‘Tokyo Vice’ is a canny, suspenseful adventure story

A man rides in a car through Tokyo's neon lights
Ansel Elgort as Jake, a Midwestern beanpole who stands out in the Tokyo crowds, in “Tokyo Vice.”
(HBO Max)

Jake Adelstein, the first non-Japanese reporter on staff at Japan’s largest newspaper, has had his 2009 memoir about working the police beat adapted into a 10-episode series for HBO Max, “Tokyo Vice.” Half that meal has been made available for review, and it is so far an intriguing mix of familiar flavors and unusual spices. How it finishes we will learn together, but so far, so very good.

I can’t swear that a publisher’s idea to swipe a title led to a producer’s idea to get “Miami Vice” executive producer Michael Mann to direct the pilot, but in any case, that happened. (He is also an executive producer.) Like that series, the films that Mann has directed (among them “Manhunter,” “Heat,” “The Insider,” “Blackhat”) can go long on style — and stylishness, which is just a shot away from shallowness and is very much a temptation in a show filmed against the neon-bright background of modern Tokyo. But he reins it in here — a slow-motion walking shot at the top, some significant focus-shifting. Most often the series comes alive in its messier, noisier, incidental details: the stuff in Jake’s little room above an eatery; the busy hive of the newspaper office; stores and restaurants and street life. It’s a thriller with a touch of Anthony Bourdain.

Ansel Elgort (lately loved-hated-tolerated as Tony in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) plays Jake, a beanpole out of Missouri, who stands out in and above the Tokyo crowds. (He’s Jewish, to boot, which makes him an even more curious figure. “Do Jews eat sushi?” he’s asked in a job interview; that thing about controlling the world’s economy comes up as well.) We meet him two years in advance of the actual beginning of the story, in a private room in a fancy restaurant where a yakuza suggests he might want to back off a story, before skipping back to 1999, where he is still a floppy-haired teacher of English to housewives.


It’s quickly established, to percussive underscoring, that he’s not an ugly American but is at home in and in love with the local culture. He speaks Japanese fluently, is friendly with shopkeepers and cooks; at the corner store they call him Jake-san. He practices martial arts; hops around in dance clubs. Meanwhile, he studies for the examination that will qualify him to work for the nation’s largest newspaper; he’s hired, which is when his troubles begin. Everything there runs by the book, and it is a very big book. And rule-followers make poor heroes.

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Created by the Tony Award-winning J.T. Rogers (“Oslo”), who had earlier worked with Adelstein (a childhood friend) on an abandoned big-screen adaptation, “Tokyo Vice” avoids the pitfall of making this the story of a white American showing the Japanese how it’s done by making Jake a bit of a doofus, a cocksure big lug who stumbles as much as he succeeds, and by surrounding him with local characters who are equally motivated, more experienced and/or better informed. He has ambition and energy, but, like Luke Skywalker in a movie heavily influenced by Japanese film, he will need guidance.

“Why do I feel like the greatest investigative journalist that ever lived?” Jake asks a colleague, having gotten his first piece published.

A reporter and a detective ride in a bus with a bunch of policemen in heavy armor
Ansel Elgort, left, as a newspaper reporter, and Ken Watanabe, as a police detective in the organized crime division, in “Tokyo Vice.”
(HBO Max)

“Because you’re an American” says one of his friendly colleagues, “so you think that you’re more talented than you actually are.” In the short run, this will be prove true.

For all he knows about his adopted country, there’s a lot he misses.

“I’m trying really hard to get it right, to fit into their system, which is mentally tyrannical, which is not what I expected from a newspaper,” he complains, when he is expected only to report, or reprint, the official police version of any case. “You don’t get to think,” he is told, but that’s not going to happen; a routine investigation leads him to collect clues like Nancy Drew, and we are off.


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It’s a big show, with a vivid supporting cast of friends and foes and people just met along the way, but it revolves around five characters who in one way or another seem set to become allies. Along with Jake, whose constitutional inquisitiveness allows for a lot of exposition, there’s Hiroto (Ken Watanabe), a police detective in the organized crime division, who would rather find the truth than simply, as his boss would prefer, clear a case; Samantha (Rachel Keller), a fellow American, working in a hostess bar, where we first see her singing “Sweet Child of Mine” in Japanese; Emi (Rinko Kikuchi), Jake’s assignment editor, inclined herself to follow a story to the end but hamstrung by hidebound superiors; and Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), a sensitive yakuza with a thing for Samantha. Jake is the hub from which they radiate, but each has business apart from him.

Of all these characters (and universally fine performers), none are as structurally important to the series’ success as Watanabe’s detective — perhaps not even Elgort, who gets from Watanabe the same sort of older-man support Jake gets from Hiroto. Serious of mien, furrowed of brow and just a little in need of shave, he is a classic noir type, with the worn-in quiet authority of late-period Bogart or Stewart or Wayne.

Like many of the most effective adventure stories, “Tokyo Vice” does not shy from cliche; it’s a basket of tropes, familiar not only from police procedurals and newspaper dramas, but gangster films and Western: the rookie reporter and the veteran cop, each chafing against the conservative strictures of their superiors; the screaming editor who wouldn’t know a good story if it were laid out in 20-point type and taped to his face; a dance hall girl looking for something better; a good guy bonding with a bad guy; old-school mobsters with a sense of honor facing competition from less scrupulous rivals.

Even as one recognizes them, one greets them as old friends, because they are well-handled here and give the series a solid core that lets it concentrate on character. (Note Jake’s initial conversations with Sato, which center on pop culture, and carry both an edge of danger, and getting past danger.) The machinations of the plot are less important than the people it carries along; and it’s our concern for them — heightened by the feeling that things might go very wrong at any moment — that keeps “Tokyo Vice” suspenseful and, in the bargain, makes us care about the characters all the more. There are reasons the tropes are tropes.

‘Tokyo Vice’

Where: HBO Max

When: Any time, starting Thursday, April 7

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)