Tokyo Vice is a crime thriller series currently on HBO Max and based on the memoirs by Jake Adelstein. Set in 1999 Japan, it follows an American reporter working for a Japanese newspaper as he delves deep into Tokyo’s seedy underworld and the criminal kingdom of the yakuza.
The TV series has several big names attached to it, not least of which is Michael Mann, who directed the first episode and served as an executive producer. Fitting, since the entire show has a Miami Vice aesthetic – soaked in neon, smoldering cigarettes, moody lighting, and stylish cinematography. Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai and Letters From Iwo Jima fame also stars, along with Rinko Kikuchi from Pacific Rim and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
The plot is dense, so similar to my Babylon Berlin Season 3 review, I’ll split it up between the characters and storylines, followed by a comparison of the book. Spoiler warning for both.
Portrayed by Ansel Egort, Jake is the only “real” character from the book, meaning that’s still fictionalized but is the only character to not get a name change. We first meet Jake Adelstein as he is preparing to meet with members of a yakuza gang, accompanied by his police friend – Detective Katagiri, played by Ken Watanabe. The mood is tense, and Jake even dons a bulletproof vest in preparation. They meet with the two yakuza who warns Jake not to publish a story he’s working on or else. Before we are told what that story is, the show flashes back two years to 1999.
Jake is a fresh-faced English teacher, an entryway for many Westerners to begin working in Japan. But Jake doesn’t settle for that, and, speaking fluent Japanese, he applies for a career in journalism. Against all odds, he becomes the first American reporter to be hired at the Meicho Shimbun, a fictional newspaper modeled after the media giant – the Yomiuri Shimbun.
Not only is he a reporter, he’s a crime reporter, meaning that he is assigned by his boss – Murayama, played by Rinko Kikuchi – to scour Tokyo’s underbelly. Japan is a safe country, so any major crime will become a major news story, sometimes for years afterward. Even minor crimes like panty stealing or subway groping will get a write-up.
Eager to ingratiate himself with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, Jake tries to befriend Detective Miyamoto, who proves to be a massive douche, but actually ends up teaching a valuable lesson. In Japan, everything is transactional. Things aren’t much better at the Meicho, where Jake is routinely shit on by his racist editor, and even supervisor Murayama is frustrated with him. His only comforts are tapes from home, where his sister fills him in on the latest happenings in his hometown in Missouri. A stroke of luck occurs when Jake listens to a police scanner and overhears a violent altercation at a Tokyo nightclub.
Investigating, Jake finds a yakuza ready to kill a rival, even though he’s surrounded by police officers. Detective Katagiri intervenes and defuses the tense situation but warns Jake not to write about this. Jake agrees and a partnership develops between the two, with Katagiri feeding him the information he’d like the Meicho to investigate. Soon, their partnership turns into a tenuous friendship, and we see that Katagiri is probably the most honorable person in a show full of characters with shady pasts. If you cast Ken Watanabe, he’s almost always going to play a nice guy.
Jake is investigating a strange mystery of his own, namely the bizarre suicide of several Japanese people who are in severe debt. With Katagiri’s help, Jake connects the loan company to a new yakuza group in town, the Tozawa Gang, hailing from the Kansai Region. They are encroaching on the Tokyo-based yakuza gang, the Chihara-Kai. In the early 1990s, the Japanese “Bubble Economy” burst, leaving people in severe debt. Loans were much harder to obtain, so many turned to shady companies which were mere fronts for the yakuza. These unfortunates were then convinced by the loan companies to take out life insurance policies with them as the sole beneficiaries. When they were inevitably unable to pay back the massive debt, threatening voice calls were made, hounding them into suicide. The life insurance policy was then paid to the yakuza front companies.
“Pretty fucking evil,” as Jake puts it.
Even more insidious is that the Tozawa Gang is smuggling meth into Japan. Drugs are a big no-no in the country, but by 1999, a lot of the old yakuza traditions were breaking down, with unscrupulous upstarts eager to rise to the top. This leads us to our next major character.
Played by Shô Kasamatsu, Sato is an up-in-coming member of the Chihara-Kai. Sato (as far as I know, we don’t know his given name) does grunt work for the gang, collecting protection money under the watchful eye of his yakuza big brother, Kume. A major source of revenue for the yakuza is protection money, and one such place that pays is the Onyx Bar, a hostess club. Sato frequents the establishment often and has an infatuation for one of the gaijin hostesses, Samantha. It is here Sato also comes in contact with Jake, and the two become frenemies.
Sato is easily the most complex of the three major characters, unsure of his position and the path he is headed down. The son of a fishmonger at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, Sato is disgusted by his humble origins and terrified of wading through fish slime to earn a paycheck. He joins the yakuza, much to the shame of his parents. For Sato, the Chihara-Kai is his only family now, and its oyabun – its “boss” – Hitoshi Ishida is his new father. Even still, Sato considers quitting the gang after a traumatic incident with the oyabun.
Boss Ishida is played by Shun Sugata, a veteran actor with a long IMDB page. Although old and traditional, Ishida has a sort of ancient menace, amplified by his gravely, raspy voice, that puts you at ease. But his grandfatherly mask will quickly pull away in an instant if it suits him. Ishida is of the old school of yakuza, accustomed to old rituals, old thinking, and old strategies. There is some honor in those ways, but not much.
The stage is set for a deadly confrontation between the Chihara-Kai and the Tozawa Gang, culminating in an assassination attempt on Boss Ishida. Ironically, Sato is there and helps thwart the hit, saving Ishida’s life in the process. Now, the reluctant yakuza rockets up the chain of command, delving deeper and deeper into the underworld, just as a full-blown gang war seems imminent.
Complicating matters is Sato’s relationship with Jake and Samantha, the hostess. At first, he is annoyed by the gaijin reporter, they begin to bond over Backstreet Boys lyrics. But, of course, everything is transactional in Japan, so while Jake wants insight into the yakuza, Sato and Ishida want to feed information to the press, and Jake’s police contact Katagiri. Things that might embarrass and cripple their rivals in the Tozawa Gang.
Sato lusts after Samantha, the gaijin hostess, and the two eventually hook up. While I wouldn’t call it a relationship, they form an affectionate bond, but Samantha has ulterior motives. Sato also has rivals within the Chihara-Kai itself, and he can never turn his back for too long, lest someone is sneaking up with a knife.
The last of the three main characters, Samatha Porter is played by Rachel Keller. A hostess at the Onyx Bar, she is our window into the mizu shobai, the Water Trade, a Japanese euphuism for the sex industry. Hostess clubs are swanky lounges where men go to talk with beautiful women, drink with them, smoke with them, and, occasionally, have sex with them. Although, that’s usually at the hostess’s discretion. They’re popular in Japan, where a degree of gender segregation still exists. Japanese people don’t often talk to strangers, and intimacy is rare, meaning you sometimes have to pay for it. In essence, hostesses are like modern-day geisha, who are also paid for as entertainers and conversationalists.
Samantha is one of the more popular hostesses at the Onyx Bar, catching the eye of both Sato and Jake. It’s quickly apparent she’s more interested in Sato, though even that affection is half-hearted and dependent on whether Samantha wants something from him. After many strained encounters, they begin an affair, but here is where the writing for her character becomes inconsistent.
I’m not sure whether Samantha is actually interested in Sato, or if she’s just using him like she does all men. For example, she is being hounded by a private detective, uncovering shady events from her past. To deal with him, she enlists Sato. After all, a yakuza would scare anyone away. But Sato and her relationship always feels forced and awkward. Added to that while Sho Kasamatsu is a good actor, his English is somewhat phonetic. This is especially true with Rachel Keller, who seems to have just memorized her lines in Japanese, rather than speaking them naturally. Compare this to Ansel Egort, who, as Jake, speaks with a more natural cadence. Not fluent, but he does sound more authentic.
Some reviews have said that Jake is the least interesting character on the show. I would argue that title goes to Samantha. Her character is pretty bland and uninteresting, with even the show writers not very sure what they want to do with her. Samantha’s goal is to open up a hostess bar of her own, which she’s been squirreling away money for. That’s fine and all, but pretty boring when compared to a yakuza war. Jake’s story at least showcases the high-pressure world of Japanese newspapers, especially in how it relates to freedom of the press, its ties to the police, and crime in Japan.
Added to her overall blandness, Samantha isn’t very likable. If Sato is simply a gaijin hunter, lusting after an exotic American woman, it’s understandable. But Jake being interested in her doesn’t track, mostly because she isn’t very nice or interesting to him. For example, there’s a scene where Jake goes to the Onyx Club. Stressed out by the snooping private detective, Samantha is at first eager to see him and Jake buys a bottle of champagne for them. But she’s inattentive, causing Jake to snap at her, and she snaps back, saying he is acting like an asshole, and reminds him, “This is my job, okay?”
Um, yeah, isn’t your job as a hostess supposed to pay attention to the paying client? That doesn’t make a lick of sense. Her storyline accelerates toward the end where one of her fellow hostesses winds up being held prisoner by the Tozawa Gang and Samantha has to decide whether to spend her entire savings getting her back. Also, her backstory about being a Mormon missionary who quickly became disillusioned and seduced by Japan is more interesting but pales in comparison to anything going on with the yakuza. Samantha appears to be very loosely based on a woman from the book named Helena, a hostess from New Zealand who also rides a motorcycle and is also a bit of a ball buster. Given Adelstein’s admission of changing names and nationalities to protect people’s privacy, Helena might be someone different entirely, but she is still more interesting than her fictional counterpart.
Basically, you could cut Samantha out entirely and the series would still make sense. Jake and Sato are more indispensable. Hopefully, she’ll be better written in possible future seasons.
As mentioned, you can’t cast Ken Watanabe in anything other than a “good guy” role. His charm and fatherly nature shine through, and this is no less true for the role of Katagiri. An honest cop, especially compared to the less than scrupulous Detective Miyamoto, Katagiri and Jake form a sort of senpai-kohai relationship. Katagiri shows Jake the ropes of how crime works in Japan. Too often, the press subordinates itself to the police. If the police do not say a crime occurred, or if a citizen was clearly murdered, then the press refuses to report differently.
Far different from the American mafia, the Japanese yakuza are not an “illegal organization.” Their members don’t deny their affiliation. It may be surprising to many Westerners that yakuza have their headquarters out in the open, complete with clan insignia displayed. Many yakuza wear their gang logos as lapel pins. The yakuza are deeply embedded within Japanese society. They became even more entrenched after World War II, fostering deeper ties with politics and legitimate businesses. As such, Katagiri and other detectives are reluctant to investigate them, since it will upend the delicate balance yakuza have with the authorities. After all, crime is so low in Japan, especially if you don’t report the crimes.
Instead, Katagiri provides Jake with the information he’d like to see the press investigate, often by leaving it out in the open or having one of his daughters hand it to Jake. After all, if he didn’t give the documents over, he’s not technically responsible, right? There is also a bit of a rivalry with Detective Miyamoto, which escalated throughout the season. Miyamoto, played by Hideaki Ito, is a douchebag, but a funny douchebag and has some great lines in the show – “Fuck the press!”
Katagiri becomes more focused on taking Tozawa down, leading to a confrontation toward the end of the season, straight out of an American cop movie. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but it involves Tozawa threatening Katagiri’s family, a rare thing for a yakuza to do. But it shows how brazen Tozawa is, and honestly, there is a culture of fear that hangs over Japan when it comes to the yakuza. They are always in the shadows but waiting to pounce if you cross them. As mentioned, a lot of crimes aren’t investigated, especially when it comes to the yakuza. Would you want to take that chance?
Opposing him is a rival yakuza from the Kansai Region, Shinzo Tozawa, played by Ayumi Tanida. If Ishida is old school, then Tozawa is a yakuza boss looking ahead to the future. Rather than satisfy himself with old ways of yakuza income – gambling, protection rackets, prostitution – Tozawa is importing meth into Japan. Drugs are an extremely taboo subject in Japan, and traditionally, the yakuza have not dabbled in them. Those that have are usually frowned upon by other gangs. But this is 1999, old customs are dying fast.
All throughout the series hints at Tozawa’s health are given. He appears to be suffering from liver failure since his doctors insist that he abstain from drinking, almost impossible for a yakuza. Hell, regular Japanese salarymen are expected to toss back a few beers after work at the local izakaya, so multiply that about tenfold for the average yakuza. Despite being younger than Ishida, Tozawa’s health is declining fast. His mistress, played by Ayumi Ito, seems to be waiting for him to die and collect her sugar daddy money. Even Tozawa is aware of this, so when he receives a call at the end of the season about a sudden liver transplant now available, he gloats to her that he’ll be living for a very long time.
Played by Rinko Kikuchi, Emi Murayama is Jake’s section chief at the Meicho Shimbun. She is a hardened veteran of the newspaper industry, bordering cynical and jaded. Murayama provides an interesting perspective, being a woman in this field. Japan is still a patriarchal society, and this was even more true back in 1999. Despite being section chief, she is still expected to serve tea to her bosses.
When an irate customer calls about his newspaper being late, he doesn’t want to talk to Jake because he’s a foreigner. He doesn’t want to talk to Murayama either because she’s a woman.
“Sorry, only foreigners and women are working today,” she replies and hangs up.
Added to her snappy comebacks, Murayama also has hints of a more complex personality. She’s revealed to be of Korean descent, the Zainichi Koreans. These Korean-Japanese people have a long history, contributing much to Japanese history. Unfortunately, they have also suffered discrimination, so Murayama doesn’t broadcast that she’s Zainichi unless it’s to communicate with another Korean. It’s also revealed she lives with her mentally disturbed brother, who is borderline abusive, but she still takes care of him like a dutiful sister.
One odd choice in the writing was that on his first day, Jake addresses her by her given name – Emi. This is a big no-no that first-year Japanese students should know, and seems unlikely he would make this mistake in an office setting. Japanese usually refer to each other by their family names, adding a “chan” or a “kun” if they are friendly. But Jake is often written to be stupid and bumbling when the plot needs him to be, but also adept and sharp when it serves the story.
Despite Murayama’s cynicism, hints of an idealistic reporter shine through, even giving Jake a pep talk when he is close to quitting. The one character I wish we got more of was Murayama.
Tokyo Vice – the Book
Published in 2009, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan is a memoir by former Yomiuri Shimbun reporter Jake Adelstein, and serves the basis of the show. The main difference between the book and the show is that the book is not a coherent story. Rather, it’s a collection of anecdotes and cases Adelstein worked on over the years. Also, the book covers a longer period of time from 1992 – 2005ish.
The basic setup is similar to the opening of the show, with Adelstein meeting with thugs from the Yamaguchi-gumi (Yamaguchi Gang), the biggest yakuza organization in Japan.
“Either erase the story or we’ll erase you.”
These gangsters are from the Goto-gumi (Goto Gang) specifically, one of the sub-groups that make up the yakuza as a whole. All the major yakuza groups – Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, Inagawa-kai — have dozens of smaller gangs that comprise their ranks, kicking money upstairs to the main parent organization. As Adelstein says, “It’s never a smart idea to get on the bad side of the Yamaguchi-gumi…with about forty thousand members, it’s a lot of people to piss off.”
As mentioned, these are from the Goto-gumi, the most violent part of the Yamaguchi-gumi. We don’t know what story they’re talking about, but Adelstein agrees not to write it. For the time being. The book flashes back, much like the show, and Adelstein takes us through the arduous hiring process for the Yomiuri Shimbun, especially for a foreigner. As mentioned, there is not a coherent storyline in the book, but many lines and scenes from Adelstein’s memoirs show up in the series. For example, during the interview process, Adelstein is asked, “A lot of people think Jews control the world economy? What do you think of that?”
Adelstein, who is Jewish, replies, “I know the starting salary at the Yomiuri. If the Jews controlled the economy, would I really be applying here?”
There are a few other parallels that make their way into the show. As mentioned, Murayama’s line about only women and foreigners working today is from the book. But there are other scenes that are more thoroughly incorporated into the story. For example, Adelstein writes about how the Japanese love manuals and there’s a manual for everything. There’s even one for suicide. A depressed teenager orders one and kills himself by hooking electrical wires to himself. In typical Japanese politeness, he leaves a note warning people not to touch, lest they be electrocuted themselves. In the show, this suicide method is incorporated into the main plot.
Another is a yakuza boss who is suspected of being an informant for the police since they won’t drink the tea he offers them. Police often drop by yakuza offices to discuss matters, unlike the situation between the American mafia and cops. Ishida takes the place of this yakuza boss in the show and it’s worked into the main storyline. Loan sharks driving people to suicide is also present in the story, but it is unrelated to the Goto-gumi.
A fascinating aspect of the book is the relationship between crime reporters and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, the TMPD. Reporters are expected to cozy up to detectives, buy them gifts (the free tickets to a Yomiuri Giants game don’t count), and listen to their problems, concerns, and needs. Reporters are even considered “male geisha” given how attentive they are to detectives. As one would expect, this creates an almost subservient relationship between the press and police.
Adelstein eventually finds his police confidant in the form of Detective Sekiguchi, a veteran cop of the TMPD. Katagiri is a fictionalized version of Sekiguchi, who says many of his lines and fulfills most of his role. Like in the show, his daughters also refer to him as a tengu, the long-nosed bird devils of Japanese folklore, since a common epithet for white people in most Asian countries is “big nose.” Contrary to popular belief, the term “round eye” was invented by white people themselves, and isn’t used in Asia. His daughters also apparently refused to believe that Adelstein is Jewish, since they were taught in school that all Jews were killed during World War II.
A few things are omitted from the show, most notably Adelstein’s wife and children, but I understand why. Both from a narrative perspective and from a privacy perspective. The Jake we see in the show is basically a fictional character. Although there is one scene where he is in bed with a Japanese woman, who we know nothing about and haven’t seen before. Are they setting her up to be a bigger character in season 2?
As mentioned, the book covers most of Adelstein’s career as a reporter which makes for a fascinating collection of crime stories. However, it’s not a linear story like in the show, though the story involving the Goto-gumi forms the main core of the plot. But it’s worth highlighting a few other stories of particular interest.
- Snack-Mama Murder Case – a woman known for selling snacks around the neighborhood is found murdered. Suspicion soon falls on her daughter and thuggish Iranian boyfriend. The murdered woman didn’t approve of the boyfriend – partly from xenophobia and that he seemed like a scumbag – so Adelstein goes undercover in the Persian community. Yes, such a thing exists. Apparently, during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, many Iranians came to Japan as laborers and just overstayed their visas. Adelstein’s editors think he looks like a Persian, what the hell, they say, send the gaijin.
- The Lucie Blackman Case – one of the most famous murders in recent Japan, Lucie Blackman was a hostess from Britain who went missing in 2000. The story became a sensation in Japan, and Adelstein was involved in the coverage. Blackman was eventually revealed to have been the victim of Joji Obara, a sociopathic serial rapist. Adelstein’s section is a good summary of the event but it was further detailed in the book People Who Eat Darkness.
- The Empire of Human Trafficking – this story is somewhat incorporated into the show. In the 1980s and 1990s, many foreign women – both from the West and other parts of Asia – were lured to Japan with promises of cheap money working as hostesses. Instead, they had their passports stolen and were kept as virtual sex slaves. Intimidated into going to the police, they endured abuse to such a degree that Adelstein admits it made him uninterested in sex for a while, viewing it as a filthy, exploitative act.
- The Goto-gumi – this serves as a sort of spine for the book and the show. The Goto-gumi was led by Tadamasa Goto, one of the most violent yakuza bosses, despite his harmless-looking appearance. In possibly the biggest scoop of Adelstein’s career, he discovers that Goto traveled to America in order to receive a liver transplant from UCLA. Not only that, the FBI let him into the country. Why did a Japanese gangster cut in the line above law-abiding Americans? Well, Goto apparently had contacts in North Korea, which was engaging in high-quality counterfeiting of US currency. This eventually leads into the opening scene, with the yakuza threatening Adelstein to not write the story.
Does he? Well, read the book and find out. Spoiler alert – he does.
Despite a few flaws, I would recommend Tokyo Vice the series. It’s not a very lengthy show with eight episodes, clocking in around an hour each. Be warned though, the season ends on a cliffhanger and season 2 has not yet been announced. So, be forewarned, it is a possibility that it won’t get renewed, leaving these dangling threads unresolved.
There hasn’t been a lot of buzz for the show either, since unlike shows like Game of Thrones, there’s no room for fan theories or wild speculation. It’s a bit like Bosch in that the show accomplishes exactly what it intended it to be – a gritty crime drama.
Anyone who is interested in Japan, especially crime in Japan, should read the book, as it is a valuable resource about this world mostly unknown to Westerners.
If there is a season 2 of Tokyo Vice, I’ll be there.
Tokyo Vice is currently streaming on HBO Max. You can buy the book here.
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