Tokyo Vice Review: Ansel Elgort & Ken Watanabe's 'style over substance' series falls short of being brilliant

Tokyo Vice is filled to the brim with impressive performances by a supremely talented ensemble and aesthetically pleasing visuals of 90s futuristic Japan at its neon-est, but suffers tremendously from a haphazard script. Read Pinkvilla's review.

Updated on Apr 29, 2022 02:05 PM IST  |  502.7K
Tokyo Vice Review
Ansel Elgort stars as famed American journalist Jake Adelstein in Tokyo Vice.
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Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice Cast: Ansel Elgort, Ken Watanabe, Show Kasamatsu, Rachel Keller, Rinko Kikuchi

Tokyo Vice Creator: J. T. Rogers

Streaming Platform: Lionsgate Play

Tokyo Vice asserts itself to the long line of good ol' crime dramas that are making an OTT comeback, as an American protagonist is the audience's POV when it comes to power and crimes in late 90s Japan. Based on famed journalist Jake Adelstein's 2009 memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, the J. T. Rogers series is led by Ansel Elgort as Jake Adelstein and Ken Watanabe as detective Hiroto Katagiri. Does Tokyo Vice deliver on the wickedness promised, especially with such luscious source material in the makers' hands? Let's find out!

In Tokyo Vice - with seven out of eight episodes made available to this reviewer - Jake Adelstein sticks like a sour thumb, both physically and literally, as he's the first and only gaijin to be staffed at a major Japanese newspaper. With the American dream to bag "THE" story that will change the world and make him a hero, Jake is quickly brought down with a reality check of how Japanese journalism is a whole another ballgame altogether and that there are rules enforced by the powerful and diligently followed. While Adelstein's supervisor Emi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi) proves to be an expert in balancing her subordinate's overambition, Jake also finds a friendly acquaintance, or a father figure if you will, in detective Hiroto Katagiri, the good guy amidst the evil.

With gang wars at an all-time high, where "there are no murders in Japan," as Shinzo Tozawa's (Ayumi Tanda) yakuza tries to infiltrate Hitoshi Ishida's (Shun Sugata) yakuza and take over Tokyo, Jake tasks himself, in spite of objection by his newspaper who blatantly treat him as the "other," with exploring the grim world of the deadly Japanese organised syndicates, who even have the police and media under their control. However, the closer access he gets to the key players, the more volatile the stakes get. In between the power play by the yakuza, the police force and the media, we also witness a bleakly love triangle between Jake, Samantha Porter (Rachel Keller), an American expat working as a hostess in the Kabukicho district, and Sato (Show Kasamatsu), a Yakuza enforcer under Hitoshi's squad.

First things first, Tokyo Vice is brimming with an impeccably pitch-perfect ensemble, who make the characters more enticing than what may have been instructed in the screenplay. When it comes to the performances, Ansel Elgort brings a sense of smug enthusiasm to Jake Adelstein, a go-getter no matter what the cost, but also someone who toes the balance between cold-hearted and empathy, like most investigative journalists eventually learn to become. As Jake digs deeper into the underbelly of the Japanese yakuza and just how ruthless they can get, we see a shift in Adelstein's mannerisms, which are subtly played out by Elgort. However, Ansel doesn't hold a candle when it comes to his sequences with Ken Watanabe, who adds a mature, restrained gravitas to Hiroto Katagiri, toeing the invisible line between the police and the yakuza. The command the Oscar-nominated actor holds throughout is mesmerising to witness as a viewer, especially when he does expertly break the rules and gets to show off his power over the powerful.

On the other hand, Show Kasmatsu is a charming delight as Sato, who is stuck between a rock and a hard place, wanting to rid himself away from his crime-filled life but also knowing it's impossible to truly ever get out of the yakuza. Show instantly steals the sequences he's part of and Tokyo Vice becomes even more intriguing when the central POV switches hands from Jake to Sato. Kasamatsu and Elgort also indulge in a hilarious sequence where the two argue over what Backstreet Boys' I Want It "That Way" really means. Equally appealing is Rachel Keller as Samantha Porter, who unlike Sato isn't afraid to break free and be the one in charge. There is a delectable undertone to Rachel's sultry performance as she stamps her character as a pivotal part of the story, on her own accord, rather than being a background motif.

Rinko Kikuchi as Emi Maruyama is marvellous, but also severely underused, especially with how good the Oscar-nominated actress is at bringing to light Emi's constrained understanding and frequent frustration of how the Japanese media truly functions. Similarly, given a limited time frame which is not enough to establish meaningful character arcs, we have Hideaki Itō as Jin Miyamoto, an ethically immoral detective, and Ella Rumpf as Polina, an Eastern European migrant and hostess at the same club where Samantha works, who make do with what they can. Ayumi Tanida and Shun Sugata as Shinzo Tozawa and Hitoshi Ishida masterfully express the rigid cruelty belted out by the yakuza leaders without it ever crossing the caricature, stereotypical line. Adding comic relief and playfulness to Jake's American shenanigans are the loveable Kosuke Tanaka and Takaki Uda as Adelstein's witty, reliable co-workers Tin Tin and Trendy.

Technically, Tokyo Vice brings out the best of what Japan offers on a silver platter and elevates the futuristic elements of a country which was way ahead of its time in the 90s. Albeit, contrasting with the ferociousness underlying the crime lords' dark, dark deeds. The intricate cinematography (Diego Garcia, Daniel Satinoff, Josh Grillo and Katsumi Yanagijima) blends seamlessly with the exquisite production design (Kikuo Ohta and Jeff Mann), with a busy, neon-induced city life depicted immaculately. Even Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans' music holds a formidable presence, adding depth to both the loud and quieter moments.

ALSO READ: EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Ansel Elgort & Rachel Zegler recall HILARIOUS West Side Story audition with Nicki Minaj twist

While the Michael Mann-directed pilot immediately reels you into Jake Adelstein's tryst with the Japanese yakuza, the later episodes directed by Josef Kubota, Hikari and Josef Kubota Wladyka fail to capitalise on the momentum, because of a "style over substance" approach. With so many characters added to the fold, and Jake turning out to be the least interesting of the lot, what we get is an overstuffed screenplay that is filled with too many plot holes and minimal character development. There is so much happening, that a viewer's attention may be on the gambling end. It will indeed be interesting to see just how the series culminates in the finale as Ep 7 leaves us with one too many unanswered questions to solve.

In conclusion; stylistically, Tokyo Vice is an aesthetic masterpiece but falls just short of being brilliant, owing to the haphazard script. But, it's still a series I would recommend for the flawless ensemble, who will definitely attract you with their alluring "vice" to "Tokyo."

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