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Tokyo Vice Review: White Boy to the Rescue

"Tokyo Vice" would do better without the white savior trope. But the cinematography and great casting (with one exception) make it a binge-worthy show.

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Ansel Elgort plays the protagonist in Tokyo Vice (© HBO Max by James Lisle).

After watching Tokyo Vice, I came up with a great idea for a TV series. I'm calling it "New York Vice." It's about a young Japanese journalist who gets hired by a major United States newspaper. Unlike his bumbling American colleagues who are content to regurgitate press releases, he is as brave as a lion and has a strong sense of right and wrong. Naturally, our hero is irresistible to American women, to the extent that the head of the Gambino crime family's beautiful mistress has got the hots for him.

Late one night, my Japanese journalist is alone in the office when he hears from the police radio that gang warfare is breaking out in Little Italy. Instantly, our hero bursts into action, grabbing his trusty bicycle and pedaling frantically to the crime scene. Fortunately, there is nobody outside the building mentioned in the alert. That allows him to sneak inside, hide behind a sofa and take pictures of the gangsters and cops negotiating some kind of deal. How's that for a scoop!

What are the chances of my idea being turned into a big-budget series to be seen all over the world? Zero. Everybody knows that the premise is nonsensical. But turn the same story inside out and set it in Japan and it all seems perfectly natural. If Tom Cruise can give Emperor Meiji advice on how to govern Japan in The Last Samurai, why can't an American cub reporter schmooze with senior cops and go drinking with the nicer kind of yakuza — as happens in the actual Tokyo Vice?

A film poster for Tokyo Vice featuring Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe (© Tokyo Vice on HBO Max Twitter)

Tokyo is the Real Star

Don't get me wrong — I enjoyed the series, despite plot absurdities and dangling threads that are typical of today's multi-episode streaming marathons. The best feature is the dazzling cinematography. Rarely has Tokyo looked so cool and leading edge. In fact, Tokyo is the real star of the show. 

The next best feature is the acting. With one important exception, the performances are pitch-perfect. Japanese actors slip into yakuza roles with the same effortless ease as British actors morph into aristocrats for Downton Abbey-style period pieces. In particular, the two rival yakuza bosses are frighteningly intense. 

The foreign nightclub hostesses are highly credible too. Having a former Mormon missionary as the most formidable of the ladies is excellent. She has simply put her skills of persuasion to a different use. Meanwhile, the great Ken Watanabe does a fine job as the honest, pragmatic cop, though he and his wife look rather too aged to have cute little children. Perhaps the second season will reveal a medical secret.

Tokyo Vice
Ken Watanabe plays a pragmatic detective in the organized crime department in Tokyo Vice (© HBO Max by James Lisle)

Odd Casting Choice for Protagonist

Unfortunately, the one actor who seems miscast plays the main character. Baby-faced and gangly, Ansel Elgort seemed a strange choice for the male lead in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, especially for those who remember the smoldering good looks of 'Tony' in the 1961 movie. The same goes for his depiction of the heroic journalist in Tokyo Vice. He is too wet behind the ears, too smiley, and, in the Japanese context, much too tall. The idea that the lover of a top yakuza would risk serious bodily harm to get intimate with this nerdy beanpole strains all credulity. As a journalist, he comes off as more Tintin than Woodward and Bernstein.

To be frank, the drama would be grittier and more believable if that character did not exist. In his place, a tough Japanese reporter with a black belt in kyokushin full-contact karate would fit the bill perfectly. But that would never work in commercial terms. Even in these woke times, you need a white protagonist to bring in the mass audience.

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How Real is Tokyo Vice?

Consider the fate of Giri/Haji, a BBC-Netflix co-production that ran in 2019-20. A much more adventurous and sophisticated take on the Japan-themed thriller, it depicted a Japanese detective trying to find his yakuza brother in the neon-soaked backstreets of London. Rather than "orientalize" Japan, the production team emphasized the parallels between the two countries.  

On his research trip, scriptwriter Joe Barton noted that "the suburbs don't feel all that different to other cities. It could be Madrid in some places, London in some places … the thing about Japanese culture was how many similarities there were [with Britain], ideas about behavior, how people see you, politeness, the front we put on."

Despite a 100% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 88% from viewers, the series was canceled in 2020. There were simply not enough couch potatoes who prefer commonalities to otherness.

I read Jake Adelstein's book Tokyo Vice shortly after it was published in 2009. It was an entertaining read, particularly the first sections that recounted the humdrum reality of being a reporter, what actually goes on in the closed world of a Japanese press club, and so on. It is fair to say that the TV series is far removed from the author's original story in terms of plot, characters, and ambiance.

A film poster for Giri/Haji (© Giri/Haji Twitter).

Eye-Brow Raising Moments

Several Japan-savvy names are listed in the credits, as well as Jake himself. As a result, there are few of the false notes that are all too prevalent in Hollywood renditions of Japan. Think Black Rain, in which the yakuza hold their meetings in a hot rolled steel mill, and Michael Douglas schools Ken Takakura in the art of karaoke. Think Sean Connery playing a Japanologist in Rising Sun and delivering the line "I am very, very OKOTTA," helpfully translated by another character as "pissed off."  

Nonetheless, Tokyo Vice has a few "hmm" moments. Would a third-generation Korean resident of Japan even be able to converse in Korean with her brother? Would Japanese firefighters hang back and watch a man set himself on fire? Is it really so easy to defraud large Japanese insurance companies? All seem unlikely, but not impossible.

What about the unflattering picture of Japanese journalism? In the world of Tokyo Vice, on one side there is our hero's employer, a gigantic media corporation that is spoon-fed information by the powers that be. On the other side is a scuzzy meth addict who writes articles glorifying the vicious gangsters that supply his drugs. There is nothing, it seems, in between.

Tokyo Vice
A film poster for Tokyo Vice showing a Yakuza's tattoos (from the Tokyo Vice on HBO Max official Twitter).

Verdict: A Guilty Pleasure

In reality, Japan has a vibrant culture of weekly and monthly magazines which have a long history of busting political and corporate scandals, to the extent of unseating prime ministers and crashing the share prices of blue chip companies. They don't need twenty-four-year-old Americans to show them how to do it. They really don't.

I will be watching the second season of Tokyo Vice, promised for later this year. The series is the very definition of a guilty pleasure. I also hope that BBC and Netflix get their act together and resuscitate Giri/Haji, which was truly innovative in its vision of Japan. And if any producer out there is interested in a story in which a novice Japanese reporter takes down the New York mafia, please give me a call.

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Tokyo Vice is currently streaming on BBC iPlayer. 

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Author: Peter Tasker 

Find other essays and articles by the author on JAPAN Forward.

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