Religion & Liberty Online

HBO’s Tokyo Vice thinks Japan is really just the worst of America

(Image credit: HBO Max)

Will the woke police rate this series as a racist example of “white saviour” syndrome? At least the Japanese stars manage to shine in this boring and self-indulgent liberal fantasy.

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One of the most stylish of American directors, Michael Mann, who made Heat and The Insider (earning three Oscar nominations), is now producing the HBO series Tokyo Vice and has directed its disappointing first episode. I watched Tokyo Vice hoping Mann could make something of our unwatchable TV, but I write to report cinema is one step closer to death.

Our entertainment is designed by people who don’t like beautiful things. It’s killing love of beauty. Our shows are made to eliminate any possibility of great art or even great moments. They perpetuate rather than relieve boredom; they doom viewers to polished mediocrity, until they lose hope that beauty is somehow transcendent. Instead, habituated to their streaming platforms, people watch soap operas that allow them to avoid a bad conscience. More technology and money is poured into TV than ever before, yet the results are ugly and filmed artlessly. A century of cinema, the distinctly American art, is being wasted. In this context, Mann in his other works tried to restore some romanticism to storytelling—the guidance of beauty and the temptation of glamour, the hope that justice will prevail and the realization it will require sacrifices—in short, he wanted to encourage audiences to become adults, which makes his failure here a little on the heartbreaking side.

Mann, in short, has ended up trapped in a Michael Mann story, a hopeless romantic in a techno-commercial world. His most famous movies are about men in search of honor, who prefer beauty to decency. Movies like Collateral and Miami Vice wanted to show the ugliness of injustice and the beauty of heroism. His characters are often rugged individualists, making American cities seem both dead to beauty and transformed by it. Perhaps Mann sees himself in that same situation in Hollywood.

Tokyo Vice is based on journalist Jake Adelstein’s memoir. Adelstein inhabited the criminal underworld of Japan, famous (or infamous) for the yakuza organized crime syndicate, after entering the incredibly exclusive (very difficult entrance tests) and demanding (long hours) prestige journalism industry in Tokyo. Moreover, Adelstein fought yakuza with the weapons of enlightenment: investigative reporting. As you may imagine, yakuza have been the object of storytelling in Japan for generations; many talented artists, even masters, have turned their attention to the underworld because yakuza are a caricature of samurai, and hence might be revealing the ugly truth about the Japanese form of military aristocracy, with its splendid ceremony and unspeakable cruelty.

Compared to the achievements of Japanese art, Tokyo Vice primarily serves to offer bored, suburban, white liberal women a new object of lust, Japanese gangsters, through the infamous HBO sex scenes, involving prostitutes of a race exotic to that audience. The story, written by Tony-winning playwright J. T. Rogers, was mangled in the TV transition. Lost is the shrewd, if degraded, journalist Adelstein and his remarkable, if not admirable, career investigating crime in Tokyo. What is gained instead? Not even a vision of Tokyo, which TV could offer. The real Adelstein is a scandal to multicultural Progressive prigs, because he did everything journalists are not supposed to do, from sleeping with sources to trading information with members of organized crime groups, and there’s no way he can meet politically correct or woke requirements; in Tokyo Vice, he’s a pretty boy protagonist offering titillation instead of a look at an interesting society. Further, contempt for Japanese art is noticeable everywhere in the mediocrity of the design and execution, surely excused by ignorance (although there is a bad scene of quotes from the poet Basho).

Worse, its protagonist is a boring liberal boy aspiring to be a journalist in Japan out of arrogance—the profession has prestige. His story, as televised, is gossip, bad gossip, at that; you will learn little about Japan, accordingly, even if you’re new to the subject. Why boring? Well, a virtuous protagonist would imperil artists’ and the audience’s vanity, and a vicious one the reputation of the journalist class. Unfortunately, this dooms the transparent attempt at prestige TV, but at least it offers us yet another example of a selfish, thoughtless young American with no respect for any man or institution.

So we end up with a story about Japan focusing on criminals, prostitutes, journalists, and policemen, set in turn-of-the-21st-century Tokyo, for people who have no expectations to discover the place. It’s not so much bad art as clumsy propaganda in favor of journalists’ liberal prejudices. Different place, same story, so to speak—more tourism than anything else. Whatever the writers’ ability, they work under the pious imperative not to notice that almost everything about Japan is more interesting than they are, and that Japanese people, criminals included, are more serious than they are.

Even the acting reveals this discrepancy. The Japanese actors are often impressive—veterans like Ken Watanabe (Oscar nomination for The Last Samurai) and Rinko Kikuchi (Oscar nomination for Babel) especially, but also Hideaki Itô, Kōsuke Toyohara, and Masayoshi Haneda, to give only one example each from the police, journalists, and yakuza. Watanabe has made a career in Hollywood over the past two decades playing serious, statuesque men, presumably because it’s getting hard to find American actors for those parts. Even the young Shô Kasamatsu plays a young yakuza well, although his career has had nothing to do with the role; he looks like he should have been the star of Tokyo Vice.

Comparatively, the American protagonist Ansel Elgort is an embarrassment, as he was in the recent Steven Spielberg flop West Side Story. Perhaps this is a good career move; it is politically correct for young white men to look pathetic, since our elites have declared jihad on toxic masculinity. Elgort deserves some praise, if for no other reason that he is said to have learned Japanese for his part, no easy feat.

However, the characterization insists that he knows nothing of Japanese history or society and doesn’t care to learn. His character is instead supposed to be enamored of Japanese youth pop culture—manga, as well as bad music, mentioned briefly in episode 3. This helps him deceive some of his Japanese interlocutors into false confidence, but also suggests the habit is otherwise meaningless. There was indeed such a taste in the 1990s, and manga and anime are now popular in America, too, but it doesn’t seem to involve anything worth mentioning, either in reality or in the story, and grounding the protagonist in such a fetish makes for an instantly forgettable character.

Tokyo Vice is so provincial that liberals until recently would have called it racist for being so judgmental of a foreign culture while indulging every prejudice of liberalism; nowadays, liberals would call it racist because it’s a “white savior” story. The negative part of the story is how Japanese characters in positions of authority are presented as anti-Semites who proclaim their prejudices in public, unchallenged; whereas the American protagonist rather patiently takes abuse while also exuding the supreme liberal virtue, despising his Missouri home and adoring a foreign place. This is obviously intended to show HBO’s audience how far superior white liberals are to the intolerant Japanese. The positive side of the story is the melodrama of a strong, independent young woman, brave and stunning, who is certainly not a prostitute, whatever people who don’t respect her authenticity suggest. She’s on the run from her Mormon father after stealing money as a missionary! Crazy as her story is, the important thing is that she’s as dominant over other female characters of various races as the journalist boy in his domain.

As for the provincial, indeed monomaniacal liberalism of Tokyo Vice, the show dramatizes the woke idea of non-whites enacting “whiteness” and “white supremacy.” The Japanese are portrayed the way Hollywood usually portrays white people: They discriminate against women and ethnic minorities; they have rigid, formal manners that conceal corruption and prevent immigrants from getting jobs or getting ahead in life; and their institutions are both hypocritical and despotic, in need of shakeup by true-blue liberals, the only people shown to care about justice. One person in Japan seems to matter, a white liberal reporter—important policemen and yakuza inexplicably jump at the chance to unburden themselves to him, as equals. Of course, he also uniquely winces when women are mistreated and is the only one sensitively aware of the plight of a homosexual colleague. This is an amusing show of liberal madness. Apparently, everyone involved in making this travesty looked at Japan and all they saw was individualism struggling to express itself against an oppressive culture. It’s multiculturalism of a kind that destroys culture for disobeying the empire of Progress. Japan should be remade for the moral comfort of the liberal audience—they like the sushi and the ceremonies, but they’d like to castrate the toxic masculinity, so to speak.

It may seem an accident that this mediocre show has this tyrannical idea behind it, but it is inevitable: Neither the artists nor their source are up to the task of understanding a foreign society. Their arrogance dulls their judgment. It makes similarities between Japan and America confusing, blinding even, by encouraging everyone to take for granted that we’re all the same, even when the story’s interest depends on the ways in which Japan is unlike America. Liberalism might not be conquering Japan, but liberal prejudices will convince us it already has. Fantasy will replace reality.

All told, Tokyo Vice is a waste of a wonderful cast and a good opportunity. Modern Japan is indeed interesting, as it is America’s only famous success in terms of Americanization! Many of the unusual features of the society noted in the show are real and some are important—for example, the presence of somewhat tolerated organized crime in an incredibly peaceful, crime-free society; the widespread corruption that does not effectively impede the functioning of political and business institutions; and the constant competition between Japanese mores and the mass adoption of American ideas, from democracy and popular culture to capitalism and a kind of individualist consumerism. But we’d need real artists to figure out why and how these apparent antinomies work. The filmmakers might have started by treating Japan’s greatest artists with enough respect to learn what they thought about modern Japan. But this was not to be, at least not while arrogant liberalism insists on trashing learning and HBO trashes cinematic art.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.