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Ansel Elgort on How ‘Tokyo Vice’ Just Circled Around to the Start of the Series

[This story contains spoilers from season two, episode eight of Tokyo Vice, “The Noble Path.”]

In many ways, the eighth episode in the second season of Max’s Tokyo Vice could be an extension of the prior episode. And it sets the audience up for the final two installments that promise to be a violent conclusion on power, corruption, loyalty, truth and betrayal within the underside of Japanese culture, the organized crime syndicate known as the yakuza.

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But toward the end of this latest hour, viewers may feel some déjà vu from the series premiere, as the events circle around to where the series began. Jake Adelstein (played by Ansel Elgort), the aggressive American journalist who writes for Tokyo’s largest daily newspaper, and Japanese Organized Crime Division Detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) have their lives threatened by Yabuki (Kazuya Tanabe), the enforcer of Shinzo Tozawa (Ayumi Tanida), who has risen to be the most powerful and deadliest of all the yakuza crime lords.

Not only are Jake and Katagiri’s lives in peril, but so are the lives of their families, both in Japan and in Missouri, where Jake’s family resides. In last week’s episode, Jake traveled back to the states to visit his family and while he was there, Katagiri phoned him with a scoop that Tozawa illegally entered the U.S. and perhaps had a medical procedure in Minnesota. That tip pays off now, as Jake discovered Tozawa received a life-saving surgery for liver disease, giving the surgeon a $500,000 gold watch for his services.

Jake is clearly shaken after leaving the meeting with Yabuki. Tozawa’s threats make it clear how far-reaching his organized empire has grown, and what damage he can impose upon them if they fail to heed his warnings. But the detective tells the young journalist that he must keep writing and publish the truth about Tozawa grabbing control over all of the yakuza clans. Katagiri says too many lives are at stake to stay quiet. “Swallow your fear,” he implores Jake.

The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with Tokyo Vice star Ansel Elgort in New York via Zoom as he just finished celebrating his birthday and was preparing to head back to Japan. The series is a vehicle for Elgort and is loosely based on the writing of journalist Jake Adelstein. It’s also Elgort’s first project since West Side Story, and a promotional tour where the actor’s denial of a sexual assault claim hovered over the film’s release. (“I have never and would never assault anyone,” he said at the time).

In the conversation below about the eighth installment, Elgort talks to THR about speaking fluent Japanese (the series films in and around Tokyo), his approach to portraying an American journalist working in Japan (Adelstein is a real American journalist who moved to Japan to practice his craft), and his various observations of Japanese culture from a foreigner’s point of view.

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In some ways, episode eight is the beginning of season one in real time. A couple of the pivotal meeting scenes between Jake, Katagiri and Tozawa’s enforcer toward the end of this episode are the beginning scenes of the series in the original pilot.

Yes, because in episode eight we finally get to that first scene in the Michael Mann pilot (Mann directed the pilot episode in 2019) where Jake and Katagiri go and meet with the yakuza. We shot that at the old Okura Hotel, which is one of their famous old hotels, which now they actually knocked down. The room where the scene is was at some super rich guy’s private bar/lounge. He just turned it into a private bar. We finally got back there, and it was amazing for me to be back there now, because it was a few years later and I am speaking Japanese in the scene and I’m much better now.

Let’s talk about that. In the meeting scene with Tozawa’s (Ayumi Tanida) right-hand man, it seems like you speak Japanese fluently. It’s a difficult language to learn. How were you able to understand and speak it so well?

Before we shot that scene [the first time], I was preparing for many months speaking Japanese, so I definitely wasn’t as good as I was when I shot it the second time, or as good as I am now. But at the time, I still knew what I was saying (he speaks fluent Japanese lines from the episode), but I had practiced it also with a sensei and he would help me with the with the pronunciation and inflection; so, I probably said that line about a million times before I did it the first time.

And then in season two when I would speak Japanese, I didn’t need to do things a million times. I could start memorizing a few days before and be able to do it. Sometimes when you have just learned it, and it can come out more natural. I was a little nervous to be doing a scene in Japanese that first time, and that nervousness came across in that pilot. And the second time, now I had all the context of everything leading up to that scene, which I didn’t have in the pilot. I kind of knew the story but I hadn’t lived those events yet. So, I’m nervous but I’m also really pissed off, because these people are threatening my family.

So, reshooting it in the second season worked out in making the scene strong, to show more emotions within Jake’s character?

Yes. I wasn’t fully comfortable in the language, so it came across in the pilot like I was kind of uncomfortable and stumbling my words a little bit. This time, I tried to play it a bit straighter and strong. And I wasn’t trying to imitate the way I did it in the pilot; I was like, “I’m going to just act the scene again and how I feel now.”

Let’s go back to episode seven, because that is just as pivotal. Jake decides to get on an airplane and fly to Missouri to visit his family and celebrate his father’s 60th birthday. Initially, he worried there would be tension, but he ends up having a better experience than he had anticipated. He’s even offered a job with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And then he gets that Katagiri call. Do you think Jake would have given it a hard consideration to move back to the U.S. (and take that job offer) if Katagiri hadn’t reached out to him to investigate Tozawa’s visit to the states?

I think definitely, you’re right; he had a better experience than he had anticipated to have when he went home. In a way, he was able to connect with his father and just kind of say that he’s proud to be his father’s son, and let his family know he didn’t run away from them. He just went on this adventure and it was very exciting. And maybe their animosity between each other came from, “Oh, well, Jake doesn’t come home and visit.” And Jake says, “Well, you don’t come visit me!” It just became a stalemate kind of thing, and then when he finally got to go back home, he realized, “of course I love my family.”

But to answer your question, I think that it is a maybe down-the-line kind of thing. He still has Misaki’s (Ayumi Ito) bracelet (Misaki is Tozawa’s mistress, who Jake started pursuing in season one, gets beat up by Tozawa’s goons, and finally sleeps with in season two while the yakuza leader is in the U.S.). I think he is still really in love with Misaki to the point where he wouldn’t not go back for her. Even though his love life wasn’t at such a bad place at the time, I think he was like, “I will wait that time and I’m going to be with her, I want to be with her.” And he does have so many connections; he’s built a life there. So, I don’t think he would have just abandoned that. But I think he really appreciates getting the job offer, and he does appreciate his family. Because when he left Missouri (to move to Japan) versus when he came back to Missouri this time, he has really become a man. Now, he’s not a kid who needs to prove himself. And maybe he doesn’t feel like he needs to prove himself so much and he wants to just be nice to his family. And then he doesn’t want to leave so soon.

But Jake does let his sister down.

He does let his sister down. But it’s more important in the end. Like Katagiri said, more people are going to die if you don’t go and get this done. So, the stakes are higher and he’s like, “My sister will understand down the line.”

And that job is still there too; so, who knows if Jake will one day go back to Missouri and start writing for the local paper, and be there for his family when they need them. His parents aren’t hobbling around, they can take care of themselves. His sister doesn’t seem as bad as his parents were making her out to be (the sister suffers from depression). And I think he still goes back to Japan eventually, even if he doesn’t get that call from Katagiri.

Is Jake willing to die for love, and for the big story equally? He keeps digging into the yakuza affairs even after they threaten him and his family. And to add insult to injury, Jake is sleeping with the big boss’ main girlfriend. Is this some kind of death wish?

There’s something about Jake that loves danger; he loves those high stakes. He likes being close to danger. And also, he’s young enough that he still has that thing where he thinks he’s invincible. Even though he got beat up in season one, he made it through that — which was lucky, but he didn’t get knocked off. I’ve been beat up before and that makes me even more upset like, you really want to get the guys! So, I think Jake is willing to die for taking down that bad guy, especially when now he’s so in love with Misaki, who he feels like he has a first-hand experience with. Someone who he feels “this woman isn’t being treated the way she should be by this man, and I want to treat her right!” Now, it’s even more personal because he’s in love with this woman who tells him that she’s in love with him and not with Tozawa, but she’s stuck there.

Ken Watanabe and Ansel Elgort in Tokyo Vice
Ken Watanabe and Ansel Elgort in Tokyo Vice.

Let’s talk about Jake Adelstein’s relationship with his Japanese colleagues at the daily newspaper. In one scene, he seems to give a colleague/friend a scoop and some advice on how to get a story that ends up embarrassing the reporter. He ends up not getting the scoop. And maybe there’s a betrayal brewing for another colleague. Does Jake care for his fellow journalists/friends, or does the breaking story come first?

I think there’s a balance between his personal life. But his work life at this point, it’s clearly the most important thing. Even with Misaki, who he’s totally in love with, she says, “Don’t tell anyone” (Tozawa is back after having disappeared for weeks) and immediately — it’s almost humorous — it cuts to him immediately calling Katagiri and saying he’s back. And he doesn’t give up Misaki, but he says, I know from a first-hand source. I think he’s always weighing that these guys are my friends, but they’re also my colleagues. And we need to solve this together. So, I’m going to ride them a little bit to get them to help me; I need some extra hands to get the story to happen.

What about with Makoto “Tintin” Kurihira (Kosuke Tanaka), didn’t Jake give him a scoop but somehow it blew up in his face and ended up not being an exclusive for him?

Yeah, it’s like Tintin has never been a star reporter. He’s good but he’s never been getting big scoops. So, that was me kind of throwing him a bone. And actually, for me, I probably wanted to do something else anyway. So, then he gets mad at me and I’m just like, “I don’t have time for you to be mad at me, and by the way, you shouldn’t be mad at me, you’re being stupid!” Jake is definitely a bit hard-headed and he’s so focused on what he’s trying to do that he doesn’t have time for people who are being too sensitive, which is not nice when you’re trying to be friends. But at the same time, they are colleagues and they’re working in the office. I think he has a soul and heart, for sure.

What differences, if any, do you see between American journalism and journalism in Japan?

The thing about usual Japanese crime journalism is that they’re reporting on lesser crimes. Like, there are reports about the guy who stole the money from the shrine, that he took the coins out of the thing. And this is because Japan has a lot less crime, because they really crack down on it. There isn’t a lot of murder going on, but if it is, it’s happening through organized crime. And they’re doing it so well that you can’t even report on it, because there are cultural barriers. They are saying, “Oh well, that’s technically not murder because they did it this way or something.” So, instead, I think what ends up happening is there’s like a lot of petty crime being reported on in newspapers and also on TV. If you watch TV there, you can’t believe they’re really going after a guy for running a red light? And they’re showing it on the cameras, and they’re like arresting him in front of everyone and making sure everyone knows that if you do that you’re going to get in trouble.

What are some of your biggest takeaways about the Japanese culture during your months of living over there?

Just how much everyone respects and follows the rules that are in place. In America, very often there are rules that are in place, but we’ve decided as a people we’re not going to follow that, because we don’t need to, it’s not a big deal. But there, if there’s a rule in place, it is really followed. And you don’t really see people breaking rules, which is very different from New York City where I am from, where everyone is out of line! That’s kind of the charm of it, though. And then when you go to Japan, it’s like everybody is in line. It’s like being on a different planet. You can’t believe that everybody is walking and flowing together.

Did you find that the people and culture were really patient with you learning their ways?

Yes. They are very patient and that’s what Jake Adelstein pulls, the gaijin card. You can kind of play your gaijin card and get away with not behaving the way you are supposed to behave. Jake sometimes takes advantage of that. And he uses it to his advantage sometimes when he wants to get around something, an extra scoop, or sneak into a building or something. He’s also a big foreigner moving very fast. They are like: I don’t want to deal with that guy! With myself and Jake, too, you try to fit well into everything and stay in line. In certain ways, it’s kind of nice. You don’t have to argue, you don’t have to ask why. You just know things work well here, and we’re just a part of it.

What can you say about the last two episodes Tokyo Vice?

Unlike season one [which ended on a cliffhanger], the end of this season — the last bite you get — is going to leave you satisfied. You’re not going to be like “Wait! That’s the end?” It doesn’t leave you on any cliffhangers. It doesn’t do that TV thing where it’s just trying to get you ready for the next season. It’s going to leave you satisfied at the end and with a great viewing experience.

Tokyo Vice releases new episodes Thursdays at midnight PT / 3 a.m. ET on Max.

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