‘Tokyo Vice’ is a crime-noir television show based on Jake Adelstein’s real-life memoirs about his time in Japan as a crime reporter. Its setting is the Tokyo of the ’90s, defined by an emerging economy and a syndicate-based crime spree. Michael Mann directs the first episode and serves as an executive producer. Adelstein’s perspective of the cultural, work, and social life of Tokyo is the predicated upon which Yakuza’s crime efforts are based. Ansel Elgort stars as the main man, with Ken Watanabe playing the primary supporting role.
Episode 1 of Tokyo Vice starts with two men preparing for a meeting. One Japanese, and the other a foreigner. Not just any meeting, but one where their lives are in danger. They wear vests and are instructed by another man to sit at a certain place and only eat the food brought by one of the waiters. When they’re seated, the hostess informs them that the other party has already arrived. They have also changed the location of the meeting to a private lounge.
The other party is revealed to be the Yakuza, Japan’s serial crime syndicate. One of the members warns the foreigner, a reporter, of dire consequences if he continues with his investigation. His probe into the dealings of Yakuza’s Tomazawa-san has upset the organization. The offer is to drop the probe and get to live. The foreigner ponders over the offer while having a cigarette.
The timeline jumps back to two years. The year now is 1999 and Jake is an aspiring journalist. His daily routine involves a lot of preparation for the entrance test to get a job at Japan’s largest newspaper, Meicho Shimbun. Jake suffers heartbreak when he finishes the test before time, to his surprise, only to discover that he did not attempt the questions on the last page. Despite the setback, he receives an interview call from the paper and he is hired.
He is assigned the police press as his first department. The format of reporting does not include space for adding reasons to why the crime happened to his annoyance. His sub-cap is Emi Muroyama, who strictly prohibits the newbies from veering off the set format. The first assignment for Jake is to report on the murder of Mr. Aoki. At the police briefing, he discovers Detective Miyamoto, who is a dynamic official and possibly of importance for the series.
He visits Aoki’s house and goes through his mail. He finds that Aoki was in debt and visits the company – the debtor – premises. He finds the lot vacated and senses something fishy. He mentions this in his report, only to be vehemently warned and scolded by his superior. He is told to follow the police report, word by word, and not jump to conclusions of his own accord.
After work, he goes to Miyamoto and makes a deal: he will show him the ropes for journalists, and Jake will teach him how to pick up gaijin girls. The two stop at a nightclub where Jake meets the hostess, Samantha, a fellow American migrant. They share a conversation about Jake’s work, among other things. Miyamoto then takes Jake to a strip club, where he says to him about reporting, “There is no murder in Japan unless there is a witness”.
Miyamoto is called into an emergency. The two go to Kabukicho to a man about to self immolate. After he does and burns to his death, Jake notices the same logo he did on Aoki’s debt papers on a packet near the body. Muroyama turns him down when he mentions the connection. Jake instead bribes a policeman and secures the home address of the burning man. His wife narrates how the Yakuza charged exceedingly high interests on a small amount. They forced the man into shame and to set himself on fire.
After his death, they mysteriously stopped calling for the money. The episode ends with an induction ceremony of a member of the Ishida Clan and Jake sees the vision of the man setting himself on fire, pleading with him to get justice.
The Episode Review
In typical Michael Mann style, the first episode of ‘Tokyo Vice’ unravels to end on a compelling note. The recreation of life in Japan in the ’90s checks all boxes of authenticity. Jake Adelsetien’s place in the scheme of things instantly arouses a tempting matchup with the realities of Tokyo unknown to him.
“The Test” not only refers to the entrance exam he takes but also describes the reconciliation of his own moral compass and prevailing ethics of journalism in Japan.
Along with the introduction to the characters and the storyline, there is also a strange nostalgic throwback to the days without computers and phones. This is evident from the emphasis on Jake’s handwriting practice and his voracious consumption of magazines and books. By exploring the story from his perspective, Mann tries to reminisce the days when journalism was an art; a game of skill and hard work. The hallmark of the profession was the lack of easy access to information.
To get every last bit, a journalist had to move the world. It also entailed an occupational hazard that is mostly neutralized by today’s intrusive State control and digitization of services. ‘Tokyo Vice’ marries the noir genre with a slow-burn narrative about a foreigner in no man’s land.