First look: ‘Tokyo Vice’ season 2

Three episodes in and the latest season is shaping up to be even better than the first.

Tokyo is everybody’s favorite city. It’s not hard to see why. It’s clean and safe. It’s a foodie haven and a wonderland for Japanophiles. 

While there’s so much to love about Tokyo and Japan as a whole, there’s also so much to fear—and to detest. 

And HBO Go’s Tokyo Vice does a great job of showing us this side of Japan—dark, gritty, and shrouded in mysteries.

Season one takes us through Tokyo’s underbelly at the turn of the millennium, with its fearsome yakuza clans, Shibuya’s sleazy love hotels, and Kabukichō’s shady mizu shobai or night entertainment business. 

It also doesn’t shy away from showing us Japan’s deeply ingrained misogyny and xenophobia. 

The first season, released in April 2022, was stellar and critics agreed. I don’t know why it doesn’t get the same hype it deserves. 

Anyway, now that the second season is here (still without the fanfare yet even more critically acclaimed), led by a strong two-episode premiere, I can only be so happy to slide down the Tokyo Vice rabbit hole once again.

Here’s a spoiler-free first look at its sophomore season.

Higher stakes

Episode 1 picks up from where the first season ended: American journalist Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) was beaten black and blue. His trusted detective-friend Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) found himself face-to-face with the series’ antagonist Shinzo Tozawa (played with such gleeful menace by Ayumi Tanida). Aspiring club owner Samantha Porter (Rachel Keller) reluctantly forged a deal with the devil. A mysterious tape showed up. Yakuza member Sato (Shô Kasamatsu) was stabbed and is now fighting for his life.

Tokyo Vice season two opens with a mysterious tape.

While season one felt like a thrilling peek into the world of Tokyo’s messy and oftentimes menacing underworld, the second sees that world further expanding, and our characters making life-changing (and potentially deadly) choices about their career, in the case of Katagiri, or love, as in Adelstein.

The stakes are definitely higher this time around. 

Detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) and journalist Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) team up once again as they navigate the messy world of Tokyo’s underbelly.

Note: If you’re new to the Tokyo Vice world, the series is loosely adapted from the real Jake Adelstein’s (who is also one of the show’s executive producers) book Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan. Adelstein wrote the memoir after 12 years spent as a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun. To know how much the series is faithful to the book you may read this feature.  

Stellar Japanese cast

I was so happy upon learning that the original cast members will be reprising their roles. Though Elgort is a good enough Adelstein, Keller’s Samantha comes across as boring at times.

Who did that to you, Jake?

Thankfully, just like in the first season, the Japanese actors shine through. Watanabe, unsurprisingly, plays a tough—yet also vulnerable—Katagiri, whose sense of justice is as strong as his love for family.

Sato continues to be the series’ most compelling character, due largely to Kasamatsu’s smoldering earnestness but also because he has the most intriguing backstory, especially now with his brother taking on a more important role.

Fan-favorite yakuza Sato (Shô Kasamatsu) fights for his life.

Even Adelstein’s colleagues at the Meicho Shimbun play compelling roles. Rinko Kikuchi’s Emi Maruyama will always be a favorite. Kikuchi, who plays Adelstein’s mentor and friend, is a Zainichi Korean, an ethnic Korean permanent resident of Japan, and this part of her identity adds an interesting layer to her character. 

Rinko Kikuchi is back as Emi Maruyama, Jake Adelstein’s mentor and friend.

His work besties, Trendy Kurihira (Takaki Uda) and Jun “Tintin” Shinohara (Kosuke Tanaka), also shine despite their limited screen time. Looks like love is in the air for Trendy, and I can’t help but root for his happiness. 

Shun Sugata reprises his role as the fearsome Hitoshi Ishida, leader of a prominent yakuza clan.

Of course, what’s a story about Tokyo’s underbelly without the dreaded yet enigmatic yakuza, right? And the actors playing yakuza roles do their job so well they seem to relish it.

This is especially true for the leaders of the Chihara-kai faction: the old yet still terrifying Hitoshi Ishida (Shun Sugata), the clan’s supreme ruler, and Naoki Hayama (Yōsuke Kubozuka as ), Ishida’s newly appointed second-in-command and a new main character in the current season. 

Kampai to what looks like an even better season two!

Overall, season two looks just as polished as the first, with its gorgeous cinematography, despite being devoid of Tokyo’s biggest tourist draws (Don’t go looking for the Shibuya Crossing or the Tokyo Sky Tree here). It’s executive produced by the Michael Mann after all, who has made a name for himself in Hollywood for his stylized crime dramas.

Tokyo Vice‘s world has gotten bigger, the stakes higher, and the acting still mostly riveting.

Watch for Tokyo. Stay for everything else. It’s that good. Add it to your watchlist now.

The new lifestyle.