Tokyo Vice TV Show

HBO's new crime drama, Tokyo Vice, is looking good. Directed and executive produced by Michael Mann (the guy responsible for Miami Vice back in the '80s), the show opens a fascinating window onto Tokyo's neon nightlife and one of the world's most unusual cultures.

Tokyo Vice is loosely based on a book of the same name and tells the story of an American who, in the 1990s, became the first Westerner to work as a crime journalist at one of Japan's leading newspapers. The American, Jake, befriends a pair of Tokyo detectives and rapidly finds himself involved with the city's underworld and its notorious gangsters – the tattooed, suit-wearing yakuza.

At the time of writing (February 24), we're just past the halfway point in season 2 and things are ticking over nicely. Admittedly the story has a habit of wandering from the plausible to the preposterous, and the two American protagonists leave a bit to be desired, but the Japanese actors are top notch and at times the scenery is gorgeous.

Tokyo Vice: Truth or Fiction

The show is fiction, as is a fair chunk of the autobiographical memoir it's based on. The difference is that while the show admits it's not a true story, the book claims to be authentic. This said, the peculiarities of Japanese culture are depicted accurately and one of the show's central themes (a yakuza boss traveling to the US to receive a liver transplant) is inspired by actual events.

The Hollywood Reporter ran an excellent article about this topic a couple of years ago. During an interview with the book's author, it becomes clear that parts of the memoir are comically exaggerated and the author struggles to separate what's real from what isn't. But it's nonetheless true that his near-perfect written and spoken Japanese landed him a top job at one of the country's most respected newspapers.

Tokyo Vice TV Show

Tokyo Vice: Season One

Season one is set mostly in Tokyo's Shibayu and Shinjuku districts, with much of the nightlife filmed in and around Kabukicho. Cinematography is superb. There are some lovely shots of Tokyo's small lanes and quiet alleyways, and a couple of very nice restaurant scenes featuring Kobe beef and Kurobuta ribs.

The first episode kicks off with a long sequence showing Jake taking the newspaper entrance exam. It's a 4-hour test and the room is packed with about 100 other applicants. Everything is incredibly well organized. Jake finishes on time, hands in his work, goes home, gets a phone call inviting him to an interview, attends the interview, passes, and becomes the newspaper's first ever Western reporter.

With style, intelligence and mystery to spare, Tokyo Vice is the kind of sprawling crime drama that actually lives up to the label of "prestige" TV.

Empire Magazine

And so begins Jake's new career as a crime reporter. He's initially assigned a few low-key tasks, but things pick up when he comes across a pair of suicides, both triggered by the shame of personal debt. Jakes soon learns that the suicides are connected, and his investigation into them is one of the season's highlights.

Tokyo Vice Shinjuku Lane

Early in the season we also see Jake out on the town with a local detective he's befriended. The detective takes him to a hostess club where he meets the show's female lead, an American girl named Samantha whose job is to ply wealthy men with overpriced drinks. Samantha's backstory is not atypical: she's on the run after stealing money from a Mormon organization, she's also falling in love with sharply-dressed yakuza thug.

The season improves a lot towards the end as the main threads come to fruition and the narratives connect to shed light on the power dynamics between the various yakuza clans. In the final episode we see a yakuza boss leaving Tokyo on his private jet. This is based on the real-life yakuza boss Tadamasa Goto, who cut a deal with the FBI in exchange for permission to fly to UCLA Medical Center and obtain a liver transplant.

Tokyo Vice: Season Two

Season two starts with a nighttime tracking shot that frames the Tokyo skyline, pans across the entire length of a superyacht, invites the TV audience on board, and escorts them through the aft lounge and down to a guest suite on the lower deck. It's a stylish piece of filmmaking.

On the whole, though, the first 4 episodes of season 2 feel a bit flat and some of storylines are far from interesting. There's a story about Jake reporting on youth gangs that steal motorbikes, for example, and a pointless trip to a snowbound town to buy guns from a former yakuza who, we learn, doesn't actually have any.

Tokyo Vice Shinjuku Lane

Episode 5 picks up the pace. Jake discovers that several high-ranking yakuza figures have or had liver disease. His boss at the newspaper describes it as "illness of the trade", explaining that it's due to a life of excessive alcohol, meth abuse and tattoo needles.

The episode ends with a dramatic shootout in Samantha's hostess club, signaling the onset of a yakuza turf war in which unrestrained slaughter is the price rival clans pay for failing to modernize and adapt to a world where traditional yakuza beliefs are now considered outdated and irrelevant.


As good as Tokyo Vice is, it's not without its downsides. Sometimes Jake and his colleagues begin a conversation in Japanese, then switch to English, then switch back to Japanese. Why? And some of the poor acting by the two Americans is hard to shrug off. And then there's the storylines that look suspiciously like filler and just go nowhere.

But if you can suspend disbelief and overlook the silliness, the show works well. It's beautiful to look at and its portrayal of Japanese culture is nicely done. On top of this, the more interesting parts of the story are inspired by real events.