By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Veteran filmmaker Michael Mann gained fame in the field of television through his role as an executive producer of the trendsetting crime procedural “Miami Vice.” A pop culture phenomenon, the show ran for five seasons on NBC beginning in 1984.
Close to four decades later, Mann has directed the first episode of a variation on the theme, “Tokyo Vice.” Largely thanks to his energetic work, the limited-series drama gets off to an original and fascinating start. But subsequent installments fail to sustain the program’s preliminary degree of interest.
Three episodes of the show — which is based on Jake Adelstein’s eponymous 2009 memoir, subtitled “An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan” — are currently streaming, in English and Japanese, on HBO Max. Back-to-back episodes of the eight-part series will become available each Thursday through April 21, with the final chapter debuting a week later.
Fresh from his performance as Tony in Steven Spielberg’s updated “West Side Story,” Ansel Elgort plays Adelstein. He also executive produced the show, which was created by J.T. Rogers.
Viewers learn Adelstein’s backstory up front. After studying Japanese literature at the titular city’s Jesuit-founded Sophia University, the Missouri native embarked on an unlikely career as a journalist in his adopted land, working here for a fictional newspaper called Meicho Shimbun.
To do so, however, his screen counterpart must overcome not only his prospective employer’s skepticism about having a non-Japanese staff person, but antisemitism as well. Having secured a position with the outlet, Adelstein — along with the other neophytes — is assigned to cover crime.
Some of his new colleagues resent the work they’ve been given. But Adelstein is resolved to establish himself by making the most of it.
The novice reporter’s persistence pays off when he develops a relationship with experienced detective Hiroto Katagiri, played by wonderful character actor Ken Watanabe. Katagiri views his role as that of a peacekeeper between rival criminal factions, rather than as their nemesis.
As Adelstein learns the ins and outs of Japan’s underworld, “Tokyo Vice” covers territory through which only grown viewers should travel. The adult nature of the show is reinforced by its excessively graphic depiction of a ritual suicide, its treatment of sexuality, a gratuitous display of rear nudity and the seamy language it frequently showcases.
The program works best when it focuses on Adelstein’s core narrative. Mann’s signature touches — pulsing music and visuals ablaze with neon lights — help the audience share in the correspondent’s experience as he becomes immersed in the ancient culture of a very modern world capital.
When the story takes detours, by contrast, it becomes less compelling. The cul-de-sacs in which its initial force is dissipated include the competition among the Japanese mafia’s warring clans and Adelstein’s burgeoning relationship with nightclub hostess Samantha Porter (Rachel Keller).
Gritty content and uneven artistic results will likely leave even mature TV fans wondering if there’s sufficient virtue in “Tokyo Vice.”
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.