The first episode of Tokyo Vice moves like a wild cat stalking the streets. It’s almost entirely set to music – not overwhelming, but percussive and steady. Fast, sure cuts keep the time on the screen and give excerpts from the life of the American Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) in Tokyo. We know from the short prologue that two years from now he’ll be staring at yakuza who want him dead. Now, in 1999, he’s just a lonely white man in Tokyo, diligently dedicating himself to the language, the culture, the city, and the beginnings of a career as a reporter. Then the episode ends. The cat is sleeping. Maybe it will wake up again, but it won’t be any time soon.
HBO Max’s new crime series, created by JT Rogers, owes a lot to its pilot. An adaptation of real-life writer Jake Adelstien’s memoir and his account of Tokyo’s underworld as a crime writer from abroad, Tokyo Vice
The pilot introduces viewers to Jake as he begins his work as a low-level crime reporter. Almost immediately, he develops a hunch that two of the first violent deaths he is asked to write down are connected in some way. Unbeknownst to his bosses – and often to their ire – he begins an investigation of his own, brushing the fringes of a smoldering gang war that threatens to boil over and attracting the attention of an unlikely partner, Detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe). .
Tokyo Vice slows down significantly once that first episode’s style wears off and the work of being a show begins. The problem lies in perspective: by positioning itself as a journalistic story, the series begins at a level distant from the crime story it seeks to tell about the simmering tensions between two competing criminal organizations that Jake eventually encounters. Viewers are forced to watch as Jake completes his application exam and interview for his first job as a reporter, and wait patiently as his ambition to rise above the police bulletin board and spread his own news clashes with a culture other than his own is, and an underworld that he doesn’t understand.
While the script does Jake Adelstein’s character few favors, the portrayal of Ansel Elgort feels calibrated for something else entirely – in the pilot we see him lose himself in the culture of his host country, but very little is revealed about him, except for his cold, driven, and ambitious nature. He’s a cipher, but not one that reveals convincing shades to the world around him – and when contrasted with the world-weariness of Watanabe’s detective Katagiri, the energy of his fellow reporters, or the animosity of the criminal element he flirts with, Elgort reads it flat. To rub salt in the wound only seems to come to life in a romantic subplot starring one of the show’s few white stars, Samantha (Rachel Keller), an American who now lives in Tokyo as a hostess.
Adelstein lacks definition, a character whose hubris and youth leads to occasional failures in the newsroom and in the field, but one who finds himself in moments of opportunity because of those failures. This makes him an extremely frustrating protagonist, as it’s his brave Americanness that gets him in and out of trouble, and nothing unique to his character.
It is conceivable that how Tokyo Vice As this pressure cooker prologue draws nearer, the sense of danger felt in the pilot will return, and Adelstein’s narrative importance will diminish as his more interesting themes come to the fore. Unfortunately, the first three episodes – which launch together today while the rest of the 10-part season is out weekly, two episodes each – are all an exercise in lost momentum, a look at a fading underworld that doesn’t allow perspective to be offered it. Maybe the wild cat was just a tabby all along.
The first three episodes of Tokyo Vice streaming now on HBO Max. Two new episodes appear every Thursday.