‘They found a way to monetise suicides? Even for yakuza, that’s pretty fucked-up’
Episode 3 of Tokyo Vice.
The central idea behind the series is that it takes a foreign, white male to uncover the sinister truth behind a spate of recent deaths that have seen pensioners kill themselves. Jake Adelstein wrote the book in 2005, giving his account of how he became the first foreign writer of the crime section of a Japanese newspaper. The book was notable for two things: one, it was a real-life account of the yakuza practices, rather than the fictionalised version seen in films. Second, the book uncovered some shocking information about a previously covered up crime involving the death of director Juzo Itami. the book also revealed how often Adelstein had put his neck on the line and risked meeting a similar fate to the director whose films had drawn the wrath of the yakuza on so many occasions.
Those expecting to see a close adaptation are going to be disappointed. Right away, the credits tell us that it’s only ‘based’ on the book. They use the character of Jake Adelstein and some of the newspaper figures, but that’s about it. There’s no mention of Juzo Itami or the Goto Gion Yakuza group. Maybe the producers didn’t want to meet the same fate as Itami?
The first episode, directed by Michael Mann is certainly a strong opener. At this point, Jake is still working as an English teacher, although not for long. After he passes the gruelling kanji exam, he takes his place at the newspaper where he is the only foreign born member of staff. but after the excitement of the opener, the TV show settles down and then takes a long time to find the heart of the drama or engage us fully with Jake.
Jake starts to make progress, but is often cut off by a female reporter who is unwilling to give him any leeway in how he writes the crime reports. Alongside the story of Jake, there is an American escort (Rachel Keller) working for a yakuza owner of a hostess bar. The storyline is only loosely linked to Jake, and this character was never even in the book. Obviously, the producers wanted to include another American face, and so they decided to use another American actor. Unfortunately, scenes involving her are some of the most boring in the series and they really drag the show down, as well as adding to the running time. episode 6, mainly focusing on how she came to Japan as a missionary worker is particularly unnecessary.
The Real Jake Adelstein
Ansel Egort is far too clean-cut for the role of Jake. In reality, Adelstein was a lot more rough and prepared to get his hands dirty (literally in the case of the red light district). The character seems to lord his way above most of the Japanese staff, not helped by being a lot taller than most of them.
Still, I watched it to see some excellent Japanese actors, and I wasn’t disappointed. all the nuances of the Japanese language are here, and it’s fascinating to see the varying degrees of deference shown. Yakuza bosses are adressed most politely, and even humble customers are referred to as ‘Okyakusama wa kamisama’ ,meaning the customer is God. The Nightlclub scenes show the pulsating rhythms and music of the period, and the women are often very beautiful. It’s just that when you have a show calling itself ‘Tokyo Vice’, you expect to be in for some very graphic stuff, which the show doesn’t fully deliver on.