TOKYO — These days there are few visible signs of the yakuza in Kabukicho, the storied entertainment and red-light district in the heart of this churning metropolis of more than 37 million people — the biggest city in the world. Aggressive laws have weakened Japan’s organized crime syndicates and chased their aging, declining memberships into the shadows.
But not so long ago, the yakuza controlled this area, among others, and it wasn’t shy about it.
“They were in your face,” Jake Adelstein said, sitting in a jazz club on Yasukuni Dori, arguably the most photographed avenue in Tokyo. Across the street was Kabukicho’s neon maze, where Adelstein met sources and observed yakuza activity back when he was covering crime for The Yomiuri Shimbun, from 1993 to 2005, as the first non-Japanese reporter to work at what is still the world’s largest newspaper.
“I’d come here, an overt foreigner, read my English-language newspaper and eavesdrop,” he said. “But today the yakuza are history in many ways.”
This history gets a new airing in “Tokyo Vice,” a new HBO Max thriller premiering on April 7. Based on Adelstein’s memoir of the same name, the eight-episode series tells the story of a young American reporter at a Yomiuri-like paper in 1999 as he uncovers ties between the police, politicians and Tokyo’s criminal underworld while facing cultural clashes, societal hierarchies and the challenges of forging his own path.
The pilot episode was directed by the acclaimed crime filmmaker Michael Mann, with later episodes overseen by, among others, the Japanese art house director Hikari (“37 Seconds”) and Alan Poul, who is also an executive producer. The playwright J.T. Rogers, a childhood friend of Adelstein’s, is the showrunner, and a lightly fictionalized version of Adelstein is played by Ansel Elgort. Ken Watanabe stars as Hiroto Katagiri, a senior detective who becomes a father figure to the budding reporter.
While it’s not rare for TV productions to have complicated journeys, “Tokyo Vice” has traveled a particularly circuitous route. Challenges included an eight-month pandemic shutdown, along with bureaucratic red-tape and what Poul diplomatically described as the “many cultural and psychological obstacles” involved with filming a large American production on the streets of Tokyo.
Of course, Adelstein, also an executive producer, endured worse after breaking the story at the core of his memoir. The book details the dangerous and chaotic period that followed his explosive exposé about Tadamasa Goto, the head of the yakuza family Goto-gumi who was known as “the John Gotti of Japan.” The piece revealed how Goto sold out his gang to the F.B.I. in order to jump the queue and get a liver transplant in the United States, ahead of U.S. citizens.
Adelstein received death threats after the article was published, during a time when gangsters were more tolerated — and even celebrated — by Japanese society. As we walked through Kabukicho’s patchwork of bars and more dubious businesses, he showed me an out-of-print yakuza fan magazine, one of many that for decades were fixtures at Japanese newsstands. Now they’re gone and the underworld they glorified has faded, but Adelstein, 53, is still here.
“Sure, the yakuza still exists and maintains powerful connections,” he said. “But their ability to be a powerful force and their willingness to use violence has drastically diminished. Their membership ranks have shrunk from about 80,000 a decade ago to about 10,000 today. Most are in their 50s now, like me.”
“I’m still in touch with some,” he added. “It’s like, ‘How’s your liver, man?’”
The Keys to the Kingdom
Initially, “Tokyo Vice” was supposed to become a film. The book came out in 2009 and was optioned by John Lesher, a former head of Paramount Pictures who signed on as a producer of the film. Adelstein suggested Rogers, a noted playwright and former high-school buddy from their days growing up in Missouri, to adapt the screenplay.
But Rogers’s introduction to the material came a few years before the film project got underway. Standing near Tokyo’s Ebisu-jinja shrine, a location in the show, he remembered Adelstein calling him with an odd query: Had he received any threatening phone calls in Japanese recently?
As it happened, Rogers had gotten some strange voice mail messages that he couldn’t understand. Adelstein apologized and explained that he had discovered a secret about a gangster, who had then gotten ahold of Adelstein’s address book and was threatening people in it.
“I then had two thoughts at once,” Rogers recalled. “As his friend, I was concerned for his safety. But as a writer, my impulse was to grab a pen!”
By 2013, Daniel Radcliffe had been attached to play Adelstein, but the film eventually fell through. (Adelstein believes the Japanese film industry’s lingering fear of the yakuza was a factor; others involved chalked it up to more mundane financing issues.) When the production company Endeavor Content, which acquired the rights, began work in 2019 to turn “Tokyo Vice” into a series instead, Lesher became an executive producer and Rogers became the showrunner.
“It’s quite rare to be given the keys to the kingdom when you’ve never made any TV before, especially for a U.S. show on a scale previously never undertaken in Japan,” Rogers said.
Fortunately, he had some help. Poul, who had produced series like HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and “The Newsroom,” lived in Japan in the 1980s and landed his first major film gig there, as an associate producer on Paul Schrader’s “Mishima” (1985). His fluency in Japanese and deep familiarity with the culture were indispensable during the shoot. Mann, the celebrated director of police thrillers like “Heat” and the journalism drama, “The Insider,” had his first big success with another crime series with a similar title and similarly vivid sense of place: “Miami Vice.”
Mann has long been mesmerized by Tokyo and Japan, but this was his first opportunity to work there. His fascination with the architecture, design and ambience of Tokyo’s urbanity is apparent in the pilot episode, which sets the show’s visual tone.
“My admiration of Japanese aesthetics is such that it’s difficult for me to walk 100 meters down the road there,” he said in a video call from Los Angeles. “I will become captivated by the design on the cover of a manhole. Then take another three steps and stop to admire the intricate masonry of a curb. So I am hopeless in Tokyo.”
Adelstein’s desire to uncover mortifying truths in a culture permeated by archaic codes of polite secrecy resonated with Mann, he said, and the director wanted to ensure that this sensibility shone through in Elgort’s portrayal.
“As accultured as Jake wants to be, he can’t shed his American impetuousness,” Mann said of the character. “You know, when someone tells you something you’re expected to accept, that you know is wrong. That was the one quality important to keep. And that’s exactly the story of the show: They don’t want him to write the stories he wants to write, as he sees them.”
To prepare to play a journalist, Elgort shadowed James Queally, a crime reporter at The Los Angeles Times. Eventually, Mann had the actor follow up on an actual police report and write an “article” about it to get a feel for the job. (Elgort told interview subjects he was a journalism student.)
Elgort also learned passable Japanese within a few months. Despite this, HBO Max requested that the series cut back the amount of Japanese originally called for in the scripts, he said — “especially in my scenes with Ken Watanabe, which I felt should be as Japanese as possible.” In the end, a compromise was struck and a fair amount of Japanese dialogue remains.
Watanabe’s character is based on Chiaki Sekiguchi, a Tokyo detective who served as a mentor for Adelstein. Sekiguchi died in 2007, but Watanabe said that Adelstein helped fill in the blanks on his personality.
“Apparently he was a mild-mannered and sweet man, but when he dealt with the yakuza, his brutal side came out,” Watanabe said through a translator, speaking from the Japanese countryside. “I tried to capture that duality.”
Although the series is based on Adelstein’s memoir and experiences, everyone involved stressed that it is a work of invention. “‘Tokyo Vice’ is not biography, nor documentary,” Rogers said. “It’s inspired by real events, but it’s fiction.” (He said none of the characters are directly based on Goto, who was forced out of his gang in 2008 but continued to maintain yakuza ties, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.)
That said, Watanabe was won over by its nuanced characterizations and general rejection of clichés.
“The yakuza tend to get caricatured,” he said. “But I feel that the way that we portray the yakuza in ‘Tokyo Vice’ is very authentic. They’re not just shown as bad guys — we also see how they struggle and agonize. J.T. wrote them as very human characters.”
Visual Dazzle and Tough Truths
It has become trite to assert that a setting functions as “another character” in a series or film. But that would be a fair assessment of “Tokyo Vice,” and the creators strove to credibly capture a side of the city that has rarely been seen on American screens.
“It’s easy to barely skim the surface of Japan and still deliver to an American audience the exoticism and visual sophistication they crave,” Poul said. “We hoped to really get below the surface and present an authentic portrait of Japan, one that will deepen people’s understanding of the country.”
But it wasn’t easy.
Covid-19 forced production to stop for eight months, beginning in March 2020. During the shutdown another challenge arose: A young woman who dated Elgort in New York when he was 20 and she was 17 (the state’s legal age of consent) accused him of sexual abuse on Instagram, before taking down her post. Elgort responded on Instagram, stating the sex was consensual, but expressing regret over having treated her poorly. (He also removed his post.)
No charges were filed. But following the accusations, Endeavor Content conducted its own investigation to determine whether it was appropriate for Elgort to remain in the cast, according to a person involved in the production who was granted anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the investigation. Ultimately, Endeavor and its production partners concluded that there was no reason to fire the actor. (HBO Max declined to comment on the allegations or investigation.)
Once filming was able to continue after the shutdown, shooting an enormous bilingual show in Tokyo during a pandemic presented myriad problems. The production had to administer roughly 300 P.C.R. tests per week for seven months. Locations like the labyrinthine, neon-lit alleyways of Kabukicho, while visually dazzling, made for punishingly complex shoots.
The necessary permissions were difficult to obtain. In order to get final municipal clearance, Mann and Lesher did meet-and-greets with local politicians.
“Unlike many places where film commissions help out, in Tokyo you must deal with the various authorities yourself,” Lesher said. “It is exceedingly complicated.”
But there were silver linings. Tokyo’s Covid emergency measures urged establishments to close early and largely emptied the streets, creating favorable conditions. The ability to shoot in the time-warped area Golden Gai, with its highly cinematic narrow alleys lined with hundreds of tiny bars, likely wouldn’t have been an option before the pandemic, Poul said.
While “Tokyo Vice” features many Japanese characters, it pays considerable attention to the lives of expats as they find their way in a Tokyo before smartphones and Google Translate. More fundamentally, “Tokyo Vice” is about truth-seeking, in the relationships among characters as well as in the journalism driving the plot. The show also presents a critique of certain aspects of Japanese culture that haven’t changed much since the 1990s, relating to patriarchal hierarchies, xenophobia and sexism.
This comes through clearly in Rinko Kikuchi’s portrayal of Adelstein’s superior, a composite of several of Adelstein’s newsroom bosses. Kikuchi said the chauvinistic attitude shown toward her character is authentic.
“There’s still a tendency for Japanese men to want something sweet and infantilized in women,” Kikuchi said through a translator. “Japanese women can weaponize this in male-dominated workplaces. But my character, who is of Korean descent, is not using her womanhood as a weapon. For her, it’s all about being a good journalist.”
“It’s an amazing role there aren’t many of in Japan,” she added.
Adelstein is still a reporter in Tokyo, though these days he writes more often about politics than crime. His investigative pieces for Asia Times and The Daily Beast and social media jabs at members of the Japanese political elite continue to ruffle feathers in Japan. He also has completed “Tokyo Private Eye,” a sequel to “Tokyo Vice” slated for release in 2023, though in many ways he is no longer the man who was portrayed in the original memoir.
“People change,” he said on that afternoon in Kabukicho, drinking coffee at a time of the afternoon when, years earlier, he would have been drinking something stronger. “These days I don’t smoke, and I barely drink.”
Adelstein became a Zen Buddhist priest in 2017, and he has vague plans to eventually dedicate himself more fully to his priesthood. But he hasn’t completely left the old days behind: He still has a substantial trove of yakuza memorabilia. “I guess someday I could open up a yakuza museum,” he said, chuckling.
Or maybe having inspired a yakuza show on HBO Max will do.