HBO Max original series by JT Rogers Tokyo Vice gave fans a familiar and tempting look into Japan’s dirty underbelly of organized crime. It was the showrunner’s first expedition into the realm of television, and it was a strong start thanks to the story of this crime drama branching out from its dramatized treatment of the truth-seeking ventures of journalist Jake Adelstein with even more interesting supporting characters.
These various touching pieces all had something important to provide for the plot’s shadowy yakuza territory war at the core of its conflict. And no matter how strange it may sound on the surface, the perspectives used in Tokyo Vice move the story forward to flesh out the anatomy of Japan’s organized crime world similar to how Sega’s success Jakuza video game series breaks it down.
Note: Spoilers for Tokyo Vice by HBO Max are discussed in this article.
Through the lens of moral comparisons and the morally conflicted
Comparisons between the HBO series Tokyo Vice and Sega’s action-adventure Jakuza could be shown to be especially annoying if one considers the duality of the latter in tone and atmosphere. Jakuza games, whether it’s Kazuma Kiryu’s six-game saga – and more calculations remakes – or the recent soft reboot with Like a Dragonthe series has always been a story of two games.
On the one hand, you have a cinematic, soap-like main story that is emotionally serious and chronicles Kiryu’s battle for justice and the soul of the city of Kamurocho against his former Yakuza superiors. On the other hand, you have the top field side missions that include teaching Kiryu to a professional ruler to gain her trust or play karaoke rhythm games with the imaginations of her and Goro Majima as a 90s hard rock band or colorful J. – Pop group.
It’s certainly not a knock on Jakuza, because that stern tone dichotomy has always been part of the irresistible charm of the series and a great way to break the immersive melodrama of the main story. But the dramatic half of Jakuza with Kiryu still making some parallels with the crime-noir of Tokyo Vice and how it uses Sat in the criminal underworld as a fundamental point of view. That is, even if the former is presented as a moral comparison while the latter is very much psychologically conflicting and morally ambiguous.
When Sato is featured in the show, audiences are already getting cues that he still feels like a suitor trying to convince his bosses of his place within Hitoshi Ishida’s slice of the yakuza – and the validation of his brother-in-law Yoshihiro Kume. Sato is heavily blamed for some of his mistakes, and his precarious faith is evident on screen. That insecurity and inner turmoil culminates in scenes as subtle as him failing to impress a few children at the local arcade of his collecting fundraiser, or palpably tense as Ishida demanding Sato kill Kume discovering the latter to be a plant for a ruthless yakuza. rival Shinzo Tozawa.
Meanwhile, when Kiryu is shown to us at the time what is most of his life, the Dragon of Dojima is presented as a shining example to the community. He is almost like the fictional city of Kamurocho’s Superman, as he is essentially an arbitrator for a smaller scale accepting “truth, justice and a better tomorrow”, complete with a Batman-like “non-lethal rule” and a noble attitude of redemption. It doesn’t matter that players are able to hit thugs over the head with bikes, trash cans, couches, and just about anything Kiryu can get close to.
However, in the Jakuza 0 prequel, Kiryu’s origins show him a little more crude and a little more uncertain about himself. Like Sato, Kiryu was brought into the yakuza by a senior who wrapped him around his neck with the promise of a better life should he pull his weight in the organization.
But that too, along with his image of the yakuza, begins to crumble after he is thrown into the center of an underworld conspiracy and a series of power struggles. As hollow and sober as Tokyo Vice‘s Sato is, especially when compared to the stable and stoic Kiryu, Sato never seems fully on board with the brutality of the yakuza, no matter how much he wishes he was.
To varying degrees, both Jakuza and Tokyo Vice start by showing the audience a novelized version of what the yakuza represents through the lens of Kiryu and Sato, respectively. ViceIshida of Ishida claims to be loyal to rule with the “code of honor” of a classical yakuza. And while Jakuza Probably preserving a somewhat pink depiction of the underworld using someone as heroic as Kiryu, both images are deconstructed as these characters progress through their storylines.
And it is through these deconstructions that both series flesh out the cutting bureaucracy and hierarchy of the yakuza. Kiryu sees the corrupt implications of the yakuza as he interrupts his ties – or at least as much as he can – with the spreading main story launching the various touching pieces that make up those organizations.
Tokyo Vice shows a much narrower-scale story in comparison, as it should as a crime-noir series, but Sato is the character who helps audiences the most in venturing deeper behind the shadowy veil the yakuza creates for itself. Even the thin milk of perceived romanticism that the “classic” yakuza like Ishida holds for itself is challenged by the urgent threat posed by the said, and younger, Tozawa.
These messy, entangled networks of the yakuza that Sato and Kiryu find in a link back to something that detective Hitoro Katagiri warned Jake early in the beginning. Tokyo Vice. Whether it started as a favor, professional courtesy or recruiting, in the life of organized crime, you can never really get out after you are deep enough.
All episodes of Tokyo Vice are available to stream now on HBO Max.