REVIEW: ‘Tokyo Vice’ is an immersive, stylish and clever neon noir vision of 90s Japan

Boyce Rucker, Staff Writer

Crime drama is a hard thing to pull off in television today without leaning into clichés like brooding detectives and urban grit. A change in scenery is one way to mix up the crime genre, transporting us somewhere new. HBO Max’s “Tokyo Vice” takes us into late 1990s Japan, where the Yakuza presence affects the way policemen investigate crime and an American reporter’s efforts to write the truth. The series is based on the 2009 memoir of the same name by journalist Jake Adelstein, the first non-Japanese reporter for one of Japan’s largest newspapers, the Yomiuri Shimbun. Serving as the pilot’s director and executive producer, filmmaker Michael Mann makes a return to television after a long absence. A master of crime drama, Mann implants his distinctive procedural style and noir elements into the series. Based on its first three episodes, “Tokyo Vice” is one of the most stylish and clever crime shows to grace streaming this year.

Ansel Elgort in ‘Read the Air’ (2022). (James Lisle/HBO Max)

The series fictionalizes and dramatizes the memoir’s contents. After becoming a reporter for the Meicho Shimbun, Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) looks into horrific murders at the heart of Tokyo, Japan. Adelstein receives pushback from his editors for the depth of his crime reporting, causing him to turn to Detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe). Under Katagiri’s guidance, Adelstein plunges into the darkly sordid world of organized crime.

The series presents an immersive dive into late 1990s Tokyo, unlike the memoir’s 1993 setting. Shot on location, the show presents Tokyo with an authenticity that is part of Mann’s unmistakable style. The first episode pulls us into Japan’s uniform and continuously kinetic culture, making it seem like a brand new world in our eyes. Mann excels at lending a moody and neon-lit atmosphere that compliments the noir story. As he did with Los Angeles in his films, Mann makes Tokyo into an expressive backdrop for the criminal underbelly. Tokyo’s ethereal allure and dreaminess effectively clashes with the violent and seedy criminal underworld. The visual presentation catches our attention early on with vast landscape shots and dynamic handheld camera movements that pull us into the world. While the visuals are impressive, the story holds some intellectual substance.

Ayumi Tanida in ‘Read the Air’ (2022). (James Lisle/HBO Max)

The show sets up a slow-burn story that examines the line between corruption and justice in Japan. Despite Adelstein’s years of experience studying Japanese culture, he still makes some mistakes along the way in his interactions. His overconfidence and naivete as a “gaijin” (Japanese for “foreigner”) subjects him to criticism at the newspaper. While he is ambitious and driven in wanting to write about the truth of the city, he realizes he has to learn the ropes of how crime reporting works in Japan. The show depicts an arrangement where reporters and law enforcement work together to spin a story that’s believable for the public without damaging the Yakuza or law enforcement. Blurred lines between crime and justice are a straightforward theme for any crime show, though we get to see how it changes with the Japan setting. 

Although the show has a great storyline in the works, it leaves much character development to be desired. Nothing so far shows Adelstein’s potential to be an engaging protagonist. His motivation to find out the truth and deliver justice in a corrupt city drives the plot, but that’s the motivation for almost any other hero in a procedural crime drama. Adelstein lacks the charisma and charm that would otherwise make him more likable rather than one of the least interesting aspects of the show. He functions as a narrative chess piece who simply introduces us to the world of Japan, but it doesn’t make him easy to connect with.

Hideaki Itô and Ansel Elgort in ‘The Test’ (2022). (James Lisle/HBO Max)

The exploration of Japan’s criminal element is the biggest focus here. The show adapts Adelstein’s journalist experience in Japan but broadens its focus on the criminal underworld to produce a neo-noir tale. In a manner akin to Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” the show pulls us in with the fundamentals of journalism in Japan, as well as the relationship between Yakuza and the police. The international setting and procedural premise promises a deep look into organized crime within Japan. 

Adelstein does, however, share the defining motif of Mann’s movie protagonists, namely setting aside personal connections and family to pursue ambition in his professional career. We slowly empathize with him as the show highlights the dissonance between him and his family as he lives in Japan. We can attribute the character’s blandness to him being based on a real person. Accuracy to the real-life counterpart can make it difficult to add uniqueness and layers to this character, and character development can often come at a slower pace for TV shows, which hopefully means that Adelstein can become interesting somewhere down the line.

Ansel Elgort in ‘Read the Air’ (2022). (James Lisle/HBO Max)

The show deserves recognition for its casting. There is not much material yet that allows Elgort to show range as the main character, but Watanabe manages to be a scene-stealer so far. Watanabe conveys coolness and conventional wisdom as Katagiri. His performance carries so much weight that the series only feels like it’s advancing when he’s onscreen. Tension underlines Katagiri’s interactions with the Yakuza as we see him keep a steady head that matches with smooth professionalism. Although Japan’s criminal element is the series’ main focus, it can benefit from more scenes featuring room for the lead stars to further develop their characters.

“Tokyo Vice” is a crime drama ripe with intrigue and a neon-drenched atmosphere sure to please crime fans. It has a way to go with its characters, but the signature style Mann establishes in the pilot is enough to complement the story and carry the series. This may become one of the most talked-about shows of the spring TV season.