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[Only IN Hollywood] Ansel Elgort jumps from ’50s West Side to ’90s yakuza underworld

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] Ansel Elgort jumps from ’50s West Side to ’90s yakuza underworld

Courtesy of HBO GO

In HBO GO's 'Tokyo Vice,' Ansel plays Jake Adelstein, a real-life American who became the first non-Japanese staff reporter at the Yomiuri Shinbun

LOS ANGELES, USA – Ansel Elgort jumps from the 1950s world of dancing rival gangs in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story to the darker, dangerous turf of the yakuza mob in Michael Mann’s Tokyo Vice.

Loosely based on the true story of Jake Adelstein, an American who became the first non-Japanese staff reporter at the Yomiuri ShinbunTokyo Vice is an absorbing new HBO Max eight-episode series produced by Michael, who also directed the pilot episode.

Ansel plays Jake, who was only 24 when he scored the feat of becoming the first foreign-born reporter of a major Japanese newspaper. Jake initially went to Japan at 19 to take a Japanese literature course at Sophia University.

Being a journalist, I know how tough and competitive it is out there, so for the Missouri-born Jake to learn to speak and write in Japanese for Yomiuri Shinbun is an even greater accomplishment.

And Jake did not coast along as a staff writer. With Chiaki Sekiguchi, Jake’s real-life mentor, a veteran detective in the vice squad as his guide and father figure, the reporter investigated the dangerous world of the dreaded yakuza crime syndicate. Ken Watanabe plays Hiroto Katagiri, inspired by Chiaki.

After 12 years at the Yomiuri, Jake came out with a memoir, Tokyo Vice, An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, upon which the series is based. In his book, the intrepid reporter accused an alleged crime boss, Tadamasa Goto, of threatening to kill him over a story. (Jake, 53, wrote two other books.)

CROWD. Ansel Elgort goes from Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story to the dangerous turf of the yakuza mob in Michael Mann’s Tokyo Vice. Courtesy of HBO GO

Engaging and visually rich, Tokyo Vice benefits from the casting of Ansel, whose bright-eyed, gung ho new reporter in a foreign land effectively contrasts with Ken’s weary, skeptical cop.

Rinko Kikuchi, portraying a composite of the colleagues and supervisors who worked with Jake in Japan, is the strict, eagle-eyed yet fair veteran editor many of us journalists know, one who demands rewrites and for which we are eventually grateful.

The rest of the compelling cast includes Rachel Keller and Ella Rumpf as foreigners who get entangled and work as hostesses in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, Sho Kasamatsu, Hideaki Ito, and Tomohisa Yamashita.

Shot in Tokyo, the crime drama series, originally developed as a film, was created by JT Rogers, who also adapted Jake’s book. Aside from Mann, the other directors are Josef Kubota Wladyka, Hikari, and Alan Poul.

I talked to Ansel and JT (who were paired) and Ken in two separate video conversations.

Ansel Elgort, sporting a 1930s-40s style pencil-thin mustache (I wondered if it was for a role), answered my question that it must have been quite a shift from singing and dancing as Tony in Steven’s version of West Side Story to a Japanese-speaking newbie reporter attempting to dive into Tokyo’s criminal underbelly.

GRIN. Ansel Elgort. Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

“Definitely different,” Ansel, 28, said. “Actually, at the time I was doing West Side Story, we had already been in talks about this, and knew that we were going to do Tokyo Vice next.”

“But we didn’t have Michael Mann yet. Steven Spielberg produced Collateral, the movie that Michael Mann did with Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise.”

“Spielberg said, ‘He’s going to work you really hard but as long as you’re down to work as hard as you’ve ever worked, you guys will get along great.’”

“And then I called Jamie Foxx and I asked him the same question. He said, ‘Yeah, he doesn’t put up with any BS. But he’s a great director to work with.’”

“So, of course, Tokyo Vice required different skill sets. Instead of taking singing lessons two hours every day, I’m taking Japanese lessons four hours every day.”

“Michael Mann initially wanted me to take Japanese lessons nine hours every day. That’s how hard he works you. But Alan Poul, luckily, to my rescue said, ‘Maybe four hours a day is enough because you have other stuff to do as well, like aikido, journalism, and other things.’”

AIKIDO. As preparation for his role, Ansel Elgort took Japanese and aikido lessons: ‘I was working really hard, trying to immerse myself as much as possible on the skill sets that this character needed.’ Courtesy of HBO GO

“Michael Mann agreed, ‘Okay, fine. Four hours is enough.’ So, similar to West Side Story, I was working really hard, trying to immerse myself as much as possible on the skill sets that this character needed.”

Tokyo Vice had its own set of challenges but it was a blast. There was a lot of great challenges. And being in Tokyo was so fun.”

JT shared how involved Jake was in the adaptation process. “The real Jake, who I’ve known since childhood, gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted, which was an enormous honor, a challenge, which I took quite seriously.”

“And he signed off on me making major dramatic, fictional changes so it would be able to work in a dramatic context of a sort of novelistic TV show, as opposed to a memoir.”

“And also, so it dovetails with the things from his book that moved me as an artist. So, he was hands-off completely in that regard but he was incredibly helpful as a resource and an expert.”

“He met and worked with Ansel, who can speak better about this than I can. But Jake also answered questions about the text, props, what kind of coffee cups you would have at your desk in 1999.”

“I could pester him about that. He was a tremendous resource but he was very much, ‘This is your show. Godspeed.’”

STREETS. Ansel Elgort and Hideaki Ito in ‘Tokyo Vice,’ which explores the criminal underbelly of the famous Japanese metropolis. Courtesy of HBO GO

For his part, Ansel volunteered how Jake, who now writes for The Japan TimesVice News, and The Daily Beast, and was a reporter for the US Department of State’s study on human trafficking in Japan, gave him a glimpse of his investigative reporter work in Japan.

“Jake brought me along with him one day,” recounted the actor, who is also known for Baby Driver and as Caleb in the Divergent movies.

“He said, okay, today I’m going to go investigate this story. We’re going to go right outside the courtroom because we don’t have a pass to get into the courtroom. But we’re going to wait right outside because everyone will be talking about what just happened in the courtroom. So, we’ll hear what happened and then we can write the story.”

“So far, we know that there’s a father who murdered his son. The big story, the headline that we need to write about is, how many years in prison is the father going to get? Is he going to be let off? Is he not?”

“And then on top of that, then we’re going to get into the room, even though we didn’t have permission. That’s how Jake Adelstein works.”

RINKO. Rinko Kikuchi portrays a strict, eagle-eyed yet fair veteran editor many journalists in real life know, in ‘Tokyo Vice.’ Courtesy of HBO GO

“He just hustles his way into this room and says, ‘I work for this paper,’ even though he’s really just writing freelance.”

“And it turns out that the father was charged to four years in prison, even though he murdered his son. They thought maybe there was a chance that he wasn’t going to get charged at all.”

“Then we got in and heard the witnesses make other statements. Jake took notes. At the time, I didn’t speak almost any Japanese.”

“So, I didn’t really know what was going on. But Jake exactly was a great tool and helped me further immerse myself into what it was like to be Jake Adelstein.”

JT, whose other credits include writing and producing the Emmy-nominated TV movie, Oslo, stressed, “This is a crime show. It’s a genre show. It’s Tokyo Vice, not Tokyo Ambulance Squad, obviously.”

“But this is a show that I purposely rooted for. All my collaborators have been on board completely, from Ansel on down. This is a show rooted in reality.”

COPS. Ken Watanabe is perfect as the world-weary, frustrated detective in ‘Tokyo Vice.’ Courtesy of HBO GO

JT perfectly described what Tokyo Vice is about when he said, “It’s not just about slick gangsters or good cops. It’s about what it is really like, in the late ’90s, to be a yakuza foot soldier when you’re incredibly good at violence but also have moral qualms about it, don’t know who you’re going to be, and you have to make a decision now.”

“It’s one idea to actually think, oh, wouldn’t it be cool to be a journalist and triumph and become the first foreigner to ever write in Japanese for a Japanese newspaper?”

“But then see dead bodies and to see people weeping over their children who killed themselves or their husbands they’ve lost and to be physically beaten up when you’re seeking the truth.”

“Then what do you do? Then who are you? That to me is what makes Tokyo Vice rooted in the kind of storytelling I hope the audience will be very taken with.”

Ansel detailed how he took lessons to say his lines in Japanese, which is considered one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn. Japanese has three different alphabets, for starters.

“I wanted to get to the point where I felt comfortable being able to improvise in Japanese because it’s freeing,” he said.

“And sometimes initially when I was just learning the lines phonetically, you felt, okay, well, I can only say them one way now? So, what, are we only going to do one take or something? Where’s the range going to come from?”

“So, I felt it was really necessary to be able to know exactly what I was saying and how to say it in different ways. And sometimes it was challenging because you can’t say it that way – because the way you put stress on words in English is different than the way you put stress on words in Japanese. It was clearly just going to take a lot of work.”

BUS. Ansel Elgort plays a newbie reporter in Tokyo who finds a mentor and father figure in Ken Watanabe’s veteran detective in ‘Tokyo Vice.’ Courtesy of HBO GO

The New York native added, “No one there (in Japan) who I knew, so I was just there to work. So luckily, I was always able to, whether via Zoom or whatever, continue to study. And then, because we got shut down (due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Tokyo), when we came back here, we had a whole other prep period.”

“So, during that prep period, over Zoom, I would just do four hours (of Japanese lessons) a day again. Initially, it’s very scary because even just going out and ordering anything from a restaurant or just doing little things.”

“But once you do it, then you get the confidence to do it again. My proudest moment was recently, because in 2019, before I even went to Japan for this project, I was set up with a tutor here who teaches at NYU and The New School.”

“I didn’t speak any Japanese. I didn’t know anything. And then he started teaching me my lines phonetically so I could memorize some of the stuff. But it sounded terrible, to the point where even they were saying, maybe we should just have that scene in English.”

“But then the other day, I was posting things on Instagram and then of me making little Japanese greetings. He texted me and said, ‘Hey, Ansel.’ And he texted me in Japanese and English.”

“‘It seems like your Japanese is getting a lot better. I would love to see you’ and ‘Congrats on West Side Story.’ Then I called him and we had a five-minute conversation where I didn’t speak any English at all.”

TYPE. Ansel Egort plays Jake Adelstein, an American who became the first non-Japanese staff reporter at the Yomiuri Shinbun in ‘Tokyo Vice,’ a new HBO Max eight-episode series. Courtesy of HBO GO

“We were able to speak and talk about a lot of stuff. That was pretty cool because he was really surprised. He hadn’t spoken to me since the first time he met me, which was, I guess almost three years ago. I didn’t speak any at all.”

“In Japan, similarly, when I first got there, I hardly spoke any Japanese at all. I went to this bonsai tree store. The man who owned the store didn’t speak any English. We could hardly communicate.”

“But I clearly told him how much I liked his bonsai trees. I love bonsai trees. That was in the beginning of my trip. And he lent me a book about bonsai that his father had written because his father was a bonsai master.”

“Then, in the end, I said, okay, I have to bring his book back. But of course, I have to give him a gift because I’ve held his book for this long. So, what could I give him?”

“I was in a bookstore in Japan and I saw that famous book, The Giving Tree. It was in Japanese. I bought two copies because I am now able to read The Giving Tree in Japanese, even if it’s a kid’s book.”

“I brought him The Giving Tree and we sat and had tea together. We were much more able to communicate than the first time.”

“I always threw myself, when I was in Japan, into situations where I wanted to be with people who don’t speak English. So that way, you have to communicate, you have to speak as much Japanese as you can. And please don’t take out your cell phones and let’s not try to do this with Google Translate.”

Ken Watanabe
KEN. Ken Watanabe plays Hiroto Katagiri, inspired by Chiaki Sekiguchi, Jake Adelstein’s real-life mentor and a veteran detective in vice squad in ‘Tokyo Vice.’ Courtesy of HBO GO

Ken, perfect as a world-weary detective, recounted how he landed the role.

“It’s a long story,” he replied with a grin. “When I was on Broadway on The King and I, the director was Bartlett Sher. JT Rogers is his friend. Bart introduced me to JT and said that JT has a great project about Tokyo, yakuza, and a cop boss. It was the first time that I heard about it.”

“It’s a good, important theme about a young American newspaper writer who has a perspective about the underground. I really trusted JT with the script. When I read the script of the first episode, it was really interesting.”

The Oscar and Golden Globe best supporting actor nominee for The Last Samurai talked about the era that the series is set in.

“It’s 1990 – it’s like a big change in society. It’s a change from analog to digital. And it’s not just technology. It’s just the feeling of a people or atmosphere in the society.”

“It’s the turnover of an era. We want to show some of that. It’s a very interesting perspective of that story.”

Only the first five episodes of Tokyo Vice were made available to the media as a screener, so I was all ears when Ken, 62, teased about the final eighth episode.

“When I read the last episode, I was so surprised. Wow. How can I do that? JT is a really good writer. I cannot wait to show you.”

I can’t wait either. – Rappler.com

In the Philippines, Tokyo Vice will stream from April 7 on HBO GO. Two episodes will debut every subsequent Thursday leading up to the finale on April 28.

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.