Jake Edelstein (Ansel Elgort) is a young journalist from Missouri. Due to various circumstances, Jake could no longer be in his hometown and at the end of the nineties he preferred to leave as far as possible, namely, to distant Japan, to Tokyo. There, Jake studied at the private university of Sofia with a specialization in Japanese literature, learned Japanese, got a job as an English teacher, after which he passed the exam for the job of a crime chronicle correspondent in one of the largest and most influential Japanese newspapers, Meicho Shimbun, and he did get this job, becoming the first a foreigner in the ranks of the publication’s employees.
An obvious foreigner – Jake is tall and with brown hair – and even a Jew: Edelstin in the newspaper had a hard time, but he is not one of the shy ones, and you won’t catch him with the words “gaijin” and “Mossad”. At first, he is given the most trifling tasks, but Jake has enough ambitions, and he gradually begins to plunge into the world of Japanese crime – the yakuza.
The journalist manages to get close to Hiroto Katagari (Ken Watanabe), a detective from the Tokyo Organized Crime Unit. Hiroto can use the journalist for his own purposes, but in turn supplies him with the information Jake needs.
Meanwhile, a war rages in Tokyo between two major crime families. And the journalist eventually manages to reach Ishida himself (Shun Sugata), a very big yakuza boss suffering from an incurable liver disease.
Jake Edelstein is a real American journalist from Missouri who came to Tokyo in 1993, learned Japanese and managed to get a job at Japan’s largest newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbu. There he worked for twelve years, establishing contacts with other journalists, police and gang members. His largest investigation concerned one of the yakuza bosses, and the journalist was threatened with murder for publishing this material.
However, Edelstein still lives in Tokyo, collaborates with several different publications and serves on the board of directors of Polaris Project Japan, a non-profit organization that helps victims of human trafficking.
In 2009, Edelstein released a memoir called Tokyo Vice: American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, in which he spoke about his work as a Japanese newspaper editor, and what he learned about the underworld of Tokyo. This book has become very popular. However, I will make a reservation that a certain part of the audience has some doubts about the authenticity and complete realism of these memoirs.
In 2013, the WarnerMedia studio tried to launch a film adaptation of this book, and Daniel Radcliffe was planned for the main role, but something did not work out with the project. After that, WarnerMedia decided to convert the project into a series intended for broadcast on the HBO Max streaming service.
The show was run by JT Rogers, writer and producer of Oslo, and executive produced by director Michael Mann, Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe, and Jake Edelstein himself, author of the memoir and prototype of the protagonist. Michael Mann himself shot the pilot episode, setting the tone for the whole story, and most of the remaining episodes were directed by Joseph Vladyka, one of the directors of the Narcos series.
How close is the series to what is described in the book? It is based on the materials of the memoirs, but, of course, does not exactly correspond to them. In addition, certain characters in the series are collective images, such as Jake’s immediate boss in the Eimi edition (Rinko Kikuchi). The prototype of the police detective Hiroto Katagari was the police detective Chiaki Sekiguchi, with whom Jake collaborated throughout his work in the publication, but Hiroto is also a collective image.
The series explores several aspects of life in Tokyo. First of all, this is the journalistic work of Edelstin in the editorial office. Japanese corporate culture is very specific. The situation in the editorial office is frankly xenophobic, the editor-in-chief does not call Jake anything other than “gaijin” (an insulting name for foreigners in Japan), many things cannot be called by their proper names, any initiative can be punished.
The second aspect is the work of the police, its corruption, the presence of outright traitors in the police who receive money from the yakuza, but it is also shown that there are such honest and unbending police officers as Hiroto.
The third aspect is the Japanese mafia, the yakuza. The struggle of criminal clans, oyabuns and their henchmen, the terrible Ishida and the story of a guy named Sato (played by Sho Kasamatsu), who rose from the very bottom and by chance could become the right hand of the oyabun himself.
Well, the fourth aspect is the story of an American Samantha (Rachel Keller), who works as a hostess in one of the nightclubs in Tokyo and dreams of opening her own club. Jake will come out on it, digging up stories with the murders of people who owe money to the yakuza, and a certain relationship will connect Samantha with the same Sato.
Michael Mann is the director of one of the most classic crime dramas, Heat (he also directed such good films as The Insider and Accomplice, and the creator of the inarticulate nonsense called Johnny D.). A dark crime drama in neo-noir style, a night city, close-ups of the main characters, a skillfully created atmosphere are his signature style, and Michael managed to demonstrate this style in the first series.
As far as Joseph Vladyka, the director of most of the rest of the episodes of the first season, managed to follow this style – well, at least he tried and it turned out well. Visually impressive, very atmospheric, the series is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s magnificent Black Rain (still one of my favorite films), and at the same time there is some contemplation in it of the wonderful picture Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola, although, of course, there a completely different genre, but from the point of view of visualizing the Japanese capital and creating the appropriate mood, there are certain intersections.
Some of the reviews of this series have complained that there are too many storylines, so that the viewers no longer understand what to concentrate on at all, and they, the viewers, practically lose the thread of the story, but I do not agree with this. Yes, there are many lines. Editorial, police, yakuza, nightclub. But, in my opinion, everything is quite balanced here, and I would not say that the first season is overloaded with storylines – not at all. On the contrary, the show’s focus on four different aspects only gives it a certain variety.
Ansel Elgort was great as Jake. A young actor, a kind of handsome, but rather from the Brad Pitt series, who, having appeared in Thelma and Louise, was not going to remain in the roles of handsome men and began to portray very different characters. Here Jake is quite charismatic, with his kind of slightly touching face – quite assertive and at times tough, and Elgort played him more than adequately. Gaijin in Japan is always very hard, but Jake knew what he was getting into, and he acts very systematically and quite effectively there. At times, of course, it falls into all sorts of traps, well, how could it be without it? But the character is cool and interesting.
Ken Watanabe (how good he is in The Last Samurai!) is a very bright actor, and it’s great that he was invited to the role of Hiroto. A great family man, touchingly communicating with his wife and two wonderful daughters, a very tough police officer who fights the mafia, is not subject to corruption and despises corrupt police officers. A wonderful role, and they made a great duet with Elgort.
Rachel Keller was amazing as Samantha. We were told quite a lot about her previous life in the first season, she is also a gaijin in a foreign country, but she managed to reach a fairly high level, she is going to open her own business. Samantha also acts quite tough, but at the same time she is touchingly protective of her friend Polina (Ella Rumpf) and is ready for very serious sacrifices to get Polina out of trouble. However, I note that this storyline with an attempt to rescue Polina raises many questions – it’s somehow clearly stupidly spelled out. But in any case, Rachel Samantha played great, I really liked it.
There are two other characters that I would like to mention. The first is the same Sato, about whom quite a lot is also told. Sato is from the very bottom, he was brought to the yakuza, Sato did not have a particularly noticeable career there, especially since he is not a killer by nature, but it turned out that he almost got to the very top. Sho Kasamatsu played him very interestingly: the character is ambiguous, reflective, experiencing all sorts of conflicting feelings – he really liked it.
Well, Shun Sugata as Ishida. Really scary and formidable crime boss. Severely suffering from an incurable disease, but at the same time not losing power, charisma and influence. An outstanding role, Sugata played it perfectly!
Interestingly, most of the reviewers who wrote about this series did not realize that the story was not finished in the first season. At the beginning of the first season, they showed Jake and Hiroto meeting with the yakuza, where he was threatened, and this was two years after the start of the events shown in the series. So, at the end of the first season, only a year had passed since Edelsteen’s arrival in Tokyo. So in the second season they will show what further preceded that very meeting. Only then will the story be finished.
I’m really looking forward to the second season, well, the first season, of course, makes a lot of sense to watch, the series is impressive and even somewhat iconic.
Tokyo Police / Tokyo Vice
Director: JT Rogers Cast: Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe, Rachel Keller, Sho Kasamatsu, Ella Rumpf, Rinko Kikuchi, Shun Sugata, Takaki Uda, Kosuke Tanaka, Nobushige Suematsu
Series, USA, 2022, 60 min. Detective thriller, 2 seasons, 8 episodes in 1 season