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Wake Up, People! ‘Tokyo Vice’ Is the Best Show You’re Not Watching

Max
Max

“To the new ways!” toasts a police task force commander in Tokyo Vice, yet despite its characters striving to upend familiar and constricting paradigms, creator J.T. Rogers and executive-producer Michael Mann’s Max series stays true to itself in its excellent second season.

Building upon its stellar 2022 run, the duo’s bilingual, shot-on-location crime saga—adapted from journalist Jake Adelstein’s 2009 book of the same name—continues to be a tangled knot of uneasy alliances, personal and professional quandaries, and the betrayals and compromises necessary to survive a culture (and underworld) governed by strict codes of conduct. Once again led by the charismatic duo of Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe as unlikely partners in a war nobody appears capable of winning, it remains one of the most compelling, and underrated, shows on television.

(Warning: minor spoilers follow.)

Its title a riff on Mann’s seminal Miami Vice, with which it shares not only a fondness for cops and crooks but a sleek, sensual style laced with sinister menace, Tokyo Vice, which premieres Feb. 8, commences mere moments after the conclusion of its prior 1999-set finale, with Missouri-born Meicho newspaper reporter Jake Adelstein (Elgort) visiting Tokyo detective Hiroto Katagiri (Watanabe) in order to show him a harrowing videotape containing footage of club hostess Polina (Ella Rumpf) being accidentally murdered on board a ship belonging to cutthroat yakuza boss Tozawa (Ayumi Tanida).

Ken Watanabe and Ansel Elgort sit on a stoop in a still from ‘Tokyo Vice’

Ansel Elgert and Ken Watanabe in Tokyo Vice

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Since Japan’s vice minister of foreign affairs is present at this homicide, the footage has scandal written all over it, and Katagiri counsels Jake to bring it to his editor Emi (Rinko Kikuchi), who’s far more honorable than her boss Baku (Kôsuke Toyohara) and who has a particular interest in shining a spotlight on Japan’s ingrained, violent misogyny.

Samantha (Rachel Keller), an American expat and former hostess, is also intent on combating Japanese sexism, albeit not via the media but by opening her own club. Unfortunately, in this seedy profession, independent agency is difficult to come by, and to achieve her dream she’s had to enter into a perilous contract with Ishida (Shun Sugata), the godfather (or “oyabun”) of the Chihara-kai yakuza clan. She does this out of financial necessity and, moreover, because she’s counting on Chihara-kai member Sato (Show Kasamatsu), her one-time lover, to be the yakuza looking over her shoulder.

Little does she know, however, that Sato was brutally stabbed by one of his minions at the conclusion of last season and is now fighting for his life in a hospital. He survives and, through a merciful gesture, further endears himself to Ishida. Nonetheless, trouble lies ahead in the figure of Hayama (Yosuke Kubozuka), a hothead who upon being released from prison is reinstated as Ishida’s right-hand man and instantly begins causing trouble for Sato—including with regards to his younger brother Kaito (Atom Mizuishi), whom Sato wants to keep out of the yakuza business.

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Ishida thinks he can make territorial moves in Tokyo now that his rival, Tozawa, has vanished into thin air, likely due to his failing health. Tozawa’s replacement Yabuki (Kazuya Tanabe) doesn’t want to continue the two gangs’ feud, preferring instead a truce that will benefit both parties. While the yakuza work on détente, Katagiri finds that his prior strategy of brokering peace by maintaining “balance” between the clans has resulted in nothing except his own demotion and an empty house now that his family has gone into hiding from Tozawa’s goons. Thanks to the National Police Agency’s Nagata (Miki Maya), Katagiri embarks on a novel course designed to eradicate the yakuza, but that path is lined with landmines—as is Jake’s foolhardy decision to strike up a romance with Misaki (Ayumi Ito), Tozawa’s mistress.

Tokyo Vice is peppered with secret affairs, cunning back-stabbings and cagey double-dealing, the last of which is the sole means of getting anywhere in this dangerous milieu. Jake, Katagiri, Sam, Sato, Emi and the rest of the series’ sizeable cast are all entangled with one another, unable to succeed without each other and incapable of trusting anything they see or hear, and it’s to Rogers’ credit that he imagines them all as well-rounded individuals rather than just yin-yang clichés. There are no stock antiheroes here, nor pat lessons about how the bad are also somewhat good (and vice versa). On the contrary, the show simply details the less-than-upright choices and allegiances required to affect change, and expose the truth, in a metropolis where power resides in the shadows.

A close up of Rinko Kikuchi in a still from ‘Tokyo Vice’

Rinko Kikuchi in Tokyo Vice

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Rogers generates suspense via a constant, underlying sense of (literal and figurative) doom, such that when Tokyo Vice erupts in actual violence, the effect is all the more shocking. Moreover, it boasts an insider-POV level of detail when it comes to yakuza methods, rituals and rites of passage as well as to Japanese journalistic practices, which prioritize superficiality over hard-hitting investigation. Even when its plots take a melodramatic turn, there’s an authenticity to the proceedings’ portrait of both legitimate and illicit Japanese operations, and that realism extends to its lead performances. His hand often running through his floppy hair, a backpack perpetually slung over his shoulder, Elgort embodies Jake as a striver whose ambition repeatedly leads him into recklessness, and his youthful energy is a perfect complement for Watanabe’s weary sternness as an unimpeachable cop (and doting family man) who can’t seem to make headway in his mission to clean up Tokyo’s muck.

There are mysteries aplenty in Tokyo Vice, some fresh and some dating back to the series’ initial scene, and Rogers threads them throughout storylines that aren’t wholly resolved so much as twisted about so that characters become ensnared in new, unexpected traps. Whether following Keller’s tough and determined Sam, Kasamatsu’s level-headed if severe Sato, Jake’s alternately bitter and loyal comrades-in-media Tintin and Trendy (Kosuke Tanaka and Takaki Uda), or Ishida and Tozawa, two competing visions of organized-crime villainy, the material spirals out in various directions without losing sight of its core conflicts and moral dilemmas. Shot with an immediacy that’s bracing (especially in its newsroom sequences) and a silkiness that’s unnerving, it’s a show that’s ultimately most fascinated with the mechanisms of systems of power—and in that regard, resonates as the genre-oriented offspring of The Wire as much as its spiritual namesake.

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