TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new series "Tokyo Vice," Ansel Elgort stars as Jake Adelstein, a young crime reporter in Japan. The series premieres tomorrow on HBO Max. Based on Adelstein's bestselling memoir, it offers its hero and us a trip into Tokyo's criminal underworld. Our critic at large, John Powers, says it's a trip you'll want to take.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I come from small-town Iowa, which may be why I've always been drawn to stories about men and women seeking their fortune in the big city. Whether it's Pip in "Great Expectations" or Peggy in "Mad Men," there's something deeply satisfying about watching heroes learn the unwritten rules of urban life and letting us learn them too. The rules are gnarlier than usual in "Tokyo Vice," a new HBO Max drama based on the memoir of the same title by Jake Adelstein.
Adapted for TV by Adelstein's childhood friend J.T. Rogers, who wrote the Tony-winning play "Oslo," this eight-part series tells the tale of an American crime reporter who intends to take Japanese journalism by storm, but first must learn how to navigate the churning opacity of 1990s Tokyo. In his most appealing work to date, Ansel Elgort stars as Jake, a good-humored if cocksure Missourian, whose excellent Japanese enables him to become the first foreign reporter ever hired by Japan's biggest newspaper. Yet this is hidebound Japan, and he soon learns that the paper doesn't want him to be Woodward or Bernstein. They want him to do what Japanese crime reporters do, rewrite police press releases and avoid asking questions that might rock the boat. But Jake's a born boat-rocker. And even though chastened by having his work endlessly rejected by his editor - she's played by Rinko Kikuchi - he can't resist asking about the guy who's knifed to death on the bridge or the salaryman who sets himself afire on the street.
Wandering the dark alleys of Kabukicho, Tokyo's seamy entertainment district, he befriends Samantha, an American bar hostess for the Past - played by Rachel Keller - and a volatile Yakuza named Sato - that's sleek Kasamatsu Sho - who doesn't quite fit into his crime organization. Their exploits serve as even riskier counterpoints to Jake's own. For all his drive, Jake keeps floundering until he allies himself with a frustrated police detective, Katagiri Hiroto, played with downbeat charisma by Japanese star Ken Watanabe, who you may know from "The Last Samurai" and "Memoirs Of A Geisha." Annoyed by his department's lack of crime-fighting ambition, Detective Katagiri becomes his source and mentor. Here, Jake shows Katagiri a matchbook and asks if he knows the company it refers to.
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KEN WATANABE: (As Katagiri) Where did you get this?
ANSEL ELGORT: (As Jake) I witnessed a man light himself on fire with them. I already interviewed his wife. He was being threatened.
WATANABE: (As Katagiri) Another man was stabbed for the same reason.
ELGORT: (As Jake) A loan sharking business, right?
WATANABE: (As Katagiri) Yeah. But I cannot pursue it.
ELGORT: (As Jake) Why?
WATANABE: (As Katagiri) It's complicated.
ELGORT: (As Jake) Complicated?
WATANABE: (As Katagiri) It is Yakuza business.
POWERS: The first thing to be said about "Tokyo Vice" is it is exceedingly pleasurable to watch. The pilot was made by Michael Mann, who's always known how to capture the treacherous seductiveness of cities, be it the South Beach of "Miami Vice" or the LA of "Collateral." Setting the visual template, Mann's restlessly sharp eye captures Tokyo's intriguing swirl from its shadowy backstreets and glamorous watering holes, to the teasing neon that paints the night. If you're unfamiliar with Japanese organized crime, "Tokyo Vice" makes a good introduction to the Yakuza, starting with the spectacular tattoos the series is overly addicted to showing. We see their shakedown tactics, finger-chopping violence and strutting panache. We see their hierarchical structure based on samurai notions of loyalty and honor. And in a larger sense, we see how the Yakuza have insinuated themselves into every level of '90s Japan from hostess bars to banking, to the decision-making of the authorities, who'll do anything to avoid gang war.
Seasoned with a bit of nudity and bloodshed, that's the vice part of "Tokyo Vice." Personally, I'm more interested in the Tokyo part, when Jake and friends usher us into a deeply entrenched culture far different to our own. It's not simply that '90s Japan is bursting with unabashed sexism and xenophobia. There's such a premium on keeping the surface of life placid that Jake can't even use the word murder when writing of a man who's been knifed to death. As a cop patiently explains to him, there is no murder in Japan - meaning, the cops and the media prefer bland talk about unexplained deaths. Although "Tokyo Vice" is not wholly innocent of exoticism and cliche, the series does a nifty job of taking us around Tokyo, back during the heyday of the Yakuza. And as it slowly unfolds its story, you sense the menace that could at any moment claim Jake, Samantha, Sato or Katagiri. You see, while those in power may say there's no murder in Japan, that doesn't mean some bad guy won't kill you.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Tokyo Vice." The series premieres tomorrow on HBO Max. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the abortion underground with journalist Jessica Bruder. Her new article in The Atlantic is about the ways women, health advocates and activists are developing methods to help women who are seeking abortions but don't have access. The underground is also preparing for the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer. Bruder also wrote the nonfiction book "Nomadland," which was adapted into the Oscar-winning film of the same name. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.