' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Tokyo Vice

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Some Drivel On...Tokyo Vice

There’s nothing to recap in the first episode of HBO’s crime drama “Tokyo Vice.” I mean, there’s plenty to recap, sure, in so much as an American journalist named Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) earns a job with the Meicho Shimbun, inspired by the Japanese daily newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, in the late 90s and gets put on the cop beat where he begins asking verboten questions. But that suggests the first episode of “Tokyo Vice” is like all other narrative TV, which is to say a straight-forward series of plot details often recounted in straight-forwardly shot dialogue-laden scenes, or dialogue-laden scenes jumbled and mixed up into some sort of puzzle calculated to induce all manner of post-watching theorizing, nothing more than a delivery device for just the kind of recap that I do not want to write here. The first episode of “Tokyo Vice,” bless its heart, is a full-fledged experience, less an IMDb plot summary in visual form than a painting hanging on the wall in a museum to let yourself get close to and linger over. It was, we should now note, directed by one of the show’s executive producers – Michael Mann.

Indeed, adhering closely to his preferred modus operandi, Mann opts for total immersion, dropping us straight into the show the same way Jake has since been dropped straight into Tokyo culture. Mann carts his camera all over the Japanese capital to give an indelible sense of place, from the kappo style outdoor counter where Jake orders liver and leek to him losing it in the music at a dance club, both illuminating the character’s level of comfort and enjoyment in this foreign place. Not to say he doesn’t stick out. He does, and Mann seems to have cast Elgort specifically for that purpose, his height and gait among the Japanese people implicitly denoting him a fish out of water just as his newspaper supervisor’s stupefied (hysterical) look of indignation upon realizing this fish in his jurisdiction is rendered with two heads encroaching either side of the frame, like this gaijin’s mere presence is already squeezing his brains so much they hurt. 

Rather than laying out specifics of the entrance exam Jake takes to work for the Meicho Shimbun in the first place, Mann emphasizes the moment’s stress through music and edits while also allowing the innate significance of this ritual to become an unspoken reflection of the Yakuza ritual at episode’s end. This is where “Tokyo Vice” is leading, hinted at in the opening scene and snippets of dialogue throughout both from Jake’s editor (Rinko Kikuchi) and a vice detective (Hideaki Itō), that murder is a prohibited word in Japan. In one sequence, Jake tags along with that vice detective to a neon infused karaoke bar where simply in the way both a nameless Yakuza and Jake ogle an American woman Samantha (Rachel Keller) doing a decent “Sweet Child O’ Mine” you see the thin line between reporter and the person he reports on. When Jake has a conversation with Samantha, the dialogue might fill in some blanks but the mood, how the scene ends, Elgort’s punch-drunk naivety, all evoke something more ephemeral, not set-up for what is to come but the fleeting, fraudulent beauty of life. 

But ephemera’s no good for TV. What’s HBO Max going to automatically cue up next? And so when the Pilot gave way to Episode 2, it departed Mann-land for Narrative TV-land, all short scenes of dialogue, characters who had barely said a word in the first episode now chattering away, the kinetic visual language reduced to the functional, the atmosphere drained. The characters were the same, the plot was similar, the city identical, but it felt as I had stepped into a whole other dimension, the very one the Pilot had refreshingly transcended. The second episode was fine, just another TV show, which is what made it so much worse. I stopped watching. 

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