upbringing. As the dark tentacles of this story slowly unfurl, they can’t help but enclose the viewer, bringing us ever closer to the ambiguity and monstrosity of the city’s criminal backlash.

With style, smarts, and mystery to spare, Tokyo Vice is the kind of sprawling crime drama that lives up to the “prestige” television label.

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