If you’ve already seen HBO’s Tokyo Vice, I suspect that, like me, you couldn’t get enough of it. The story of Jake Adelstein (played by Ansel Elgort), an American reporter who moves to Japan in the late ‘90s and secures a position on the crime beat with Tokyo’s largest newspaper, is a riveting fact-based story that is stranger than fiction and utterly authentic at the same time.
Perhaps the most fascinating character on Tokyo Vice is Sato—a reluctant member of the Yakuza played by the terrific Show Kasamatsu, who has been acting and receiving excellent notices in Japan for several years now. Tokyo Vice is not only a great introduction to the city it’s named after, but also to Show himself, who creates an indelible portrait of a man whose hopes and dreams bump up against the low ceiling that comes with a life of crime.
When Show Kasamatsu met with Michael Mann to talk about playing a Yakuza gangster whose good heart leads him to a dangerous crossroads, he wasn’t expecting the meeting to run over five hours, but that’s exactly what happened.
Sho told me that he met with Michael Mann and “only Michael Mann” for the entirety of the audition. While Sho performed over a hundred line readings for Mann, it was the discussion about his own life—how he grew up, and how his experience would inform his development of the role—that impacted him most. Show’s time with Mann went so deep that Show considers it a life-changing event. “He’s one of the greatest directors we have right now,” said Show. “Before we started shooting, he asked me about my childhood and how I could relate to Sato. Michael may have been looking for the person to play the part, but for me, it was like a therapy session. Michael was guiding me on how to have a better life.”
He also got the part.
In playing Sato, Show had to inhabit a member of the Yakuza trying to move up in the ranks, but who is also afflicted with one of the most inconvenient attributes for a gangster: a conscience. “When I act, I bring the role closer to me,” Show shared. “Sato is myself, living in that world.”
I asked Show if there was anything in his life that paralleled Sato’s, and Show’s answer was incredibly revealing and personal: “I know what it’s like to be a weak person,” he told me. “Sato is a Yakuza who wants to move up, but he has a lot of conflicts inside. I always wanted to make it as an actor, but I have had a lot of conflicts, too. I have often thought of quitting for so many reasons. That was a perfect fit for Sato. Because a part of Sato wants to quit, too.”
Sato’s reluctance to fully embrace the Yakuza life is best shown in his reluctance to end a life. When Sato is told by his boss Ishida (Shun Sugata) to kill Sato’s traitorous mentor Kume, he can’t bring himself to do it. It’s only when Sato is left with no other choice—when defending Ishida, his boss, or Samantha (Rachel Keller), the “gaijin” (foreign/American) woman he has fallen for—that Sato can cross the line to becoming a killer. Show admitted that he still thinks about why Sato couldn’t kill Kume. “Was it because it would have been his first kill, or was it because it was Kume?” Show has mostly settled on the idea that it was because it was Kume: “Kume was his friend, his brother.” But killing in defense of Ishida was a different matter. Show spoke with Hikari, the director of the episode in which Ishida is set upon by assassins, and Hikari told him: “This is just an accident. He is protecting someone he has sworn to protect.”
However, Sato’s killing of a private investigator that has been blackmailing Samantha for sexual favors far is more intricate and harrowing. As Sato first tries to intimidate the man, he soon discovers that the private investigator has the upper hand, at which point Sato begs him to release Samantha from their lascivious agreement. When the blackmailer refuses, only then—in a fit of rage—does Sato resort to murder. The progression of the scene is remarkable as Sato goes from calm and collected, to supplicating, to committing a shocking act of violence. When I asked Show about that progression and how he saw it playing out in Sato’s mind, Show first credited the script that JT Rogers (series creator and writer) wrote for him.
“The second kill is no accident,” Show explained. “It was avoidable. Sato’s emotions took over and he chose to kill. Sato may eventually regret what he did when he took a stone to that man’s head, but it wasn’t a reaction. He knows why he did it. It was a choice.” Then Show laughed and said, “For sure, he slept well that night.”
One of the most arresting reveals of Sato’s character is the way he deals with a young man who he recruits to become a Yakuza, but who he eventually removes from the life when it becomes clear he’s not up to being a Yakuza. I asked Show if Sato was giving the young man the second chance that Sato wished he’d had. “Exactly,” Show replied. “That is about a second chance. Sato tells the young man: you are lucky. You still have time to change. That is what Sato wanted for himself. But at the same time, Sato sees someone who may be motivated, but has no talent [to be a Yakuza] and he has to get rid of him. Sato has two aspects inside of him,” Show continued. “One is protecting this kid, but at the same time, if we keep this young man on, he will make trouble for the whole clan. Sato doesn’t want to kill him, so he finds another way to get rid of him—to return him to his uncle and save him from a bad outcome, but also to protect his clan.”
The character of Sato is at the center of the two “gaijins” in the story: Jake Adelstein’s intrepid reporter, and Samantha, the ambitious prospective club owner. Sato likes Jake, and quite possibly loves Samantha, but both relationships are dangerous to him and his life as a Yakuza. When Show spoke about balancing his relationship between the two “gaijin” characters, he revealed he didn’t think about them as they related to the entirety of the story. Instead, Show focused on Sato’s relationship with each character purely as individuals and from scene to scene:
“I kept repeating the process as I went through each scene. These people are getting to know each other. I just focused on that—the building of the relationship with each character, moment by moment, letting them grow as the story progressed.” Show then said, “It’s like this interview. When I am talking to David, I am only thinking about David. When Sato is talking to Samantha, he isn’t thinking about anyone else but her. He isn’t thinking about a storyline and how the characters fit together.”
It was at this moment in my conversation with Show that it hit me: Sato is in many ways the heart of Tokyo Vice. He is this character that wants out, but knows he can never get out. He is falling in love with a woman who he knows he likely can’t have a life with. Sato is trapped. I shared this thought with Show when referring to the pause Samantha and Sato take in their relationship towards the end of season one. Show’s take was a more hopeful one than mine: “Sato doesn’t see the pause as a break up. He sees it as a new beginning. Sato wants to go back to [square] one. Maybe he could do better by Samantha this time. When he approaches Sam to kiss her and he holds back, he’s thinking, maybe we can fall in love all over again. Again, back to one.” Show went on. “Then I can kiss you again, for the first time.”
At the time of our interview, Tokyo Vice was still waiting for word on whether it would be renewed (or not) by HBO. As the season finale concludes, Sato’s character’s future is, shall we say—for those who have not seen the end—ambiguous. I asked Show if Tokyo Vice were to be renewed, and if Sato was in JT Rogers plans for a second season, would he want to be a part of it? “Of course! I’m excited if there’s a season two,” Show exclaimed. “I’d love to see the cast and crew again,” he continued. “But doing a whole season of Sato wasn’t easy for me. If there’s a season two, I will have a lot of sleepless nights. Probably for a month before filming,” Show laughed as he finished his answer.
As my final question, I asked Show about one of the rare light moments in the series, when it’s just Sato and Jake riding in a car down the streets of Tokyo debating the meaning of the Backstreet Boys inscrutable massive hit from the ‘90s, “I Want It That Way.”
I felt like I had been waiting to ask someone this question for ages when I said: “Show, what the hell is that song about?”
“No one knows!” Show said with a hearty laugh and a huge smile. He then shared that the “I Want it That Way” scene had sparked some debate on set, and there was a real question as to whether the scene would make it in at all. Some wondered if the sequence was appropriate for the show—if it broke the tone, or was simply unnecessary. I told Show how grateful I was that the scene stayed in. Not only because it is comical to watch he and Ansel argue over the song’s meaning, but also because it shows how people can connect over pop music regardless of their backgrounds and place of birth. In this instance, it connects the two characters and yet still, somehow, they see the song completely differently.
Show replied simply, “JT is a genius.”
We both had a good laugh at that moment, and just before we said goodbye, I once more referenced the uncertainty around the show’s renewal status. I told Show that despite what a friendly person he appears to be, that I was going to wish him a month of sleepless nights.
Two days later, my wish came true. On June 7, 2022, Tokyo Vice was renewed for a second season.