Following Michael Mann into the director’s chair could not have been an easy task for veteran filmmaker Alan Poul. But that’s just what Poul (also an Executive Producer on the show) did by directing the season one finale of Tokyo Vice. I imagine that anyone who has seen the show from start to finish would be of the opinion that Poul pulls of his duties with seamless aplomb. While Poul came to the fact-based HBOMAX series about a young American reporter getting involved with the Yakuza while working for a Japanese newspaper in the late ’90s, it’s clear he was a perfect choice. As you will read below, Alan has deep roots of his own in Japanese culture, and that, along with his talent behind the camera, served him well on this most distinctive of new shows premiering this year.
Awards Daily: How did you get involved with Tokyo Vice?
Alan Poul: I have a very long history with Japan. I’ve been in love with Japan since I was seventeen and went there on a student exchange program. Then when I started college, my first love was theater. My parents said “We’re paying for your education, we have only one request, don’t be a drama major. You can always do that later. Learn something.” So I said “OK well then I’m going to major in Japanese literature” and they were like “Fine, great.” (Laughs). So it wasn’t quite out of spite but, you know. It was my next major interest so I got my degree in Japanese language and literature and actually ended up being brought into filmmaking because of Japan. I became an expert on Japanese cinema in New York and I was teaching courses and running some programs and I got drafted by the director Paul Schrader to go to Japan with him and make a film.
Awards Daily: Was that Mishima?
Alan Poul: Yes! That’s when I stepped onto a set for the first time in my life. I was very young. the first time I walked onto Toho studios, where we later ended up shooting Tokyo Vice. I worked on Black Rain with Ridley Scott and then I said “I don’t want to just be the Japan guy, I’m Hollywood.” So I started off on my own career and this show, after several decades professionally being away from Japan is bringing me full circle back to the country that had always been my second home. I was aware of the project from its inception, because I read Jake Adelstein’s book when it came out. I was already friends with J.T. Rogers the writer. J.T. actually introduced me fifteen years ago to Jake, so I knew them both. The project was always in the hands of John Lesher, another one of the EP’s, who had optioned the book even before publication and was trying to make it as a feature. When it transformed from a feature into a television series was when they asked me to come in because of my knowledge, of not just the players, but also of the culture and the arena, as well as me having made a lot of episodic television in my life. It was a natural fit, but I was definitely the last one to the party.
Awards Daily: It’s interesting because when I watch the show, particularly in Ansel Elgort’s performance as Jake, here is a person who has studied the culture, who has ingrained themselves in the culture to a certain degree, but retains his Americanism, particularly in the form of his impatience. Did you relate to that in Ansel’s character?
Alan Poul: I totally related to it, but I also relate to Samantha’s (Rachel Keller) character. The Japanese have a word, I think you learn from the series that “gaijin” means foreigner, but the Japanese have another word that’s “henna gaijin” and it means a strange foreigner. A strange foreigner refers to a foreigner who speaks Japanese, because they find the whole prospect of it so strange. It’s not as rare as it used to be. Any depictions of these henna gaijin, these strange foreigners, like Jake, like Samantha, I’m going to relate to because I’ve been in that position.
Awards Daily: You mentioned that you came to the project a little bit late…Michael Mann obviously directed the pilot episode. He has a very distinctive directing style, there’s’ the over-the-shoulder shots, the clarity of his imagery, the way that he doesn’t go out of his way to explain everything to you when you are watching his work. When you see that template laid out before you, as a director, how do you approach keeping that distinctive style? I imagine you felt the weight of it.
Alan Poul: I did feel the weight of the finale being the bookend to the pilot, although we are fervently hoping that it is just a season finale and that, as you can see from the episode, there are many doors left still open and many cliffs that we are still hanging from. But I also felt that the difference in the responsibility is that now that we’ve had seven episodes worth of growth and development and insight into how complicated and difficult all of our characters’ lives are, is to try to bring that to bear on paying off the emotional storylines. The finale is full of action and surprises but it is also wholly dependent on your having made the journey with these characters and ready to see them get to a new place.
Awards Daily: This is a show that takes place in Japan, and arguably, the two leads are Ansel and Rachel, two white people. Did you ever feel this pressure when you were approaching the material of trying to maintain cultural balance onscreen, while telling the story largely through Jake and Samantha’s eyes?
Alan Poul: I think we have always been very deeply invested in the Japanese characters, who are the bulk of our main characters. Jake and Samantha are, in a sense, white tour guides. is They’re both deeply flawed and they both make some really terrible decisions over the course of the season. In fact, it’s the Japanese characters around them who are entwined in relationships with them who keep them from being their worst selves and help them avoid making even more disastrous decisions. The heroes of the story are the people – especially with Jake – who are stopping them from being their own worst enemy. Especially Rinko’s character, and then they also have a life of their own.
One of the things that I love about the finale is that there’s a relationship between Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) and Miyamoto (Hiedaki Ito). You’ve never seen them interact with each other much, but they go through a whole arc over the course of that one episode and it’s deep and it’s textured and they have these long scenes together. Being able to explore the intricacies of that relationship when they’ve really been set up to be adversaries and how that relationship shifts over the course of the episode, and working with two such great actors was one of the great joys of the episode for me.
Awards Daily: I loved seeing Katagiri with his family at the beginning. There’s a couple of moments of levity in your episode that aren’t as prevalent in other episodes. Watanabe’s character is pretty mysterious through much of the season and then all of a sudden we’re dropped in at his breakfast table, watching his tease his daughters.
Alan Poul: Yes, I think it was such a great opportunity to show that Katagiri is an incredible loving dad and loving husband. We’ve seen little snippets of him with his kids and with his wife before, but if you watch the episode, the real purpose of that scene in terms of storyline is to reestablish that he has a very happy family, and how much he loves his wife and kids because of things that will transpire later in the episode. That’s the function of the scene, but the scene gave us the opportunity to present a side of Katagiri that we haven’t seen before, and also to inject some lightness and sundrenched levity into an episode that’s gonna go to a pretty dark place.
Awards Daily: The other scene that was quite funny, was Jake and Samantha’s infiltration of a source through taking meth. Especially when Jake goes back to the paper and his editor, Eiemi (Rinko Kikuchi) susses out that he’s desperately trying not to look high. I imagine there was a lot of fun putting that scene together.
Alan Poul: I always wanted that scene, especially the scene at Ukai’s house to be funny. I think that there’s great comedy to be mined from the drugs. Meth is a terrible element. It was a terrible element in Japanese nightlife in that time and it’s a terrible drug, but still we’re dealing with one guy who’s a complete novice and then a woman who’s very experienced and how they’re dealing with this together. So, I felt that it doesn’t need a “dun dun dun.” What it needed was comedy and those three actors, especially Kobayashi, the guy who plays Ukai, is so great at comedy. I thought maybe I was being sacrilegious but I also thought the episode needs it at this point.
Awards Daily: Then there is the soup scene. Sato (Sho Kasamatsu) is in this very important meeting with Ishida (Shun Sugata), the head of his Yakuza organization, and Ishida gets up in the middle of the conversation to take to task the maker of his soup. There’s an element of comedy, at first, but then it turns dark as it shows that in this world very small things can put you in a very bad place.
Alan Poul: Yes, and you know it is the payoff to the scene in episode two where we see Sato showing the other guys how to chop the onions. A lot of people have remarked on that scene as getting to see that most of being a Yakuza is about chopping onions. It has this payoff and finally you see just how important the chopping of the scallions is to the boss. Of course it’s an amusing setup to something that ends up taking a darker turn.
Awards Daily: Everything that comes after is pretty grim. I love the way Sato shows compassion for the young man who butchers the soup, but doesn’t overdo it with his kindness. He’s getting him out of the life, and giving him what would amount to a third chance in life. I love how Sato is sympathetic in that scene without being sentimental.
Alan Poul: Sato sees himself. When he’s watching the young man walk away, he’s wishing somebody had given him that opportunity. He was a ne’er do well kid, the son of a fisherman, and so he was picked up and adopted under similar circumstances and this is when he feels like he’s giving this guy the shot that he wished that he had gotten. I feel that it’s incredibly poignant and gives you great insight into Sato’s predicament.
Awards Daily: There better be a second season.
Alan Poul: Write a letter (laughs). Everybody write a letter…the show is performing extraordinarily well. We are all completely thrilled with how it’s tracking. I feel fully confident, it’s just sometimes it just takes a while for the trigger to be pulled with these things because of contractual issues, and figuring out financing, and because maybe the parent corporation is going through a major merger. All those kinds of things come into play, but I do feel fully confident that we will be able to finish out these stories.