Dark fiction has seen something of a resurgence lately, with films like The Batman explore the subgenre in new ways. HBO Max’s All-New Yakuza Crime Drama Deputy Tokyo extends this to serialized fiction. Created by JT Rogers (Oslo) and based on the 2009 memoir Tokyo Vice: an American journalist on the rhythm of the police in Japan by Jake Adelsteinthe premise of the show is quite simple. Ansel Elgort stars as a fictionalized version of Adelstein, and the series explores how he makes his way as the first non-Japanese journalist to work for a major publication in Tokyo.
Based on this information, you would probably expect emotional drama about a young man finding himself in a foreign land. What he is. There’s no denying that this is the story of an expat trying to build a life away from everything he’s ever known. But that’s not all, and that brings us to the first lesson of Deputy Tokyo: nothing is ever as it seems.
It all starts with a bad day in Shinjuku when a man is found stabbed to death. As Jake digs deeper, he begins to see beyond the narrow days and neon-drenched nights to the true face of Tokyo’s underworld.
Deputy TokyoThe pilot of was led by Michael Mann and it’s exactly as good as you could hope for from the accomplished filmmaker. The story is tightly composed, with an abundance of nervous energy radiating from every scene. This tension and urgency is perfectly captured by Elgort in his performance. After the first episode, the pacing slows down a bit, but the storytelling quality certainly doesn’t. It’s then that we begin to learn more about Jake’s complicated relationship with his family. Family conflict is a recurring theme in the series, with a number of characters choosing to cut their families and pasts in order to pursue their dreams. The next two episodes, directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka (Terror) actually manage to pull you deeper into the story. And by the time you pass episodes 4 and 5, which are directed by an award-winning director Hikari (37 seconds), all you can think about is what’s going to happen next.
As the season progresses, you begin to learn more about the various characters appearing in the series. Elgort may be playing the main protagonist, but he’s not the only one putting on a brilliant performance. Iconic Japanese Actor Ken Watanabe is absolutely badass as Hiroto Katagiri, a detective from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Katagiri is the one who takes Jake under his wing, showing him how to find his way through the darkness of Tokyo’s underworld. On the one hand, Katagiri is a fierce peacekeeper, managing different yakuza factions and brokering deals between them as an independent party. On the other, he is a loving father and husband who is determined to remain intact in a town where almost everything and everyone can be bought. It’s clear from the start that Katagiri cares about nothing but his sense of honor and duty. As Jake’s mentor, he becomes a father figure to the young man.
Reflecting Jake’s development as a rookie journalist, the series features Sho Kasamatsu as Sato, a member of a newly created yakuza gang who begins to question his chosen life. He and Jake are rivals for Samantha’s affections (Rachel Keller), another key figure. Samantha is probably the best written character on the show. We first meet her singing a Japanese version of “Sweet Child of Mine” from Guns N’ Roses in a hostess bar. From there, every new piece of information we uncover about him reveals a whole new person. Keller has had acclaimed performances on shows like Legion and Fargoand its role in Deputy Tokyo is a perfect fit for the talented actor.
Even though Sato and Jake started out as rivals, their relationship turns into something of a friendship. There’s a big scene in Episode 4 where Jake and Sato start to vibe at the street boys song “I Want It That Way.” Kasamatsu is excellent in the role, bringing out barely suppressed rage in some cases and balancing them with a few rare moments of fun and laughter. Rinko Kikuchi (Kumiko, the treasure hunter) plays another important character, Jake’s supervisor, Eimi. She is a Korean-born woman who works in a heavily male-dominated industry, and all in a toxic home environment. Eimi first comes across as a tough boss, but it’s not long before we know better. In fact, she’s a great journalist who really wants her team to be successful in writing hard-hitting stories. These characters are by no means the only interesting ones in the series; they are just the most important. And what’s really amazing about the show is what it does with these complex, layered individuals: it tells one hell of a story.
Deputy Tokyo does not rely on graphic violence to keep the viewer hooked. In that sense, it’s actually closer to a classic samurai movie than most action thrillers. The series lives in the moments between acts of violence and when the violence finally occurs, it’s only to punctuate a truly powerful moment. It really works for the show too. Conflicts are defused with a whispered word and a nod, not a loud gunfight. This way, the focus is on the most intimate moments, like a party night with a new friend or finding common ground on music, fashion and manga. It’s about how Jake navigates his relationships with his mother, who constantly tries to guilt him into coming home, and his sister, who brings some solace to his life with sent tape recordings. by mail (old school voice notes, folks). And there are also great action sets.
Deputy Tokyo is a mystery, a thriller, a portrait of a city, and a moving story about people who are just trying to live their lives as they please, in any way they can. And I for one can’t wait to see more of what Tokyo has in store for these characters.
The first three episodes of Deputy Tokyo will hit HBO Max on April 7, with the remaining episodes releasing two at a time each week until the final episode on April 28. In Japan, the series will air on Wowow.
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