'Tokyo Vice' Star Ken Watanabe Explains 'Wild' Real-Life Yakuza Experience

Tokyo Vice follows an American journalist in 1990s Japan as he investigates the Yakuza—the notorious underground crime syndicate that ruled the streets.

Ken Watanabe stars alongside Ansel Elgort in the new HBO Max crime drama, which is produced and directed by filmmaker Michael Mann. Based on a true story, it dramatizes the experience of real life journalist Jake Adelstein who wrote the 2009 memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.

Adelstein moved to Tokyo in the '90s where his work investigating organized crime and the criminal underworld caught the attention of the Yakuza. The crime syndicate have been glamorized and adapted in several forms of entertainment like film and TV, but Watanabe was present in Japan to see the real life impact of the Yakuza.

"Newspapers and publishing companies didn't like [writing about the Yakuza]," Watanabe told Newsweek. "It was scary and dangerous, so I didn't hear about the story [of Tokyo Vice]."

Ken Watanabe Tokyo Vice
Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe in a scene from "Tokyo Vice" on HBO Max. HBO Max

Watanabe, who is Oscar-nominated for his role in the 2003 movie The Last Samurai, plays police detective Hiroto Katagiri in Tokyo Vice. His character takes Elgort's Jake Adelstein under his wing in investigating the Yakuza. Watanabe admits the story of the new HBO Max series caught him off guard.

"I read the script first and it's really a surprise. Since 1990, it's a big change of law for gang companies. The gangs needed to have a little change of their working style," Watanabe said.

"Then also, cops and [political] parties need to change to protect to the society. It's a big change over time since 1990," he reflected.

Watanabe has been known to Western audiences ever since his starring role in The Last Samurai, but even before then, he didn't star in projects relating to the notorious Japanese crime syndicate. "I played [in] a Yakuza movie just once maybe 20 years ago. At that time it was a totally different feeling. More violence, more wild, more straight to the violence."

Comparing his last foray into the criminal underworld to his latest project, Watanabe said, "But in this situation, Tokyo Vice is really very sensitive and intelligent."

Ken Watanabe
"Tokyo Vice" is available to watch on HBO Max now. HBO Max

He continued, "Violence is really traditional in [these] films. That's just Yakuza. But each character [in Tokyo Vice] has a background and feelings. J.T. Rogers wrote a great script which has a focus on each character's feelings. It's very interesting."

Watanabe was a working actor in Japan in the 1990s, the period in which Tokyo Vice is set, and he enjoyed looking back and recreating the world he knew. "Tokyo Yakuza versus cops is a really [common] story. But one good point here is it's an American, young newspaper writer, progressing to the underground is a really unique point.

"Then add in 1990 Japan, the big change in situation about society, analogue to digital technology, the feeling and atmosphere of society has changed. They're two big points of why I wanted to try this project," Watanabe said.

Newsweek has access to an exclusive clip from the first episode of the series (click play at the top of this page). It shows Jake (Elgort) being told that there is "no murder in Japan" according to the police. This comes despite the fact that he'd just found a man impaled on a sword.

The first three episodes of Tokyo Vice are available to watch on HBO Max now.

Over the next two weeks, two new episodes will become available on the streaming platform before the season finale airs on Thursday April 28, 2022.

Ken Watanabe Tokyo Vice poster
Ken Watanabe attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures' "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" at TCL Chinese Theatre on May 18, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/HBO / FilmMagic