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'Tokyo Vice' Captures an Outsider's View of Culture and Crime in Japan

Executive producers J.T. Rogers and Alan Poul discuss adapting Jake Adelstein's real experience of being an outsider in Japan for HBO Max's 'Tokyo Vice.'
by Scott Huver — 
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From left to right: Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe in 'Tokyo Vice'

HBO Max

If the new HBO Max crime thriller series Tokyo Vice, set against the noir-ish, deadly, and often bafflingly murky environs of the Japanese underworld in the late 1990s, seems astonishingly immersive, that's because its creators where intimately acquainted with the subject matter. 

No, neither creator/showrunner J.T. Rogers nor executive producer/director Alan Poul were high-ranking Yakuza crime lords — nor were they members of the Tokyo vice squad — but they did come to the material with considerable bona fides.  

The series is based on the experiences of American journalist Jake Adelstein (played in the series by Ansel Elgort), who in the '90s was one of the only non-natives exploring the labyrinthine corridors of organized crime in the Japanese capital, as recounted in his 2009 memoir. Rogers, an acclaimed, Tony and Obie Award-winning playwright making his first foray into television, has been friends with Adelstein since childhood — and even once found himself the target of intimidating phone calls intended to scare his friend off a story — and has long championed a Hollywood adaptation of Adelstein's stories.  

"This famous story, Jake's memoir, is just fascinating and full of such extraordinary complexity, narratively, morally, [rich] characters," Rogers tells Metacritic. "Couple that with my long-term friendship with him and getting pulled into the story myself when I was called [by Japanese gangsters] to rattle Jake. We all have our path to scratch as writers and creators, and for me, it's a story that is a personal drama set against a larger backdrop. The struggle of not just Jake's character, but the other characters in the story that make their way in a world they don't really understand just really excited me." 

For Poul, a television veteran and multiple Emmy nominee who's produced and directed such series as Six Feet Under, Big Love, and The Newsroom, offered a unique opportunity to explore a world that played a vital role in his personal and professional lives. 

"My origins are really in Japan, in that my academic field in college was Japanese literature and I've lived there off and on over the years," he tells Metacritic. "My introduction to filmmaking was through my knowledge of Japanese on movies like Mishima and Black Rain that were shot here in Tokyo." 

Later, Poul "devoured" Adelstein's book, and when he was preparing for another visit to Tokyo, his longtime friend Rogers suggested that Poul connect with Adelstein. That connection would bring the mutual friends together when Tokyo Vice, long developed as a film project, morphed into a series. 

While the series isn't a direct adaptation of any one of the many cases Adelstein chronicled, Rogers endeavored to capture the essence of the author's experiences as a young outsider grappling with the highly specific often mystifying cultural structures of both Japanese society and its murky crime empires — everything from the sweeping scope of the institutional corruption to the unique customs of micro-cultures like the nightclub hostesses, all seen through well-developed, grounded characters with qualities and quirks of their own. Like The Godfather and The Sopranos, Tokyo Vice explores a bigger-picture world of crime through focused, interpersonal lenses. 

"You pull from the source materials, digging into the specific storylines or even images from Jake's book that I wanted to build from," says Rogers. "Also, I was very fortunate to be able to access, as it were, Jake, himself. He was extraordinarily generous in saying, 'I'll give you access to whatever you want and I trust you. You can do whatever you want, just please make it authentic,' which was our mission from get-go. Then he became the consultant on the show and I could talk to him, say 'Let's talk about this. Let's talk about that.'" 

Poul was eager to bring a deeper level of verisimilitude to the screen than previously seen before. 

"As a viewer with a particular interest in Japan, I've watched over the years as many international shows that were set wholly or partially in Japan never really got it right, in terms of authenticity, in terms of the kind of true authenticity that a Japanese audience would embrace as well as an American audience," says Poul. "A very overt mission of all the creators coming into this was to create an authentic portrait of late '90s Tokyo — one that would deeply resonate for viewers in both countries."

But Rogers says he found even the most challenging aspects of translating the hyper-specific world to be creative catnip. "We wanted to throw the audience in so that you had to play catch up, and not patronize and placate and explain everything," he explains.

The approach also included a heavier-than-usual use of characters speaking in Japanese on screen. "This is a culture where English is not widely spoken," adds Rogers. "Finding an authentic way that Japanese audiences would believe that certain characters could speak English and certain characters simply could not — finding that balance was tricky, in a great way." 

Poul says translating dialogue crafted by Rogers in "character-specific vernacular" posed difficulties due to a lack of one-to-one equivalencies between English and Japanese — beyond the straightforward tasks of straight translation. Ultimately, co-star Ken Watanabe, who plays homicide detective and Adelstein's mentor Hiroto Katagiri, stepped in as an informal language arbiter.  

"I feel like by doing that we got to a level of authenticity. The Japanese dialect might not register with American viewers, but somehow, on some level, I think, that American viewers can feel the level of authenticity," says Poul. "Thank God for Ken, because he is so well-versed in all these different jargons and also is a dramatist himself."

Indeed, Elgort and Watanabe developed their own unique form of banter in character, switching fluidly between English and Japanese. That creative bleed-over continued as Adelstein introduced Rogers, Poul, and other members of the creative team to his real-world friends and associates in Tokyo — including ex-Yakuza members, former cops, and the nightclub hostesses, the latter of which informed characters like Rachel Keller's Samantha, an American expatriate working in the steamy, ritualized club scene. 

"I would have the actresses playing the hostesses in the show come to my apartment and I would make dinner for them," recalls Rogers. "These hostesses would sit them at my dinner table and walk them through, physically, all of the small gestures that you do: where you wrap the napkin around the water glass for an older man, where you wrap the napkin for a younger man, who pours the drink, who doesn't touch the glass. That kind of detail is what we were trying to dig into and was very helpful." 

All of Tokyo Vice's action and intrigue was shot entirely on location in Japan and almost completely in Tokyo itself, amid a sumptuously sleek and stylish visual vocabulary, a template set down by the first episode's director, filmmaker Michael Mann. Mann previously helped define crime-thriller cinematic language with his work on such small- and big-screen classics as Miami Vice, Thief, Heat, and Collateral, as well as the journalism drama The Insider

"Obviously, Michael is a complete visual master and a complete filmmaker, and there's no question that he was instrumental in setting up both the visual tone and the palette of the show," says Poul. 

Along with cinematographer Diego Garcia, who lensed the first several episodes, a template was established for subsequent directors, including Josef Kubota Wladyka, Hikari, and Poul himself, to expand upon as the story unfolds. 

"I designed the show that you enter in a very tight focus on Jake in the first episode, and one of the things in this narrative for this series is, 'Be careful what you think you're seeing because things are not what they seem,'" reveals Rogers. 

In the episodes that follow the premiere, he says, "The world gets bigger and ancillary characters, or characters that stay ancillary in the first episode, become leading roles themselves. And so, it was really exciting to see the other directors put their visual mark on the series and find their way to put this city into a leading character itself on the screen." 

Tokyo Vice is

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