“The truth is,” says Ansel Elgort as journalist Jake Adelstein in an early episode of Tokyo Vice (Starzplay), “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Most people don’t know what it’s like to be the first American reporter to work the crime beat on a major Japanese newspaper, or indeed to end up entangled in a gang war as a consequence, but the feeling that sets this drama in motion is near-universal. Here is a story of people in their 20s, alone in a big city, thrilled to be making their own way but with no real idea how to do it.
The city is Tokyo at the end of the 1990s and Jake is based on a real person – Adelstein’s memoir is the basis for this series created by playwright JT Rogers, and directed, for the first episode at least, by Michael Mann. The Hollywood veteran brings the brooding noir shimmer of his 2004 movie Collateral to early scenes, which set Adelstein up as a pale tyro, driven and self-sufficient, with the cocky glint of an academic high-achiever still in his eye. He practises aikido, teaches English charismatically to a room full of nervous housewives, knowledgeably orders “liver, leek and chicken thigh” at a cafe thronging with locals, loses himself dancing at a club and studies the capital’s organised crime activity by night, cross-legged on the floor in his flat above a shop. Tokyo feels like it’s his and, when he passes a supposedly forbidding Japanese language test to get a job writing news for the biggest paper in town, young Jake has a chance to prove it.
Thanks to one of those opening flash-forwards that suggests the show isn’t totally confident it can hold our attention, we know where this will end up: Adelstein attends a meeting with high-ranking yakuza, is warned by a man in a knife-sharp suit that writing up the story he’s working on will bring death, and responds with a calm that says he feels he’s this kingpin’s equal. Before then, though, is the story of a cub reporter who must learn his trade the hard way.
And so Tokyo Vice proceeds, with a naive recklessness about tripping over cliche that is easy to find endearing, to run through Jake’s evolution from fizzing rookie to journalistic force. His first few stories are either rewritten or spiked altogether, his less welcoming colleagues refer to him as gaijin (foreigner) or worse, “Mossad”, and his maverick refusal to go along with the accepted protocol – stick to the facts, which are what the police tell you they are – earns him regular dressings down. At one point an irate editor literally shouts: “You don’t get to think! You will follow the rules!” Wilfully pursuing the idea that a death by sword impalement and a shocking public self-immolation are both connected to the work of underground loan sharks, Jake dissects each knockback or minor breakthrough with two fellow trainees, as they inhale beer and noodles at a series of enviably vibrant bars.
It’s a heady gambol through a convincingly realised Tokyo, and Elgort is comfortable as the protagonist, mixing the raw verve he showed in West Side Story with the quiet capability of his character in Baby Driver. But then Jake meets a girl, and Tokyo Vice is no longer just Elgort’s show.
The girl is Samantha (Rachel Keller), who works as a “hostess” in an expensive but seedy bar, employed to titillate the male customers into buying overpriced champagne. Another American abroad whose fluent Japanese indicates that she fled her birthplace at the first opportunity, she is savvier than Jake and, probably, romantically out of his reach, especially since she’s also a favourite of the bar’s scariest patron, intense young yakuza enforcer Sato (Shô Kasamatsu). Jake, Samantha and Sato – a gangster who has the violent urges necessary to ascend in his organisation, but is disturbed by them and disgusted by his lairier fellow foot soldiers – are alike, all cleverer than the people around them but unsure of where to point their ambition. As Jake also forms a bond with a paternal vice cop (Ken Watanabe, whom the show boldly hardly uses for the first two episodes), who gives him the headline-worthy leads he craves, Tokyo Vice becomes an ensemble drama that struggles to keep up the momentum of its multiple storylines, and in its middle episodes misses the menace of that Mann-directed opener.
For a show that’s meant to be a journey into the criminal underbelly of a darkly thrumming metropolis, Tokyo Vice maintains a surprising innocence, staying cute and soft, like Elgort’s baby face. It doesn’t know quite what it’s doing. But when you’re young and lost and far from home, who does?