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Yakuza: The Underbelly of Japanese Metropolis
October 11, 2022
Tokyo Vice, released on April 7, 2022, on HBO Max, was loosely based on the story of the American journalist Jake Adelstein who works for Japan’s largest newspaper Yomiuri after graduating from the Sophia University in Tokyo. The show portrays the dark criminal underworld of the metropolis; more specifically, the yakuza.
Yakuza, an equivalent of mafia, has a different meaning in Japan. While politicians allow gray zones for yakuza activities, even the police believe that yakuza serves some useful functions. Inagawa-kai, the third largest yakuza group, has its main office across the street from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in midtown Tokyo. An officer in the organized-crime-prevention unit explained that until recent decades, the cops would notify yakuza before a search, out of respect.
“It used to be that [yakuza] didn’t do theft or robbery,” the officer said. “It was considered shameful.” However, when the bubble economy collapsed in the nineties, many wealthy yakuza had trouble adjusting, and yakuza activities have been reported to be more violent since then.
The series Tokyo Vice recounts events through the perspective of Adelstein, a foreigner in Japan who navigates effortlessly between the yakuza and the police by playing the role of a flamboyant outsider. Overall, Tokyo Vice has some obvious areas for praise. The first of which is the texture it presents. The whole work is like a stunning roll of Japanese Ukiyo-e painting. The neon lights of Kabukicho. The solemn and depressing atmosphere of the underworld. The lifelessness of Japanese workplaces. The flames of the burning man before the red torri of a Shinto Shrine at night.
In the camera lens of Michael Mann, these scenes portray shocking power, something enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The series portrays an artistic ambiance that is beyond ordinary life, with extraordinary quality and a feeling of reality that fits gently with life.
Tokyo Vice also seeks to depict many socio-economic issues in Japan as well as the transition of society through the yakuza. However, its depiction of Japanese society and culture remains on the surface level, failing to reach the heart of the matter. Being the director of Miami Vice, Heat, and the Insider, Mann, along with the filming team, continues depicting the yakuza culture as in the book Chrysanthemum and Sword, the disciplinary culture of Japanese workplaces, and phony relationships.
At one point an editor shouts: “You don’t get to think! You will follow the rules!”
These themes have become somewhat cliched in portrayals of Japan. If comparing Tokyo Vice with a dream, it is because of that similar dream the series is a resemblance to reality, but ultimately divorces from reality.
Tokyo Vice is filtered through an American lens.
Another sticking point in Tokyo Vice is that it is filtered through an American lens. The sense of space presents to be one of the most noticeable aspects. As one of the most crowded cities in the world with countless apartments cramped in between buildings and roads, Tokyo enjoys a culture that inextricably links with the high concentration of people and the limitation of space. In the series, however, the settings sometimes seem too vast, fitting more closely to an American space view.
Moreover, the addition of Japanese elements for the American audience sometimes appears in odd places. For instance, the opening scenes portray Adelstein studying in the Izakaya, a distinctly Japanese-style bar. Because Adelstein is not working in the bars, depicting a determined person reviewing notes in bars, a place for drinking and socializing, seems somewhat strange.
The last but not the least critique from viewers is that Adelstein in the movie comes in and acts morally superior to the entire newspaper firm. At the same time, Adelstein exploits stories about victims of violence, he appears enthusiastic about hanging out with the same violent individuals who perpetrated the same atrocities.
When compared to some of the other yakuza films like Outrage (Autoreiji), Tokyo Vice puts more emphasis on aesthetics. The texture of the work is undeniably phenomenal. At the same time, the series lacks an in-depth understanding of the Japanese society, yakuza culture, and a charismatic main character.