HBO Max’s drama series “Tokyo Vice” picks up the enduring story of a rookie reporter on police beats but sets it in the bustling exotic landscape of Japan’s 1990s capital.
Ansel Elgort of “West Side Story” immersed himself in the lead role not only learning Japanese so he could speak like a native, but also learning the ropes of an investigative journalist, interviewing people , getting quotes and writing a story.
“It was really cool,” he said.
The characters had to feel real, not just be archetypes, Elgort said.
The series weaves in allusions to the Japanese film genre depicting organized crime, called “yakuza”, as well as exploring the glitzy nightlife of hostess bars, where powerful Japanese businessmen rub shoulders with their underworld counterparts.
“You see the yakuza characters. You also see them as family. It’s kind of like ‘The Godfather,’ where you see them being bad guys, but you see them at home and how it’s really a family,” Elgort said.
It was all about moving seamlessly back and forth between languages and cultures, all carefully stitched together to sound authentic to global audiences, the creators and cast said.
Ken Watanabe, who plays a dark and seasoned police detective, said he was also a Japanese language advisor and advised Elgort to learn all of his lines in his native language before trying them out in the foreign language.
It’s been a trick Watanabe uses to perform in Hollywood, beginning with the Tom Cruise period play “The Last Samurai.” For “Tokyo Vice,” Watanabe also studied cops, he said, to deepen his character, both a loving family man and a fierce crime fighter.
“Tokyo Vice” is loosely based on a non-fiction first-hand account by Jake Adelstein, who spent years in Japan and worked for a major newspaper.
“You are always looking for the storyteller for a dynamic genre story by characters with incredible stakes, but how to intervene from a different angle?” said JT Rogers, Tony winner, screenwriter of the series and friend of Adelstein since their teenage years in Missouri.
“It creates a vibrancy that we hope audiences will find interesting,” he said.
The footage shot in Tokyo is filled with iconic touchstones, from the famous Shibuya intersection where crowds criss-cross in perfect choreography, to the rigidly bureaucratic Japanese “wage” offices, whose hierarchical emphasis on respect for superiors is oddly parallel to the yakuza world.
“All of these worlds are very interconnected in ways that are different than you might assume, coming from a Western perspective. And so finding out how they are interconnected, as Jake finds out for himself, is part of the fun to follow the story,” said executive producer Alan Poul.
Poul, an Emmy and Golden Globe winner, began his career in Japan and holds a college degree in Japanese literature. The multicultural cast of “Tokyo Vice” also includes Rinko Kikuchi and Rachel Keller.
Will there be mandatory karaoke stages to showcase Elgort and Watanabe’s singing talent? Viewers can only hope, although the two main actors have praised each other’s singing talents – Elgort in “West Side Story” and Watanabe in “The King and I” on Broadway.
“I was so blown away by Ken-san’s singing,” Elgort said in perfect Japanese.