‘Tokyo Vice’: Max’s Yakuza Drama Sharpens the Suspense for a Richer Season 2

Just as major newspapers are slashing staff and cutting budgets, Max’s “Tokyo Vice” returns to make journalism look slick and romantic. Here is one of streaming’s underrated gems. It’s both a stylish crime drama with plenty of great-looking criminals and a celebration of the basics of newspaper reporting. Season 2 is even better than its predecessor, broadening its scope and building greater tension. Our hero remains Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort), who is based on a real reporter of the same name who became the only American admitted into Japan’s Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club. You can read Adelstein’s book, “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan,” and compare it with this slick production, or you can enjoy the series on its own terms as an exciting thriller.

It’s still late ‘90s Japan and the season picks up right where we left off. Jake continues to write for the Meicho Shimbun but has been taken off the yakuza beat and takes whatever is offered by supervising editor Eimi (Rinko Kikuchi). Fellow expatriate Sam (Rachel Keller) is now running her own hostess club but is haunted by the murder of friend Polina (Ella Rumpf). Over at the police, detective Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) has been demoted to desk duty following all the chaos of last season. Aspiring gangster Sato (Shô Kasamatsu) has survived a stabbing and quickly gets back to business. But Jake can’t stay away and comes across a tape showing Polina being murdered by several men on a ship belonging to a major yakuza boss, Tozawa (Ayumi Tanida). He takes the footage to Katagiri who recognizes Japan’s vice minister of foreign affairs in the tape. If Jake follows this lead, danger is sure to emerge quick and mercilessly.

Showrunner J.T. Rogers designs this season of “Tokyo Vice” to work like a good sequel novel where the world becomes richer and we continue to discover more about the characters. Director Michael Mann (“Ferrari”) is still listed as executive producer and his stylistic influence is all over this series in its patient tones and neon glow reminiscent of “Miami Vice” or “Heat.” But while the style remains intact, what makes this a stronger, even searing season, is how everyone is no longer an upstart. Last season, Jake was the rookie at Meicho Shimbun learning the ropes. Now, he has to deal with the consequences of entering the yakuza underworld. He’s still young and reckless, as we can see when he’ll do anything to get a story about local motorcycle thieves. He also embarks on a steamy but very dangerous romance with Misaki (Ayumi Ito), Tozawa’s mistress. Among the criminals, the stakes are also higher. Sato may be more established among the gangsters, but he also wants to keep his younger brother, Kaito (Atom Mizuishi), away from the business. Alas, Kaito is coming under the sway of hothead Hayama (Yosuke Kubozuka), just released from prison and placed as the right hand of crime lord Ishida (Shun Sugata).

There are a lot of names to keep track of and story threads. Because the show never loses momentum we can just go with the flow. Typical scenes of well-groomed thugs entering flashy hotel lobbies get balanced with great moments where Jake shares drinks with his colleagues Tintin (Kosuke Tanaka) and Trendy (Takaki Uda), discussing stories and matters of the heart. Characters who would be clichés in other crime series make us care for them here, like Sam making dangerous agreements with Ishida when she realizes her business can’t escape the yakuza’s ever-present eye. Katagiri also takes on a darker tone this season by going to extreme, even vigilante levels, to confront the criminals who proved so dangerously elusive. His storyline this season raises that universally ethical question of what methods can be justified in the name of cleaning up one’s community. Jake faces his own ethical challenges when it comes to needing to get the story.

“Tokyo Vice” returning gives some hope that good shows can survive even if they haven’t quite yet reached blockbuster status. With streamers axing so many titles, there was worry this one might not return. But it’s back and better. In a sense, we need a show like this even more. Sure, newspapers aren’t the physical media item they used to be, but we still need to be informed as a society and journalists who hit the trenches tend to be unsung heroes. By giving the craft a romantic sheen, “Tokyo Vice” helps the profession look exciting. But when Jake has to face the editors and justify the copy he’s turning in, the series elevates to something even richer, even as we’re still entertained by all the crime drama. Hopefully, this reporter will be staying with us for a while longer.

Tokyo Vice” season two begins streaming Feb. 8 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on Max.