Jake Adelstein, the first non-Japanese reporter for Japan’s largest newspaper, has had his 2009 memoir about police work adapted into a 10-episode series for HBO Max, “Tokyo Vice.” Half of this meal has been made available for review, and so far it’s an intriguing mix of familiar flavors and unusual spices. How it ends, we’ll learn together, but so far so good.
I can’t swear that a publisher’s idea of dragging a title led to a producer’s idea of having “Miami Vice” executive producer Michael Mann direct the pilot, but anyway , it happened. (He’s also an executive producer.) Like this series, the movies Mann has directed (including “Manhunter,” “Heat,” “The Insider,” “Blackhat”) can last a long time on style — and elegance, which is just a swipe away from superficiality and is truly a temptation in a spectacle filmed against the bright neon backdrop of modern Tokyo. But he’s holding it back here – a slow-motion shot at the top, a significant shift in focus. More often than not, the series comes to life in its messier, louder, and more accidental details: the things in Jake’s little bedroom above a restaurant; the bustling hive of the newspaper office; shops and restaurants and street life. It’s a thriller with a touch of Anthony Bourdain.
Ansel Elgort (recently loved-hated-tolerated as Tony in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) plays Jake, a bean from Missouri, who stands out in and above the Tokyo crowds. (He’s Jewish, too, which makes him an even more curious character. “Do Jews eat sushi?” he was asked in a job interview; this question of control of the world economy also returns.) We meet him two years in advance. from the actual beginning of the story, in a private room of a fancy restaurant where a yakuza suggests he might want to roll back a story, before returning to 1999, where he is still a floppy-haired English teacher for the Housewives.
It is quickly established, under the effect of the percussion, that he is not a naughty American, but that he is at home and in love with the local culture. He speaks fluent Japanese, is friendly with shopkeepers and cooks; at the corner store, they call him Jake-san. He practices martial arts; hops in the dance clubs. Meanwhile, he is studying for the exam that will qualify him to work for the nation’s biggest newspaper; he is hired, that’s where his troubles begin. It’s all governed by the book, and it’s a very big book. And those who follow the rules make bad heroes.
Created by Tony Award-winning JT Rogers (“Oslo”), who previously worked with Adelstein (a childhood friend) on an abandoned big-screen adaptation, “Tokyo Vice” avoids the pitfall of making it the story of a white American to show the Japanese how it’s done by making Jake a bit of a doofus, a big, arrogant thug who stumbles as much as he succeeds, and surrounding him with local characters who are just as driven, more experienced and /or better informed. He has ambition and energy, but, like Luke Skywalker in a film heavily influenced by Japanese cinema, he will need guidance.
“Why do I feel like the greatest investigative journalist who ever lived?” Jake asks a colleague after publishing his first article.
“Because you’re an American,” said one of his friendly colleagues, “so you think you’re more talented than you really are.” In the short term, this will prove to be true.
Despite everything he knows about his adopted country, there are many things he misses.
“I really try to do things right, to fit into their system, which is mentally tyrannical, which is not what I expected from a newspaper,” he complains, as we expects him to report, or reprint, the official report. police version of any case. “You can’t think,” he is told, but that won’t happen; a routine investigation leads him to collect clues like Nancy Drew, and off he goes.
It’s a big show, with a lively cast of friends and foes and people who just met, but it revolves around five characters who somehow seem poised to become allies. Alongside Jake, whose constitutional curiosity allows for plenty of exposure, is Hiroto (Ken Watanabe), a police detective in the Organized Crime Division, who would rather uncover the truth than simply, as his boss would prefer, clear up a case; Samantha (Rachel Keller), a fellow American, working at a hostess bar, where she is first seen singing “Sweet Child of Mine” in Japanese; Emi (Rinko Kikuchi), Jake’s editor, bowed to following a story to completion but crippled by hidden superiors; and Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), a sensitive yakuza who has a thing for Samantha. Jake is the hub from which they radiate, but each has business outside of him.
Of all these characters (and universally good performers), none are as structurally important to the show’s success as Watanabe’s detective – perhaps not even Elgort, who receives the same kind of support from Watanabe that Jake receives. by Hiroto. Serious-looking, furrowed and just a little in need of a shave, he’s a classic black guy, with the well-worn quiet authority of late-era Bogart or Stewart or Wayne.
Like many of the most effective adventure stories, “Tokyo Vice” doesn’t shy away from clichés; it’s a basket of tropes, familiar not just from police procedurals and newspaper dramas, but also from gangster movies and westerns: the rookie journalist and the veteran cop, each chafing at the conservative restraints of their superiors; the screaming editor who wouldn’t know a good story if it was written in 20 points and plastered on his face; a dancer in search of something better; a good guy who bonds with a bad guy; Old school gangsters with a sense of honor face competition from less scrupulous rivals.
Even though we recognize them, we greet them like old friends, as they are treated well here and give the series a solid core that allows it to focus on the character. (Note Jake’s initial conversations with Sato, which focus on pop culture, and feature both an edge of danger and the overcoming of danger.) The machinations of the plot are less important than the people it entails. ; and it’s our concern for them – reinforced by the feeling that things could go horribly wrong at any moment – that keeps “Tokyo Vice” suspenseful and, what’s more, makes us care all the more about the characters. There are reasons why tropes are tropes.
Or: HBO Max
When: Anytime, starting Thursday, April 7
Evaluation: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17)