TOKYO VICE. With a Notebook on Japanese Gangsters [REVIEW of the Second Season]

The second season of “Tokyo Vice” is a direct continuation of the previous installment, with its first episode serving almost as an epilogue.

Jakub Piwoński

6 April 2024


Two years passed as the creators of Tokyo Vice waited for the second season of the series. In March of this year, we finally returned to 1990s Japan, following the actions of a lively journalist hounding the yakuza. Was it worth the wait? Yes, because despite its flaws, it remains one of the better crime series of recent years.

Initially, there was some buzz around the Max series because the first episode was directed by Michael Mann himself. The renowned creator of action cinema baptized this project, later content with only an executive producer role. Also listed among the producers is Jake Adelstein, a journalist whose written and published memoirs from working in Tokyo served as source material for the show’s writers.

The second season is a direct continuation of the previous installment, with its first episode serving almost as an epilogue. To recap, the driving force behind the events depicted in the series is investigative journalist Jake Adelstein, portrayed here by the excellent Ansel Elgort, unafraid to delve into the criminal underworld of Tokyo. Much of the action unfolds under the artificial lights of nightclubs, and the characters grapple with moral dilemmas, uncertain if they are still acting in the right cause or if they’ve become compromised. The main character must skillfully navigate between journalist colleagues, a detective, a nightclub owner, and a gangster, with no time left for his family back in the USA.

I notice a slight decline in quality in the second season compared to the first. I’m unsure if the budget changed, but it’s evident that the cinematography lacks the visual vigor seen, for instance, in the famous pilot of the first season. The acting didn’t necessarily shine in the first season, but here, the technical shortcomings of some cast members are more apparent, especially Shô Kasamatsu, who plays Sato. I also have significant reservations about the chemistry between the female and male characters—it lacks sparks, despite what we see on screen.

However, charisma is not lacking in anyone. It doesn’t matter that Kena Watanabe’s character is based on clichés; he still manages to deliver a memorable on-screen persona. This is somewhat the paradox of this production, which remains electrifying despite its executional shortcomings.

Ansel Elgort excels in the lead role (particularly appreciating the actor’s linguistic preparation, which was surely no easy feat to achieve), although he’s not necessarily considered the show’s most significant asset. The atmosphere of the Japanese underworld is recognized as the series’ primary strength, and I agree with this argument. What makes this series stand out isn’t just the plot or character relationships; it’s the blending of relatively straightforward and clear criminal themes with the incredibly intriguing circumstances of Tokyo life in the 1990s.

Thus, the main character acts as our guide through a little-known culture and its unfamiliar customs; his notebook and camera serve as tools for documenting this exotic world and its interpretation. Tokyo Vice somewhat aligns with the intentions of Shogun in that they are both series recounting a white man’s attempt to find himself in Japan. However, as the world is vast and broad, cultures may differ, but certain things remain unchanged.

In one of the final episodes of the second season, two key characters crucial to the plot have a conversation. A yakuza member, Sato, addresses Jake with these words:

“Isn’t this what journalists do? You did your job. I did mine. When this happens, consequences arise.”

These words serve as commentary on Jake’s final actions aimed at discrediting a powerful gangster and, for me, encapsulate the essence of this story. It’s a series about actions and reactions. It’s a tale of action, the unyielding need for action, and its sometimes painful consequences. Just that and nothing more. Amidst overly contrived crime series (I’m talking to you, new Detective), Tokyo Vice still presents itself as an old-school entity, employing tried-and-true albeit less sophisticated methods, captivating more with its ambiance than with weighty messages. That was enough for me.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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