It’s been nearly two years since the premiere of “Tokyo Vice,” in which director Michael Mann (“Thief,” “Heat” and, most recently, “Ferrari”) introduced us to yet another lonely male obsessive. As the sole Caucasian employee of Tokyo’s largest newspaper, Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) — a real-life journalist and executive producer of the show, which is loosely based on his memoir of the same name — stood out like a sore thumb. He also acted as a Virgil guiding American viewers through the Japanese underworld at the turn of the millennium. Jake investigates organized crime via an informal partnership with Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), a policeman who doesn’t fight the yakuza so much as help preserve the equilibrium among their competing factions. Samantha (Rachel Keller), a Mormon missionary turned apostate, served a similar purpose to Jake, but as a guide to hostess bars, a source of paid yet strictly nonsexual company unfamiliar to Westerners.
In Season 2, “Tokyo Vice” lacks a hook like a revered auteur making a return to TV: Alan Poul, previously of “Six Feet Under” and the Season 1 finale, directs the two-part premiere, and serves as an executive producer. It’s also outgrown the need for one. The series remains one of the most finely rendered urban portraits on TV, a crime drama that resists sensationalism in favor of a more patient and character-forward approach. Weighing in at 10 episodes to its predecessor’s eight, Season 2 gets an expanded canvas, an encouraging vote of confidence despite a potentially momentum-stalling wait. With the extra room at their disposal, showrunner J.T. Rogers and his collaborators widen the show’s scope even further beyond its initial protagonists.
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The two-part premiere quickly wraps up the biggest outstanding plot points before pivoting to a new set of concerns. The murder of Rachel’s friend and fellow hostess Polina (Ella Rumpf) is given due gravity, sending the American on a grief-stricken spiral. But Jake’s attempts to expose the politicians and gangsters responsible are thwarted by a sudden, suspicious fire at the newspaper’s offices, forcing him to turn his attention elsewhere as Rachel directs her energies toward starting her own hostess club.
Combined with the sudden absence of main antagonist Tozawa (Ayumi Tanida), an ascendant rival to the incumbent Chihara-kai syndicate, the new season is free to spend a few episodes exploring new corners of Tokyo’s semi-licit fringe. Jake pursues a story about a crew of teenaged motorcycle thieves; his editor Eimi (Rinko Kikuchi), a Zeinichi Korean, gets a more fleshed-out family life; a romance involving his friend and coworker Trendy (Takaki Uda) takes the show into queer nightlife, a segment of the city obscure even to the rest of the ensemble’s seasoned operators. The latter hints at this sophomore season’s true selling point: with the setting established, “Tokyo Vice” no longer has to use a handful of American expats as an entry point into its world, a trope with a fraught history marked by incuriosity toward other cultures. Rather, it’s an increasingly expansive world that happens to feature American expats among its cast of canny strivers.
“Tokyo Vice” accomplishes this in part by breaking up its central pairings, trading platonic chemistry for new opportunities. Where Samantha once flirted with Sato (Shô Kasamatsu), the stoic Chihara-kai footsoldier is now assigned to handle her new club, which his organization is backing. The arrangement drives the two apart, but “Tokyo Vice” follows Sato as he manages his family and the arrival of a new boss in Naoki Hayama (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a hothead freshly released from prison. (One of the most endearing qualities of “Tokyo Vice” is how it focuses less on the violence and glamor of yakuza life than the ways it resembles a standard job, complete with middle management and corporate strategy.) Meanwhile, Katagiri is recruited by a new task force that takes a more confrontational tack toward gangster activity, signaling a sea change in law enforcement’s approach. Allowed to anchor their own storylines, each character comes into their own apart from their connection to Jake, who’s less a white savior than an often-exasperating interloper.
Expensive-looking, ambitious and only nominally attached to IP — Adelstein is hardly a celebrity, and the show uses his experience as a jumping-off point — “Tokyo Vice” can feel like an endangered species, even more so in 2024 than it did in 2022. After the cancellation of other Max originals like “Julia,” “Rap Sh!t” and “Our Flag Means Death,” all after second seasons whose reception felt much more muted than the series’ debuts, one feels protective of a show that’s only getting richer as it goes. If “Tokyo Vice” ends imminently, it won’t be a decision made on creative merits. Just in case, it’s worth shouting its praises from the rooftops.
The first two episodes of “Tokyo Vice” Season 2 are now streaming on Max, with new episodes premiering weekly on Thursdays.