In ‘Tokyo Vice,’ Historical and Cultural Accuracy Drove the Show’s Portrayal of 1990s Japan | How I Did It

“When I see the Japanese audience responding enthusiastically to the show, then I feel like we’ve really done our job,” EP and director Alan Poul says

When it came to crafting the Max drama series “Tokyo Vice,” historical and cultural accuracy were at the forefront of every decision. Not only does the show take place in Japan, but it’s also set in the 1990s so creator and showrunner J.T. Rogers and executive producer and director Alan Poul had to ensure the series was period accurate as well.

“We’re digging into the worlds of the Yakuza, the worlds of the police force and the worlds of the Meicho Shimbun, so it’s not just that we need to follow the Japan of the moment, but we have to become experts of those subcultures at that time,” Rogers explained in the latest episode of TheWrap’s How I Did It, presented by Max, discussing Season 2 of the series.

“I’ve always had a passion for trying to present a more understandable and authentic vision of Japan and its culture and its thought process to American audiences,” Poul added, noting that two early films he worked on in his career were “Mishima” and “Black Rain.”

“Subsequently, I was offered a film that I saw once again was going to be this sort of whitewashed version of what the Japanese are and I quit,” he continued. “And I closed the door on Japan for what ended up being like 30 years, but now people are really interested to get into other cultures. So I went to Max and said, ‘This is only going to work if it works for the Japanese audience.’”

That authenticity extended to star Ansel Elgort, who plays American investigative journalist Jake Adelstein in the show that follows his character’s deep-dive into the world of the Yakuza.

Elgort began taking Japanese classes in 2019 and is now fluent in the language, but Rogers said he developed very rigid rules for who speaks Japanese and English and when in the show.

“There are rules I designed — and Alan and I talked about this a lot — if this is going to be a show that’s very fluid in the back and forth, the world or scenes or characters obviously could only be in Japanese and certain moments are only going to be in English. Who, in a very hierarchical society, who is bilingual gets to choose when we’re making the shift?”

The show’s accuracy even extended to a very tense scene in the seventh episode of Season 2 in which Ken Watanabe’s character Katagiri fires his gun into the air – a moment lifted directly from the law at the time.

“We don’t know if anyone’s dead yet but Katagiri runs out and pulls out his gun and he shoots it in the air, and then he lowers his gun and by then the motorcycles are around the corner, away,” Rogers said. “That’s because in 1999, 2000 in the police force in Tokyo, it is verboten to ever shoot a gun if there’s anyone around until you’ve first fired it in the air to let everybody know that you’re gonna fire your gun.”

Poul, whose credits range from “Six Feet Under” to “Rome,” said the series has tremendous “emotional importance” to him.

“When I see the Japanese audience responding enthusiastically to the show, then I feel like we’ve really done our job.”

“Tokyo Vice” is now streaming on Max.

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