The Virtue of Tokyo Vice

AAnother American in Japan, hoping to learn how it all works from Ken Watanabe: It seems like Tom Cruise was just the penultimate samurai. We now get Ansel Elgort, tall, lanky and pale, easy to spot in a crowd Deputy Tokyo. With Michael Mann serving as executive producer and first episode director, HBO’s new thriller is slick, fast-paced, and surprisingly substantial. This doesn’t play for simple tourist kicks, perhaps because of the abundance of Japanese talent in front of and behind the camera. It’s a lived-in Tokyo, from dark streets to high-end karaoke clubs where young yakuza hang out.

Based on Jake Adelstein’s non-fiction account of writing for the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbunwhere he worked for 12 years, Deputy Tokyo wears many Mann style hallmarks, from cool blues and grays to macho life or death clashes. The violence can get horrific, especially among the honor-bound yakuza that Jake wants so badly to infiltrate. But there is no cheap xenophobia in Deputy TokyoNope Sunriseexotic style. Jake is as much a brand as a savior. Eager to show that he belongs to a world that doesn’t accept outsiders easily (“gaijin” might as well be his official name in the newsroom), Jake gets used by cops and crooks. If he’s a hero, he’s also an idiot.

Jake has a counterpart in Samantha (Rachel Keller), an American hostess at one of those upscale karaoke clubs. Rachel has her own stampede: she came to Tokyo as a missionary, fell in love with the bustle of the city, and ended up stealing much of her church’s change. Now she’s a wanted woman, trying to use that money to open her own club and looking over her shoulder for the debt collector. Samantha is street smarter than Jake – she’s been around longer and knows how to play angles. Keller gives her a premature world-weariness, a cynicism that puts her at ease among the thugs Jake pursues for a living.

Meanwhile, as Elgort and Keller play fish out of water, a native steals the show. Show Kasamatsu plays the young yakuza Sato with the brooding, laconic intensity of a young Brando or Dean. In love with Samantha, intrigued by Jake, indebted to the gangsters, he wanders through the bloodbath of Deputy Tokyo with a mixture of swagger and vulnerability, his conscience trying to break through the rubble. Sato is the pivot of the series, its reluctant moral compass. Anyway, Kasamatsu has it. Expect to see it soon, featured this side of the ocean.

Tone is crucial to Deputy Tokyo. The slightest Mr. Moto stereotype could have knocked this thing to the ground. Fortunately, precautions were taken, starting with the cast and crew. Directors include Josef Kubota Wladyka and Hikari. Watanabe, Kayo Washio and Ken Tajima are among the producers. The cast is filled with top flight Japanese acting talent. Subtitles are the rule, not the exception. There is a local integrity to Deputy Tokyo, integrated into the show at the most fundamental level. It’s a template for any such series that seeks to do more than just travel to Japan for a simple visit or use the country as an exotic backdrop.

Jake has two police father figures in his adopted country (he has little need for his real father, back home in Missouri). One is Watanabe’s Hiroto Katagiri, a patient, frowning, stoic sleuth who emphasizes the long game of relationship building rather than the mirage of the quick bust, no matter how big. The other is Jin Miyamoto (Hideaki Ito), who is a bit exhausted by it all. He makes arrests with one hand, washes a yakuza’s back with the other, and does his best to do what Jake Gittes suggests in Chinese district: “as small as possible.” Both find Jake useful – his naivety makes him an easy target for misdirection. Not that the police always try to tell the difference. “Our job is to settle matters,” Katagiri’s superior scolds, sounding more than a little like a David Simon middle management cop. Thread.

In addition to the police, two other institutions come under the magnifying glass of Deputy Tokyo. One is the elaborately tattooed yakuza, demanding of his subordinates, driven by amoral honor. Shun Sugata plays the elder crime boss, Ishida, and Ayumi Tanida is his younger, more reckless rival, Tozawa, who appears to be involved in a recent string of suicides. Then there is the Fourth Estate, represented here by the fictional and highly publicized newspaper Meicho Shimbun, where Jake works. Senior management at Meicho doesn’t want to ruffle feathers, but Jake’s immediate boss, played by Rinko Kikuchi (2006 Oscar nominee babel), is the kind of editor journalists crave: firm but supportive, willing to step outside the lines to get the story. Jake bristles a bit at the newspaper’s strict style rules — and unwritten rules for taking it easy with the rich and powerful. (In American newsrooms, they are called “sacred cows.”) But he gradually finds his place after a few initial humiliations.

Deputy Tokyo deserves credit for pushing way beyond its white boy overseas premise. At its best, it features a complicated dance between organized crime, law enforcement, and journalists racing to make sense of it all. Jake is our surrogate, the stranger with more questions than answers, initially more assertive than he has reason to be until the picture becomes blurrier and he becomes less arrogant. Elgort is well molded for these purposes. It’s a kind of blank slate onto which viewers can project their ignorance of how things are done here, a squirt of ketchup in a world of wasabi.

Chris Vognar is a cultural writer living in Houston.

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