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Secrets of ‘Tokyo Vice’: From the Yakuza to the Backstreet Boys

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Max
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Max

Tokyo Vice’s name may recall Michael Mann’s sizzling Miami-set TV hit, but Max’s crime series boasts plenty of its own unique, sumptuous style. A deep dive into both Japan’s media culture and its yakuza underworld, J.T. Rogers’ adaptation of Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir of the same name—detailing his time working as an American reporter in the Land of the Rising Sun—is a sleek, sensual, sinister affair.

Whether navigating bustling newsrooms, trawling dark alleyways, or luxuriating in hostess clubs, it radiates menace at every turn, and led by Ansel Elgort as the intrepid Adelstein and Ken Watanabe as the detective with whom he establishes a close partnership, it proves to be a cut above much of the modern television pack. Steeped in its chosen milieu’s myriad customs, rituals and codes of conduct, it’s a cops-and-crooks saga of endless tantalizing divisions: between right and wrong, light and dark, legal and illicit, and American and Japanese.

Executive-produced by Miami Vice creator Mann (who helmed its premiere), Tokyo Vice turns out to be an even more assured machine in its second season, which concerns the further efforts of Elgort and Watanabe’s protagonists to thwart (or at least keep the peace between) the city’s reigning kingpins. Its tangled tale also involving ambitious American-expat hostess Samantha (Rachel Keller), yakuza killer Sato (Show Kasamatsu), and newspaper editor Emi Maruyama (Rinko Kikuchi), it’s a uniquely splintered genre series that straddles its many lines with aplomb, all while providing a simmering undercurrent of peril that sometimes boils over into harrowing violence.

Such danger only become more cataclysmic in its sophomore run, as Rogers and executive producer/director Alan Poul (who handles behind-the-camera duties for its first two episodes) up their story’s stakes to intense levels, even as they maintain strict focus on their compelling characters’ intertwined personal dilemmas.

A gripping gangster saga told from multiple angles, it’s one of television’s best (and most undervalued) offerings. Consequently, to celebrate its season two premiere, we spoke with Rogers and Poul about the show’s real-world origins, Mann’s participation, the yakuza’s continuing influence in Japan, and the series’ ongoing love of the Backstreet Boys.

If I’m not mistaken, JT, you went to high school with Jake Adelstein?

Rogers: It’s even slightly more Ripley’s Believe it or Not! than that. We met in driver’s ed in Missouri, and I got him into theater—we were in the theater club together. When we went off to college, I said, I think I’m going to leave Missouri to go to New York to try to become an actor, and he was like, yeah, yeah, sure, great. And he was like, I’m going to go to Japan to try to be a journalist, and I was like, yeah, that’s not going to happen! [laughs] Lo and behold, he did.

We stayed somewhat in touch, as old friends do. He lived with me for a week during 9/11 to cover it for Yomiuri Shimbun. But one day about 10 years ago, I was out walking my dogs late at night in Brooklyn, and I got a call from Jake. He was incredibly anxious and said how are you, and have you been getting threatening phone calls in Japanese? I said, I’m embarrassed to say I think I’ve gotten a few calls in Japanese, but I assumed they were the wrong number. He was just gutted and said, I’m so sorry. The worst gangster in Tokyo has stolen my proverbial Rolodex and is calling and threatening all the people closest to me. I was like, we need to slow down and I need to get a pen and paper. What are you talking about? [laughs]

That would definitely be a surprising thing to get a call about.

Rogers: That became the pull for me to come to Japan and meet his friends and ex-Yakuza and cops and sort of think about what I could do with this. And here we are.

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You originally tried to make a movie of Tokyo Vice. In hindsight, does it feel like the material was better suited for a long-form series?

Rogers: You just gave me the answer I was going to give you! [laughs] Not to be flippant, the people who were going to make the movie would have been lovely to work with on my first film. But no disrespect to them at all, I’m really fortunate [about the TV show] because it is a long-form story and it allows me to work in a way that, I hope, puts what I like to do front-and-center as a writer and an EP.

Alan, you directed the Season 1 finale as well as Season 2’s first two episodes. What’s the trick to putting your own directorial stamp on a TV series whose stylistic format has already been established from the outset?

Poul: I’ve directed a lot of episodes on shows where I wasn’t the executive producer, and I’ve also done a lot of shows where I was the executive producer, and the latter is the better job [laughs]. But generally, as a television director, your job is to put [on-screen] the writer’s voice and the vision of the story as it’s been developed, both in terms of script and in terms of visuals. Of course when you’re doing the pilot, you’re playing a bigger role in establishing the visual palette of the show, and when you’ve been able to hire yourself as an executive producer to direct, you also have a broader level of creative latitude.

I worked very closely with JT. Certainly in terms of last season’s finale and the opening episode of this season, in terms of what we wanted to do both visually and in terms of ratcheting up the tension and streamlining all the character conflicts, we worked very closely together on that. We didn’t know for sure when we finished season one that we were going to pick up exactly at this moment. But it turned out that the first episode of Season 2 is really the second part of a two-part finale to Season 1.

Rogers: It was really important to me that Alan direct because, first, we had been building the visual world together in Season 1, and he did such a terrific job and knows the show so deeply that it just made sense for both of us. It was a fait accompli that he was going to direct in Season 2; the question was, finale or beginning? We decided it really should be the beginning because then we have a seamless transition and the world continues to have continuity.

Poul: I also think there was the great drive to expand the world of the show, visually, and to expand our toolbox of things we were going to allow ourselves to do—and to be able to do that so it wouldn’t seem like the show had jumped the rails; it just felt like a bigger, deeper, better version of the show. It was an ideal opportunity to kick off this season and broaden the show visually and to set a revised template for the directors that came after.

At what point did you decide that Season 2 would begin almost exactly where the prior season left off?

Rogers: I had a very clear sense from the get-go of what I wanted a two-season arc to be. I was going back and forth, and you’re not setting it in stone, because honestly, you’re still shooting and on set and answering questions sixteen hours a day. When you’re finally able to sit down and write, you’re like, yes. And also, a show teaches you what a show is. Alan and I do all of the post together, meticulously, and once we sat down together and saw how it all landed, we said, we have to pick up here. I was going to, and now, for sure.

Ayumi Ito and Ansel Elgort look at each other in a still from 'Tokyo Vice'

Ayumi Ito and Ansel Elgort

Kumiko Tsuchiya/Max

The title of the series (and book) obviously recalls Miami Vice, and Michael Mann directed the pilot. He’s a legendary auteur, but was there ever any fear that recalling his hit ’80s show might set wrong expectations for Tokyo Vice, which is a very different series?

Poul: To set the record straight, the show is called Tokyo Vice because Jake’s memoir is called Tokyo Vice, and it was always called that because of the memoir. In fact, when we had the great fortune to have Michael come in and direct the pilot episode, we went so far as to consider changing the name of the show so that people would not be making that connection. Jake called his memoir Tokyo Vice as kind of a wink and a nod to Miami Vice

Rogers: Because he and I grew up watching it together on our friend’s couch…

Poul: But there was never meant to be any kind of stylistic affinity.

That makes sense.

Rogers: The story of the first season is, “Pay attention because things are not what they seem.” What you’re talking about with Michael, and whether it’s a blessing or a curse—obviously it’s a blessing because he’s so gifted and his noir is like no one else’s. But the first episode is designed to be from the point of view of Jake, like a rocket, and all these small people are coming and going as he races on, just trying to get to this mystery. The moment we start in Episode 2, 10 minutes in, the audience should feel like, oh, this is not the show I thought I was watching. All those people on the corners are actually main characters.

Sato, who’s become everyone’s obsession—did he die or not at the end of Season 1?—you’ll remember in Episode 1, he’s in it for three seconds as a guy in a bathrobe. Samantha’s just a woman at a club. That’s why we break out and begin Season 2 in daylight, which is the opposite of Season 1.

Yes. There’s a shift.

Rogers: The whole structure was, we’re going to do this kind of a show and then say, no, this show is about the fact that you have to pay attention and that things are not what they seem. It’s not that we pivot, but we open it up and change the visual vocabulary of the show. I’m very pleased—the directors on season one who did that, culminating with our triumphant ending with Alan, really rose to the challenge.

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Alan, I’ve read that you speak fluent Japanese. JT, do you as well? And if not, did you have to learn it to do this?

Rogers: No. I had to try to stumble and fail, and to have this one [Alan] by my arm at all times, as well as assistants. Us doing this—shooting a show in Japan, me not speaking fluent Japanese—on one level, you could say it was madness. But this is a collective endeavor. There’s so much specificity about the Japanese language and dialogue. I’ll write it, it’ll be translated into Japanese, then it’ll be polished because the cops have a different accent and a different patois than the reporters, and then it’s got to be ’90s, and then Ken Watanabe comes in and polishes every line because he’s the master of dialogue.

Poul: And then we still fight about everything on set. [laughs]

Rogers: There will still be a moment where Alan—and this is one of many reasons that Alan is excellent on this production—will be on the shoot, and it won’t be his episode, and he’ll come over and go, I know your voice and there’s a level of irony that just isn’t here. Then we’ll have to stop and huddle everyone together and go through it like the Talmud. But it pays off. It can be exhausting but it’s also thrilling because everyone is so invested.

Poul: Taking JT’s very dense and subtext-laden and dramatic dialogue and translating it into Japanese while maintaining all of the nuance but also making it feel like it would have come out of the mouths of Japanese characters involves a lot more time and labor than you would think.

Much of the show is shot in Japan, and its action is extremely bilingual. Was that a hard sell for HBO? Did the studio give you any rules about how much of the action could be subtitled?

Poul: I think it’s a great measure of how far the TV landscape has come just in the four years since we started doing this show. In the beginning, there were some concerns on the studio network side about the proportion of English to Japanese dialogue. But even then, we had Narcos, we’d had non-English shows like Money Heist become worldwide hits. So we already knew that audiences would be willing to read subtitles for good drama. Then, over the course of those four years, Squid Game happened, and suddenly there was really no concern about, is it 50 percent English? Is it 60 percent? We were just able to have the creative freedom to have the characters speak the language they’d be speaking in real life.

Rogers: The conversations I had to have to explain why characters needed to speak Japanese in these moments—with our excellent executives—went away by Season 2.

Poul: You can stretch it out some more, and have a higher percentage of cops be able to speak English than you might really have in Japan, but you cannot make them speak English to each other.

Why did you choose to set the show in 1999, versus today? Have things dramatically changed in the Japanese media over the past two decades?

Rogers: In reality, I moved the events of Tokyo Vice up—I’ve taken enormous liberties with the memoir with absolute OK from “real Jake,” who’s an adviser on the show and who loves what we’ve done.

Poul: We call him “real Jake.” [laughs]

Rogers: “Ansel Jake” and “real Jake.” [laughs] I moved it into the late ’90s so it would be period but not so difficult to reenact. One reason is, if you did it now, a newspaper journalist is not as influential, and newspapers don’t play the role now that they did, so the stakes would be lower. Also, as a storyteller, most showrunners are looking for a way to set our shows before the iPhone, because when people have to search for things, it’s more interesting. When we put the show together, Max asked, what if you set the show now? I said, here’s the problem: the moment our bad guys can find Jake on their iPhone, he’s dead, end of series!

Poul: One of the interesting things about that point in history is that it’s the early days of cellphones—everybody had cellphones, but the cellphones were really phones. You could text, but they were not smartphones, which makes it so we can have people run around and talk to each other but not track each other.

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Relatedly, how prevalent is the yakuza in today’s Tokyo?

Rogers: That’s another reason. The yakuza is much more enmeshed in the culture and seen in much more complicated ways—some positive, some negative—than the mafia in the States. But there are rules to regulate the yakuza and rules that were on the book that were finally enforced about 10 years after our show. So again, for authenticity, we wanted to have a show where our yakuza characters can just walk down the street and they’re clearly yakuza and no one’s going to hassle them.

Poul: Since the period of the show, there have been a lot of laws passed that have made the yakuza go deeper underground. For example, we could not have any contact with any actual yakuza unless they were documented as ex-yakuza because for us, as a foreign company, to have any contact at all with any member of an organized crime group, we would have been thrown out of the country immediately. We had to be very careful about where we stepped.

Wow. Understandably.

Poul: That said, underneath the surface, if you follow the money, the influence of the yakuza is still as pervasive as ever, and the connections between the yakuza and the political world are still there—they’re just several layers down. Case in point: We had a production services company (which I won’t name) working with us early in pre-production, and they ended up pulling out of the show because several of the members of their board of directors were “uncomfortable with the subject matter.”

Lastly, “I Want It That Way”—and its true meaning—is the subject of a big joke in Season 1. Have you received any feedback from the Backstreet Boys?

Poul: [laughs] In truth, we had to be very careful about how we described what Sato was claiming the song was about. We couldn’t use certain words or we wouldn’t have gotten the rights to the song.

Rogers: I wrote multiple, multiple drafts of four lines of dialogue just to be able to get the intention and joy and humor I wanted, but not in a way that would make their lawyers uncomfortable.

Poul: That’s why there’s a lot of, “about that.

Rogers: Inference, as opposed to statement!

But obviously they were OK with it, since there’s more Backstreet in Season 2.

Poul: Yes, they’re in Season 2, but there were no sexual innuendos in the karaoke scene.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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