One of the best things about the Golden Age of Television—this was just before the streaming era—was when they’d get a ‘name’ director to helm the pilot episode, to set a visual and stylistic template for the rest of the show to follow. Martin Scorsese famously helmed the first episode of Boardwalk Empire, and the team behind Succession is still trying to mimic the distinct style Adam McKay brought to his pilot. Now, it is the turn of Michael Mann, who has returned over half-a-decade after his feature film Blackhat infamously bombed at the box office, to direct the pilot of HBO Max’s Tokyo Vice. And what a pilot it is.
Brimming with the filmmaker’s inimitable—we’ll get to this in a moment—style, the near-wordless series premiere of Tokyo Vice introduces us to Jake Adelstein, an American expat living in Japan with ambitions of becoming an investigative reporter at one of the country’s most renowned newspapers. Set in the 90s, the show is based on Adelstein’s richly descriptive non-fiction book by the same name, which Mann’s pilot episode follows quite faithfully.
We watch as Adelstein, played by a semi-cancelled Ansel Elgort, learns Japanese before sitting for the devilishly difficult examination that will decide whether or not he has what it takes to land a job at the newspaper. Against all odds—no ‘gaijin’ has ever worked there—Adelstein’s exam goes well enough for him to be called in for an interview. And when that goes swimmingly as well—Adelstein gets a laugh out of his stone-faced interviewers—he is told that he is hired, and as a matter of protocol, been assigned the most boring beat imaginable. Adelstein’s only job, he discovers after a handful of intimidating interactions with his editors, is to sit in on police press conferences and replicate, word-for-word, press releases about petty crimes and whatnot.
None of this—not the examination, the interview, the boring grunt-work—makes for compelling drama, especially in a visual medium such as television. But this is where Mann comes in. There is such an economy to his storytelling in the pilot episode—the script, by series creator JT Rogers, removes not only all unnecessary dialogue, but also avoids naming characters unless we absolutely need to know who they are. And then there are the Mann trademarks—the noticeable digital cinematography, inventive insert shots, the evocative close-ups.
But in many ways, the move to get the acclaimed filmmaker to set the tone for Tokyo Vice was always going to backfire. Seemingly aware of the fact that there is no aping Michael Mann—who is nearly 80, by the way—the show immediately settles for a more standard aesthetic for the rest of the seven episodes, and ultimately ends up sacrificing most of what made it so inviting in the first place.
The dark character study elements fall by the wayside as the show doubles down on the noir-infused crime drama aspects. It’s the equivalent of a journalist ignoring the human interest angle in a story and highlighting the more scandalous bits. Under Mann’s direction, the show was also quietly building towards a critique of corporate culture and a portrait of the immigrant experience, but alas, none of the other directors are able to examine these themes with much insight. As Adelstein, in a bid to live a more meaningful life, sniffs out a scandal to write about, he becomes acquainted with not just veteran detectives, but also members of the Yakuza. Very soon, it is clear that he is in too deep to escape unscathed.
There’s a romantic subplot that is less convincing than the handful of genuine male friendships that Adelstein strikes with Detective Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), a low-level Yakuza enforcer named Sato (Show Kasamatsu) and his two co-workers Trendy and Tintin (Takaki Uda and Kosuke Tanaka). But it is Adelstein’s strictly professional relationship with his editor Emi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi) that stands out amid the plot-driven shenanigans of Tokyo Vice.
It’s the kind of show that offers you a glimpse of what it could have been, and then promptly swerves in a far less interesting direction. How clever would it have been if Tokyo Vice had somehow found a way of juxtaposing the ritualistic patterns and hierarchies of newsrooms and Yakuza ‘families’, and highlighting Adelstein’s precarious position in them both. He is, ultimately, an outsider. But the show only briefly highlights the culture-clashes that he experiences. A great example of this is a quiet exchange between him and Emi, in which she interrupts him as he’s listing the deceased victims of a conspiracy, and reminds him that they all have names.
Respect for elders, and indeed, family, is not something that comes naturally to the Missouri-born Jake Adelstein. On so many occasions, he affects an air of fake niceness to get his way, as he doggedly pursues Tokyo’s biggest gangster. And Elgort is undeniably excellent in the lead role. I’m sure native Japanese speakers will find fault with his line readings, but to my untrained ear, it sounded like he’d put in a lot of hard work to learn a foreign language. The actor seemed at ease; confidence and an easygoing charm, you see, are key to Adelstein as a character. And if Elgort had appeared even slightly uncomfortable with the language and the foreign world, the show wouldn’t have worked.
But it does, despite its flaws. It’s lumbering, ambitious, and as culturally out of place as its protagonist. But it’s still a layered neo-noir tale about greed, honour and duty. Plus, any show that has the courage to call the Backstreet Boys’ I Want it That Way a masterpiece deserves some brownie points.