sat 04/02/2023

Tokyo Vice, BBC One review - murder, extortion and corruption in the Japanese capital | reviews, news & interviews

Tokyo Vice, BBC One review - murder, extortion and corruption in the Japanese capital

Tokyo Vice, BBC One review - murder, extortion and corruption in the Japanese capital

Eager American reporter Jake Adelstein plunges into the murky world of the Yakuza

Detective Miyamoto (Hideaki Itō) and Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort)

There was originally a plan to make Tokyo Vice a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, but it has ended up as a TV series starring Ansel Elgort. It’s almost certainly the better for it, because the eight episodes of this first season – the way it ends, or rather doesn’t, makes a second helping inevitable – give it space to explore Japanese culture and its often mutually uncomprehending relationship with American or European values.

It’s based on the book of the same name by Jake Adelstein, a Missouri-born journalist who relocated to Tokyo, joined the staff of a Japanese newspaper and worked his way up from the bottom. It’s amusing to watch Elgort’s Adelstein going through the process of becoming the first-ever non-Japanese employee on his newspaper. He must contend with the suspicious attitudes of his hosts who generally refer to him as “gaijin” (foreigner). Since he’s Jewish, some of his colleagues think he must be an agent for Mossad.

Like all cub reporters, he’s initially assigned to the crime desk, where all stories must fit into a tightly-defined format. He’s drilled remorselessly by his editor Rinko Kikuchi (Emi Maruyama) into sticking to those set-in-stone journalistic commandments of when, where, who and how. The question “why?” is not encouraged, let alone opinions or colourful adjectives. Also, reporters are forbidden to question the police’s version of any story, which must be treated as gospel even if it’s patently false.

Michael Mann’s role as director of the opening episode and exec producer of the series has brought a hypnotising and faintly dreamlike quality to the proceedings, as the callow but remarkably self-assured Jake immerses himself in the mysteries of the Japanese capital and struggles to get his first story published. But the mood morphs from the innocent-abroad theme and turns darker and twistier. Jake reports on a couple of gruesome deaths, including a man who douses himself in petrol and sets himself alight, and gets to know the charismatic but deeply sleazy Detective Miyamoto (Hideaki Itō).

He discovers that a gang of ruthless loan-sharks are driving victims to suicide with their insane interest-rates and terrifying threats. He becomes a habituee of the Onyx Club, a nightclub where escort girls entertain a clientele which contains a remarkable number of Yakuza gangsters. He befriends Samantha (Rachel Keller, pictured above), an expat American trying to escape from her controlling Mormon family, and gets to know Sato (Sho Kasamatsu), who’s both her boyfriend and her gangster-minder. In this version of Tokyo, at least, it seems all clubs are joint ventures with the Mob, and all the gangsters have their pet policemen comfortably in their pockets.

The narrative gradually broadens out to encompass a simmering turf war between rival gang leaders Ishida (Shun Sugata) and Tozawa (Ayumi Tanida, pictured right). While Tozawa is in the black-hearted business tycoon vein, Ishida is more the dynastic patriarch, bonding his troops to the cause with elaborate samurai-style rituals. Both of them lust for power and money and don’t care how many they have to murder to get there.

Tokyo Vice becomes more absorbing the deeper into it you go, though a fair amount of disbelief needs to be suspended. The notion that Jake, who’s more like a college football player or the singer in a boy-band than a hard-bitten investigative reporter, would be able to pit himself against the terrifying Yakuza barons is just a tiny bit unbelievable. The idea that he’d have an affair with Tozawa’s mistress is just barking mad. Meanwhile, the heavily-outnumbered forces of light can at least rely on the saintly Detective Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) to do the right thing, even if he does seem to be the only honest cop in Japan.

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