Even after doing this for more than four years, there are still some interviews that make me just a little nervous. When I got the call that Ken Watanabe would be available to speak to me about his Japanese noir series Tokyo Vice, I canceled my Friday plans, furiously started writing questions, and held back a desire to knock back a shot of Irish whiskey before entering a Zoom room with the legendary Japanese actor.
For many it’s his performance in The Last Samurai that is most fondly remembered—but while I love his work in that film, it’s actually Memories of Tomorrow, a picture I saw at the Saugatuck Film Festival (yes, that’s a thing) way back in 2006 that I hold closest to my heart. Memories is about a successful Tokyo businessman whose life begins to unravel when he is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Memories of Tomorrow is a heartbreaking film that eschews conventional sentiment and is all the more moving for it. Watanabe is brilliantly nuanced throughout, and to my mind gives one of the greatest performances of the 21st century. We briefly discussed Memories at the beginning of our conversation and I was delighted to see him take pleasure in the fact that I had seen it.
But soon we moved on to the matter at hand: his scintillating new series on HBO Max Tokyo Vice, created by JT Rogers and produced by (among others) Michael Mann, who directed the riveting pilot episode. When I told Watanabe that I found Tokyo Vice so addicting that I’ve watched every episode three times, he replied with a hearty laugh, saying: “That’s too much!”
When Watanabe was approached by JT Rogers about becoming part of the show he wasn’t initially curious. “The cops vs. gangs, it just seemed like more of the usual.” But as he dug into the episode scripts, he came to appreciate the view of a young American journalist delving into the dark side of Japan. “That became very interesting to me,” says Watanabe.
In the show he plays Katagiri, a veteran cop making cases against the Yakuza while treading upon the dangerous ground that entails. His character forms an uneasy partnership with Ansel Elgort’s character, Jake Adelstein—the true-life journalist who improbably got an entry-level post at a prominent Japanese newspaper in the late ‘90 and became a crime writer. The tentative nature of the relationship between the two men stems from the clash of the American and Japanese cultures. While Adelstein does everything he can to become a part of the culture—from becoming an expert speaker of Japanese, to learning martial arts, to taking in the Tokyo nightlife—he never sheds his all-too-American impatience.
“The position of Katagiri is like a teacher, or father, or brother,” Watanabe explains. “The ‘90s are a very interesting era for the world. The change in position of society, the way companies worked, and the way people behaved. There was something careless about that time.” He then added, “It’s an interesting era to take a look at the dark side of Japan, and JT Rogers did such a great job of building up deep backgrounds for the characters. That was important to me.”
The pilot episode of Tokyo Vice is directed by the great Michael Mann, one of the finest filmmakers we have, but also one of the most particularly stylish filmmakers in the business. I asked Ken what the experience of working with such a singular filmmaker was like:
“He’s so great.” Ken gushed. He creates the whole show’s color, defines the show’s beats, and its feeling. He also works closely with the whole crew. From props, to locations, to set designs—everything. Unfortunately, I was only in a tiny sequence of that episode, but I completely felt the passion of his storytelling.”
In the times we live in, shooting a series in Tokyo that encompasses so many parts of Japanese culture and having the lead character be a white American male might have the potential to be seen as culturally insensitive. But besides the fascinating story of Jake Adelstein being so worthy of telling, the show takes great pains to balance the American characters with the Japanese characters in such a way that, while Jake may be the centerpiece, the show features the ensemble of local characters prominently as well.
Watanabe (who also served as an executive producer on the show) pointed out that the desire for balance extended beyond the talent in front of the camera:
“We had a very international crew. Some of the cinematographers were Japanese. So, I always felt we had balance. I would also make suggestions with dialogue or how a sequence should be played, and those suggestions were always accepted.”
Like most projects that involve Michael Mann, the audience is challenged to keep up with multiple storylines and characters while also focusing on seemingly small details that pay off later in the production. Mann never spoon-feeds his audience, because he expects our complete attention.
“Other shows give you everything in episode one,” Watanabe reflected. “When I read the script, there were so many surprises. The quality of the script was so high. There were many times when I was reading and I said, WHAT! This person is connected to [Yakuza leader] Tozawa? I loved that.”
Earlier, Watanabe described Katagiri’s relationship with Adelstein as something akin to “father and son,” but to me, the relationship felt more like a cranky uncle and a callow nephew. The two characters have an affinity for one another, but Katagiri doesn’t want to completely take Jake under his wing.
The best evidence of this is when Adelstein tries to put his arm around Katagiri in episode six, and the veteran policeman pushes him off with a laugh that seems to say, we aren’t that close, kid. Watanabe had more to say about the relationship between the two:
“At first, I don’t trust this young American journalist. Who are you? What are you doing? And then we build up the relationship. They become a little bit closer.” Watanabe revealed that his pushing Jake off of him in the parking lot in episode six was actually improvised. As Katagiri comforts Jake (still at arm’s length) whose actions that led to the death of a banker caught up with the Yakuza, the scene is shot from the back as the two are leaning on the car. “We shot three takes of that scene, and on the last take, Jake tries to put his arm around my shoulders, I shake him off, and we both laugh. That was all ad-libbed.”
Watanabe continued, “That makes their falling out at the end of episode six much more effective when Adelstein goes against Katagiri’s advice and ruins an investigation.” After Adelstein’s betrayal of Katagiri, the two characters reach a shaky truce and decide to continue working together. As Watanabe points out, “their motivation is the need to fight against Tozawa,” and that shared drive is what brings them back together more than anything.
Perhaps the second most significant relationship in the show for Katagiri is his connection to an officer named Myamoto (played by Hideaki Ito), who was once a promising cop but has become corrupted by the influence of the Yakuza:
“In some ways, [Myamoto] was the same kind of a cop as Katagiri, but he falls down and ends up on the wrong side,” says Watanabe. Katagiri traps Myamoto by recording him trying to tamper with evidence, but then shows him some grace and offers him an opportunity for redemption by working together against Tozawa. “It’s very complicated. Watanabe continued, “To trust or not to trust one another. There’s a lot of going back and forth in their minds that is unspoken. I really enjoyed playing those scenes with Ito.”
Watanabe’s character is revealed slowly, and it really isn’t until the season finale that we get to know Katagiri outside of his police work. In a beautifully shot sequence (by director Alan Poul) at Katagiri’s breakfast table with his family, he pokes fun at his two daughters.
“That sequence is needed to build up my character,” Watanabe says. “We needed to show the warmth of feeling Katagiri has for his wife and children, because the threat that comes later in the episode that they might be kidnapped matters more after you’ve seen them together at breakfast.” Watanabe thought about that breakfast scene a lot before shooting. He wondered: “Does this feel like the same film? The lighting, the framing, the way Katagiri even looks a little different in his face? At first it was a little confusing,” he laughed.
Before and during the filming of Tokyo Vice, Watanabe met with the real Jake Adelstein to gather more information on the real-life Katagiri. Adelstein confirmed that Katagiri was a very different person on the job than he was at home: “his face and voice would soften, and his eyes became more gentle when he was with his family.” These insights helped Watanabe flesh out not only the breakfast table scene, but his character as a whole.
Tokyo Vice’s finale is very much an open-ended one that clearly leads us to believe that the show has much more story to tell. So we concluded our interview by discussing the show’s possible future. When I asked Ken who we had to threaten to get a second season he laughed again, saying: “Let’s not do that! I have talked to JT Rogers about what we might do for season two, but I can’t talk to you about it! Let’s just say there’s a lot of potential for season two.”
Here’s to hoping HBO Max renews Tokyo Vice soon. Because I for one can’t wait to see what happens next, and I know I am not alone.