Cool stuff happens every minute on Tokyo Vice. The HBO Max show, about an American reporter covering the Yakuza for a Japanese newspaper at the turn of the millennium, is simultaneously a thriller, a workplace drama, and a travelogue. Adapted pretty directly from a memoir by real-life reporter Jake Adelstein, a fish out of water figuring his life out in Tokyo, the eight-episode series is as much about the city he’s in, and the details he sees and interacts with, as it is about Adelstein himself.
Produced by Michael Mann, who also directed the pilot, Tokyo Vice is one of the director’s great urban meditations: Like Chicago in Thief or LA in Heat, Tokyo is a sprawling, all-encompassing reality, with its own set of rules and distinctions. It’s the air that Jake, his newspaper colleagues, the police, and the Yakuza breathe; it’s the world that constricts them.
The full episode run was filmed in Tokyo, and those details paint a full picture of both that city and the time the show takes place. Tokyo, in the late 90s and early 2000s, was a couple deviations ahead of everywhere else: before the internet made all trends available everywhere at once, the things we see everywhere now—sneakers, designer clothing, bubbly graphics—started there first. Some of these details hang in Tokyo Vice’s background; others take center stage. GQ spoke to production designer Kikuo Ohta and costume designer Kumiko Ogawa about five things that stand out from the show—or that we may have missed.
Jake’s room is key, says Ohta, in showing how emotionally invested the young reporter is in living in Japan, and how “fond” he is of Japanese culture. (Ohta met with the real Adelstein before filming.) Mostly wood, and decked out with tatami mats, the cozy apartment sits above a small yakitori. At first, it looks disorderly—the papers! the packages!—but “it’s not very messy,” says Ohta. “His mind is clear and he’s focused on what he wants to do.” Walls are postered with magazine and newspaper articles on the Yakuza execs that Jake ends up following; there are few mementos from home. The small space also plays up Jake’s height, and his middling salary, both of which are emphasized in the book. (If you rewatch the Mann pilot, Jake really sticks out as tall.) The small apartment is one of those subtle pieces of production design that doesn’t jump out immediately, but which fleshes out his character simply and visually. Broke, different, and dedicated, Jake couldn’t live anywhere else.
The warring Yakuza families sit at the other end of the economic spectrum. Much more prominent in the late ‘90s than now, the Yakuza controlled the red light district that much of Tokyo Vice concerns itself with. (Subsequent legislation has pushed the Yakuza underground, and aged it.) Both Ogawa and Ohta describe Yakuza at the turn of the millenium as big spenders, and flamboyant. Their cars—old Toyota Centurys and Nissan Presidents—are showy and regal, with a harsh retro style. They’re more menacing than the other automobiles in the series. Meanwhile the groups’ ornate, mostly wood offices are spacious and intimidating, both distinctly Japanese and pretty big. The main apartment Sato and the prospects work out of feels like a big LA townhouse. They even have rooftop access!
The Yakuza dress even better than they live. The bosses wear tailored suits, like Ishida’s billowy, expensive cuts, and Tozawa’s sharp black iteration. This hearkens back to other Yakuza cinema benchmarks: Rikuo Ishimatsu’s suits in Graveyard of Honor, and Phoenix Tetsu’s in Tokyo Drifter. But mostly, the clothing is era-appropriate: “The Yakuza had more money in the 90s,” says Ogawa, “and they often had tailor-made suits,” which her costume department reproduced.
Again, it’s about power. Jake, who’s early into his career, doesn’t have any money, and seems to wear the same simple off-the-rack number to his interview, newspaper test, and then to work. The police dress a little bit nicer, but are still pretty dowdy. Detective Katagiri, played by Ken Watanabe, isn’t exactly draped in designer. Ogawa explained that the policemen’s suits were also made to measure by the costume department—but constructed with cheaper material. Miyamoto, the one nattily dressed cop, wears a Gucci shirt, per Ogawa; he’s also corrupt. Does crime pay? Hard to say. But it looks very good.
The prize, though, may go to the Yakuza prospects: the young helpers in the background, ironing Sato’s shirts and running errands in matching baggy white tracksuits. Ogawa says Yakuza prospects in Tokyo wore matching, informal outfits as a way to denote their low place on the work totem pole, and to symbolize uniformity. Choosing between a track and tokko fuku suit —a long combat-type jumpsuit with Japanese lettering—Ogawa ultimately went for the Needles-like tracksuit because “when caught on camera, it just looks better.” Ogawa, who designed Uma Thurman’s yellow tracksuit in Kill Bill, would know.
Offices and Bars
Just about every workspace in Tokyo is crammed and claustrophobic, stuffed with papers and short on natural light. This decision, Ohto says, reflects these workspaces’ state of flux. Jake’s room overflows with magazines and papers as he tracks his big career story; the police work in a mess. The newspaper office “is really big but doesn’t look like it,” says Ohto: It feels tiny, packed with files, with outdated word processors and laptops comingling, a provisional half-digital, half-analog workflow. But while the paper “was trying to implement something new,” says Ohto, “not so much the police stations.” Ohto stacked their office with furniture from the ‘80s, some of it a little beat up. It makes sense: the cops are stuck in the stone age, and the department seems like a relic.
It’s not all claustrophobic. Katagiri’s house, as well as Jake and TinTin’s preferred bar downtown, both feel different. They’re places with room to think, and where characters are able to connect to each other. Katagiri’s house in Saitama, a bedroom community, is typical: cozy, quiet, clear skies, with a dining room and a backyard. Far enough from Tokyo—Google Maps marks a two-hour train to Shinjuku station—it’s a different, quieter world. Consequently, it’s where Katagiri and Jake solidify their relationship.
The bar Jake hangs out in with TinTin, his best work buddy, is spacious, but more subtly shown. A few stories up, it has a great view of the city, thanks to a wall Ohto said the crew took down before filming. It’s one of the few locations where the characters aren’t facing walls or piles of papers. Consequently, they think pretty clearly there.
Jake hits the nightclub early and often, whether to blow off steam, celebrate or to connect with his friends or his sources.The club, Ogawa says, is designed after ones from the turn of the millennium that had a casual, vaguely fashionable mood. That era, says Ogawa, was when young people “started to care about brands,” but before brand-oriented thinking had taken hold. The dancers might have owned designer accessories but not outfits; most were dressed in Comme des Garcons, Issey Miyake, B.I.G., and Moga. It’s hard to pick out all the clothes on the floor, though Jake plays it pretty straight, which makes him stick out from the cool kids a little bit more.
Sato’s next level sense of dress
Sato, Jake’s would-be Yakuza source and romantic rival, is a friend, maybe, but also the best-dressed person he hangs with. In a memorable early scene, the two debate Nike Dunks, Jake’s preferred choice, and the original, versus BapeStas. Sato likes Bathing Apes more. At the time, they were controversial, and considered by sneakerheads outside of Japan as more theft than tribute.
It’s a key scene. Sato, plucked out from a menial job, is creative, and a bit of an outsider. He takes pretty well to his new role as Yakuza at first, spending lots of money, and well. Sato’s style is distinct: He wears baggy trousers, point-collar shirts—”all tailored for him,” Ogawa says—and has a brand-new, traditional, full-color Japanese tattoo sleeve. Eventually, without spoiling anything, things comes to head. Tokyo has just about everything cool anyone would want to buy, though for Sato, they’re still not enough to keep him going along.