Thirty seconds into Michael Mann’s dank-ass return to the collective, vice-coated neon-TV dreamscape, dudes are strapping on their bullet… er, knife-proof jackets beneath dark suits and lacquered hair, to which I say: Hell yeah. Expat reporter Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) and Tokyo PD detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) is the two lonely males in question, and they’re teaming up to take on the yakuza.
In the all-consuming inverted fractal galaxy of the Tokyo underground, we enter in media res on a yet-to-be-revealed game of patterns, codes, fire, and bullets. Adelstein and Katagiri are getting ready for a dinner rendezvous with the “number two yakuza.” The idea is to enter the restaurant first and choose a table with their backs to the wall, but everything changes when the receptionist informs them that the yakuza arrived early and changed the meeting to a private room, away from backup. They’ve already penetrated enemy territory by a level or two. Adelstein and Hitigari are seated across from the first of a slew of diamond-cut faces blazing behind a cigarette. The No. 2 yakuza threatens Adelstein, saying, “We know what you’re investigating.” “If you walk away, it’ll be as if it never occurred.” Is it worth publishing? There’s no place to hide.”
“Tokyo Vice“, loosely based on Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir of the same name, shares significantly more than half of its title with its de facto ’80s precursor. Michael Mann not only serves as executive producer (as he did as Miami Vice’s unifying creative force), but he also directed the pilot with the explicit intent of establishing the series tone and signature, as he explained to Juan Morales in an interview for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
As a result, the juice that drives the action in “Tokyo Vice’s” cold open is Michael Mann’s visual signature, which is still as distinctive to him as it is to millions of imitators in the digital age. “1999 – Two Years Earlier” is cut in. Jake Adelstein is preparing for the entrance exam at Japan’s largest newspaper, Meicho Shimbun, where he will be the first foreign reporter. We’re given a flurry of details about Jake’s solitary ex-pat life in the slick montage leading up to his exam and preliminary interview — teaching an English class, grabbing quick meals at sushi bars with a book open in front of him, blowing off steam at the club, his tiny apartment decked out with Japanese books and yakuza clippings — all framed within the distinct palette, compression of nighttime Tokyo, the intense graphics, and the overall ambiance
In his entrance interview, Jake is asked why he wants to be a crime reporter in Japan (a fair question), and his motivation is that his coroner father took him to crime scenes and showed him dead bodies and murder files, which sparked his interest in using forensic evidence to “reason what actually happened.” That’s all right. Jake is given high marks for his superb written Japanese despite accidentally forgetting the last page of his exam (awful, hate it when that happens), however, he is reminded that no foreigner has ever worked at “the best newspaper in the world.”
“You’re Jewish […],” another member on the panel asks aggressively. Many people here believe that Jews are in charge of the global economy. “How do you feel?” “Do you think I’d be content with what you’d pay me if we did?” Jake asks. Jake is established as a definite Mannian protagonist — a tall, dark, and gorgeous outsider driven by an unyielding ambition for greatness in a subterranean field that chose him as much as he chose it — and it’s a wonderful little sparring of wits.
Jake’s first day at Meicho Shimbun isn’t much more pleasant. Editor Eimi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi) says right away in his straight report, Here’s our format, novices, adhere to it, and you’ll probably never have a chance to add the “why.” She publicly reprimands him for his informality to a superior when he addresses her by her first name. Jake is called out again for being a foreigner in his next meeting with the chief editor of the police beat (Kosuke Toyohara), and later that night, when the new recruits are treated to drinks, his newfound pals and fellow reporters warn him, “everyone here thinks you’re a spy.” “Tokyo Vice” is shaping up to be a show about “deeply rooted standards of behavior” in “subcultures,” as Mann puts it. The newspaper is the first of several subcultures that the show will immerse us in via the eyes of someone who works from the ground up (or from the outside in, to be more precise).
We cut to a clever little image of a Tokyo subway line, then pull back into an extreme closeup on the face of a dead man. If we step back much more, we’ll find ourselves at a new crime scene. The corpse has many stab wounds (defensive in nature), and the knife that murdered him is still lodged in his chest. We also meet Detective Katagiri, played by Ken Watanabe, who enters the mad scene like a sad zen master (similar to Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna in Heat, but not overtly psychotic). By the way, isn’t this an excellent steal? There isn’t another actor who smolders with Watanabe’s power, intensity, and fiercely meditative air. Simply put, he has a terrific presence.
Jake’s first time at a crime scene, as well as his first job for the newspaper. However, he throws himself into trouble when he says in his first draft that the victim was “murdered.” “There is no murder in Japan,” as we’ll soon learn from badass corrupt cop Jin Miyamoto (played with interminable swagger by Hideaki Itô), and the dominant mindset is to keep the peace – recite the official police narrative and stop there. Jake must find another way in, which he achieves by joining Miyamoto on a night out on the town. He ends up in Onyx, a nightclub in the Kabukicho (red light) district, where he meets Samantha (Rachel Keller), a fellow American ex-pat and hostess with her own big dreams (more on that later).
“I’m putting in a lot of effort to get it right, to fit into their system, which is emotionally oppressive, and not what I anticipated from a newspaper, you know?” Jake tells her after purchasing a bottle and spending some time with her. “I’d like to report on what actually occurs.” “That is all there is to it. You understand what I mean when I say that giving up and going home is not an option.” She is one of them.
Jake sees an elderly man set himself on fire in the street later that night. He stays at the scene and discovers the victim’s matchbook, which bears the insignia of a strange loan company to which the stabbing victim was owing. Jake is still on the hunt for the truth, haunted by the vision of this man pouring gasoline over himself in the pilot’s final moments.
We get a better sense of whose point of view we’ll be following in the coming weeks as the scope zooms out a bit, relaxing its grasp on Jake’s perspective – especially Katagiri, Samantha, Eimi, and Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), a brazen young yakuza captain with his own ladder to climb.
At the beginning of “Kishi Kaisei,” Katagiri is at a similar career crossroads as Jake, powerless to change the way the stabbing case has been resolved. They have a signed deposition from a low-level yakuza who has turned himself in, his prints are on the murder weapon, and he has surrendered himself. In Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Phillip Marlowe says, “Case closed, all zippered up like a huge bag of garbage.” When Katagiri expresses his concerns, he is simply told, “Our role is to clear cases.”
Our guy, on the other hand, understands both his work (clearing cases) and his calling (detective), which are not the same thing if you’re performing any of them correctly. Katagiri, a master of treading the fine line, visits the stabbing victim’s widow under the guise of tidying up loose ends, fulfilling his case-clearing duties on the surface while probing deeper for the truth.
Katagiri discovers that this woman and her husband were compiling information on their yakuza lenders in order to present it to a lawyer. Katagiri is thumbing over the evidence she has on hand when Jake appears at the door to ask the same questions. We get this terrific, creepy view of Katagiri taking in Jake’s presence at the scene after the widow turns him away. Jake will come up to a yakuza turf conflict on a hot tip at the end of the episode, followed closely by Katagiri, who enters the scene like a goddamn sheriff in a spaghetti western (and de-escalates the situation with the serenity of some kind of vibe surgeon). Our two protagonists have crossed the ethereal world and have met both physically and metaphysically – kismet has brought them together.
Read the Air
Katagiri will describe his role as a “peacekeeper” in Tokyo later in “Read the Air,” when Katagiri and Jake have developed a growing friendship.
“The yakuza’s roots are so deep that we will never be able to eradicate them.” The cops are urged to keep the peace amongst the various camps. Tokyo has been relatively stable in recent years. But now Tozawa has arrived to try to acquire the turf of a local gang […] but you didn’t notify anyone so they can pretend it never happened.” For the time being, there is hope that there will be no reprisal, allowing the peace to last. Meanwhile, Katagiri gives Jake a bone and invites him on his first raid, giving him unique access to the arrests. Passed through Eimi, an editor who, as Katagiri later points out, must be wise and discreet, knowing what to say and what not to say. Between a young ex-pat reporter with a fire in his belly and a world-weary cop with a newfound, albeit guarded, sense of purpose, a friendship is formed.
And while we’re on the subject of people with fire in their bellies, how about Sato? Is he a firecracker or something? He’s our closest eyes and ears to all the yakuza drama, fighting to keep back his fists (and fashion tips) while the Oyabun organization holds back on reprisal against the Tozawa clan, plucked from the obscurity of a fish market. I’m looking forward to seeing how his story unfolds. You could call him the yakuza’s Jake, representing the Mannian lone wolf persona for whom “activity is the juice.” Sato, like the other of our point-of-view characters, is still on the outside looking in, and his rage isn’t helping matters. When another yakuza criticizes him in front of their entire gang, he ignores his mentor’s earlier advice to “read the air,” learn when to fight and when to negotiate and punches the guy in the face. When Oyabun firmly reprimands him, you really feel the weight of the lesson. Samantha, who’s clearly attracted by Sato’s fashion sense and ability to capture her aura by adorning her with the “correct” dress rather than perceiving her as an adornment, is the only person Sato genuinely gets along with around these parts.
By the way, if there’s one clear standout in the second and third episodes, it’s Rachel Keller’s Samantha, a fierce leather-clad motorcycle by day and sultry power hostess by night (unforgettable in Fargo season two and Legion). Samantha, unlike Jake, is an ex-pat who has mastered her domain’s codes and travels through the Tokyo subway with calm, unflappable confidence. Her interest is in Tokyo itself, which she describes as “bars, karaoke bars, gorgeous Onsens, and much too much manga.” You could argue that her desire to save enough money to open her own club and recruit some of her fellow hostesses is the most imminent of anyone on the show. What, however, lies beneath the surface? Samantha provides a phenomenally phony background that is something out of an erotic movie when Jake asks her this question during an unplanned meal. Jake, on the other hand, isn’t convinced. “Tell me one true thing,” he almost begs. She discloses that she hasn’t spoken to her family in four years, and she is both impressed and surprised by Jake’s insight. It’s an olive branch extended to a fellow outsider who recently admitted to having family problems of his own. It’s Tokyo, baby, and everyone out here is just trying to get by, both plagued and driven by the need to “leave their imprint.”
We leave Jake in the hands of the yakuza at the end of “Read the Air.” In the final photo, he’s framed beneath a shroud of reflected neon, his face one of purpose and resignation — not to death, but to the next big scoop — plucked from a night out at the batting cages with the boys and pushed into an anonymous black sedan. The issue has (finally) escalated, bringing him closer to the truth of what is going on.