The series is fueled by process and intellectual dedication, and has a perfect director to set the stage: Michael Mann. Like his criminally underrated 2015 tech thriller “Blackhat,” Mann’s pilot episode “The Test” focuses on the knowledge and massive ambition of a young upstart American, Ansel Elgort’s crime reporter Jake, who is first seen at a cryptic meeting with very dangerous, very unhappy Japanese men, who threaten him about a possible story he might run. The show then jumps back two years, where Jake is applying to get a job at Tokyo’s prominent Meicho Shimbun newspaper, which includes a grueling standardized test. When Jake does get the job, it’s only the start of his proving grounds, given the cut-throat nature of his workplace, and the way he is written off for being a gaijin not just random people but his own bosses. Mann’s walking close-up shots on Elgort and emphasis on playing with the sound mix further heighten the intensity of his perspective, and how we can get caught up in it.
Jake’s hunger to prove himself as a reporter leads to writing about a mysterious death on a bridge, a man with a sword in his stomach, which he considers to be a murder. But as he’s told, “There are no murders in Japan,” a cryptic statement from his angry boss that becomes more apparent the more Jake digs. Not long after, he witnesses a man light himself on fire, an act of suicide that we learn is related. Knowledge is especially powerful in the Tokyo underworld, and Elgort proves to be a great surrogate as he learns how to properly get in the muck with his crime reporting, how to schmooze the same men who write him off. Should one find Elgort interesting as an actor at all, this role proves to be a good fit for his intensity and commitment—he’s a shaggy, fidgety modern breed of actor, and this works at least for an explanation of how just how miscast he was among the cinematic nostalgia of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”
Created by J.T. Rogers, “Tokyo Vice” becomes about people trying to get their way in this underworld, navigating the different power structures with various transactions. That element is highlighted by the series’ empathetic depiction of Japanese hostess culture, and the life of Samantha (Rachel Keller), another American in Tokyo. She has her own aspirations, and business savviness, that complement her fluency in Japanese. She too understands the desires of people, including the men who try to boss her around. And they are keenly aware that she has her own connections that can uproot heir business easily.