#JanuaryInJapan: Reading and Watching Tokyo Vice

Something completely different now for January in Japan – not really a Japanese literature challenge as such, but an account of Japanese vice and crime written by someone in the know – and the TV adaptation of it, which incorporates a lot of actual Japanese language and perceptions.

Jake Adelstein: Tokyo Vice, Corsair, 2010

I met Jake in person at Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016 and we chatted a bit about Japan, so I felt compelled to buy his book, although it was ‘true crime’, a genre I don’t read that much. However, he described the book in the following intriguing way (in interviews):

You could also say it’s about a sleazy Harry Potter finding that he can oust yakuza Voldemort from power but only at a great cost. And Voldemort lives.

Over the next six years, I read certain passages from it, but not the whole book (it contains all sorts of stories from Adelstein’s time as a reporter for Yomiuri, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan)… until I heard that a TV series was coming out. Although the series was initially only available on HBO, I was finally able to watch it on BBC iPlayer throughout December and January. I like to watch one episode at a time instead of bingeing, but I watched it on consecutive nights, as it was quite thrilling.

So I was able to compare the two – and what month better to do so than in January in Japan?

In the book, there are many different anecdotes and characters – after all, the book covers approximately 12 years of crime reporting. The book has far more explanations and subtleties (far more shades of grey) – but it does not hide the fact that some investigations took years to develop and were often never satisfactorily resolved. In the TV series, some of the incidents and interactions were repeated verbatim, but other scenes or characters were conflated, woven together, and certainly made to seem concurrent or happening over a very short period of time to heighten the dramatic tension. I think those changes are justified most of the time – and charismatic performances from several of the Japanese actors meant that there was less of the ‘white saviour’ narrative here than there might have been in the book.

Actually, I am not accusing the book of that either. Yes, perhaps the author is a little proud of the corruption and horrendous stories he uncovered (he was involved in investigative journalism in the Lucie Blackman case, for example) and it is undeniable that the yakuza, the Japanese government and the media often have a cosy ‘understanding’ which makes it difficult to surface such stories. But I don’t think he is glorifying himself: on the contrary, I found his candour in admitting his mistakes, his cultural misunderstandings, and his disillusionment to be quite refreshing. In some ways, it reminded me of Lost Illusions by Balzac, which I am also currently reading. You go into journalism with the idea that you are chasing after the ultimate truth and that you will change the world… and then find yourself having to compromise and making very little real difference.

And yet the senior reporters and mentors at Yomiuri greet the budding journalist with an idealistic speech about the value of the work they do:

It’s not about learning – it’s about unlearning. It’s about cutting off ties, cutting out things, getting rid of preconceptions, losing everything you thought you knew… You learn to let go of what you want to be the truth and find out what is the truth, and you report it as it is, not as you wish it was. Journalists are the one thing in this country that keeps the forces in power in check.

Ah well, only if they do their job properly and are not funded by various individuals with particular political preferences…

Tokyo Vice – TV series

Of course everybody is very good-looking in the TV series. I’m not a huge fan of Ansel Elgort, and he is far taller and blonder than the real-life Jake Adelstein. However, that makes him stand out even more as a gaijin (foreigner). What surprised me is that the TV Jake is not necessarily presented all that sympathetically – he is stubborn, makes mistakes, is selfish, treats others badly at times. I was wondering how the real Jake felt about that – but when I read the book, I realised that the author is quite hard on himself too.

Meanwhile, I fell in love with the young Japanese actor Sho Kasamatsu, who plays a yakuza underling who gets a little too friendly with Jake and a foreign girl, and develops too much of a conscience.

But it’s not just the actors who are pretty: the production values and cinematography are quite good-looking too, even when we go off exploring the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. I particularly liked the bilingualism of the show – the American actors did their best to learn Japanese, while the Japanese actors learnt some English, and the dialogues incorporate both.

The first season ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but I understand a second season is forthcoming. Of course, having read the book, I have my suspicions about how some of the storylines are going to end…

28 thoughts on “#JanuaryInJapan: Reading and Watching Tokyo Vice”

  1. Ooh fascinating. I have Tokyo Vice on my watchlist because I would be happy watching Ken Watanabe sit at a table eating noodles or staring at the floor. Good to hear that the series doesn’t white wash too heavily, I always find that frustrating.

    1. He does do a lot of eating noodles (or melon or whatever) in this one! I knew he was going to be great in it, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised, I hope, by the young guy Kasamatsu too.

  2. That’s just excellent Marina. I may have said to you that I watched the first BBC 1 episode. I then lost it because it was on so late but your review makes me want to pick it up again on iPlayer . Thanks for the encouragement.

    1. Exactly, I was furious that it was being shown at such a late time after watching the first episode. They are really doing it a disservice – maybe because it shows journalists who are investigating corruption and other sleaziness?

  3. I’m unlikely to read the book but few series I’ve been watching are about to come to an end in my TV schedule and having been toying with the idea of filling one with Tokyo Vice.

  4. Interesting! I read People Who Eat Darkness back in December (Richard Lloyd Parry’s book on the Lucie Blackman case) and there was a lot of fascinating cultural comparison in that, too.

    1. Oooh, I don’t think I could bear to read a whole book about that. This one only discusses it in one chapter, but does show what a slippery slope that whole hostess culture thing is…

        1. Yes, their attitude that ‘they had it coming’ is quite disconcerting (but probably not that uncommon in police forces around the world, although they might not openly admit it).

    1. I found it quite surprising that some of the scenes (for instance, with the female editor), which seemed to be ‘heightened’ for the sake of contemporary Western taste, were actually true. So it’s a nice mix of authentic and Japanese with a dash of American slickness.

  5. This is really fascinating, Marina Sofia! I don’t read a lot of true crime, myself, but sometimes it can be done well. And I like it that the television series wasn’t too ‘over the top.’ Sometimes ‘slick’ can end up going too far…

    1. Yes, I was expecting it to be very Americanized, but actually it felt like a proper Japanese-American co-production. Not necessarily very complimentary about the way Japanese society has accommodate itself with the yakuzas.

    1. I read it almost as an anthropological study of the Tokyo soapland and yakuza world, so intriguing from that perspective. Some things are pretty predictable (Mafia type gangs operate in the same way all over the world) but others are culturally specific.

  6. Another series I started watching but got distracted from – I think I watched the first two episodes, but The Traitors came on… I must get back to it, I didn’t realise it was a true crime drama. Incidentally, did you watch Haji Giri a year or two ago on BBC2, that was rather fine.

  7. A very useful write-up, Marina, as I’ve been wondering about trying the TV series. Like you, I’m not a fan of Ansel Elgort, but there seems to be enough here to make the series as a whole feel quite appealing. I’ll give it a whirl.

    1. He was the weakest link in the West Side Story remake, although I was impressed by his dancing (then I found out he had dancing lessons as a youngster). But I would recommend giving the series a whirl, indeed!

  8. I have just watched Toyko Vice over a few days. I loved it. Jake Adelstein is a fascinating person so it’s good to hear about his book too. I suppose a TV adaptation does have to condense things and alter them slightly for dramatic purposes. I am unlikely to read the book in all honesty but I will definitely watch another series of the TV series. It is beautifully shot, and yes, everyone is very good looking.

    1. The puzzling one was where Jake was given an additional family drama of his own to deal with in the TV drama – that was nowhere in the book and didn’t feel all that necessary, to be honest.

  9. Great post Marina, especially with you having met the author at Quai Polar, then seeing the series come to fruition.
    I don’t have any of those streaming services but if it comes to Netflix I’ll watch it. I’ve been watching Midnight Diner every now and then and enjoy the episodic stories with the mainstay of it being always in the same location.

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