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How ‘Tokyo Vice’ Captured More of Japan’s Capital City on Camera Than Any TV Show Has Before

When the skies cleared above Tokyo’s historic Akasaka district late one evening in March 2023, no one in the city of 37 million people could have been more relieved than Masanori Aikawa, the tireless location manager employed by Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max and its hit TV series Tokyo Vice.

The neo-noir crime drama was then two-thirds of the way through production of its second season on location in Japan, and one of its most ambitious shoots was planned for that night. The production was set to take over a full block of Akasaka’s Esplanade, an old nightlife strip famous for the hundreds of bars and hostess clubs that are packed into its narrow mid-rise buildings. No Japanese TV production — let alone a foreign, Western one — had ever been granted police permission to shoot in Akasaka, which is near many of Tokyo’s most important cultural and political sites. The likelihood of getting approval to set up there had once seemed so improbable that Tokyo Vice‘s producers now viewed the night’s planned shoot as nothing less than a culmination of all the progress they had made in getting unprecedented access to Tokyo’s real-life, neon-lit underbelly. Aikawa and his team had somehow delivered the impossible; they had won the official nod — but for most of the day, the forecast was calling for heavy rain.

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“If we had been rained out, I think I might have cried,” Aikawa later told me through an interpreter, without any indication that he was joking.

When I first arrived in Akasaka to visit the Tokyo Vice set, I had little sense of just how much was at stake that night. As on any TV production, activity was underway everywhere. Clusters of Tokyo Vice‘s Japanese crewmembers were prepping to rope off sections of the street, and various department heads were huddled with their teams in small, closed restaurants that Fifth Season, the show’s lead production company, had rented out as workspaces (Tokyo’s streets are far too narrow to accommodate Hollywood-style production trailers). The night’s shoot would create the streetside aftermath of one of season two’s most explosive moments: a graphic shootout inside a hostess club that claims the life of a key character. Period ambulances, police cars and dozens of extras were standing by to move into position in front of the fictional building’s facade, creating a scrum of onlookers and first responders. Tokyo Vice‘s stars, Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe, would then meet amidst the mayhem to frantically discuss what has just transpired. Crucially, they would be doing so on the real streets of Akasaka, with the nightlife area’s glowing signage and inimitable atmosphere hanging all around them — not on a heavily dressed soundstage in Los Angeles or Toronto.

Ansel Elgort on location in Tokyo’s Akasaka District.
Ansel Elgort on location in Tokyo’s Akasaka District.

“There was never a question about whether we were going to shoot Tokyo Vice entirely in Japan,” says Sarah Aubrey, Max’s head of original content. “This wasn’t going to be a story set in the American embassy with a few excursions out into the rest of Tokyo. It’s an immersion into Japanese culture through that city’s crime world — and that was the main selling point for me and the network.”

Loosely based on a memoir written by journalist Jake Adelstein, Tokyo Vice famously tells the story of a Japanese-fluent American writer (Elgort) who works his way into covering crime for one of Tokyo’s largest newspapers. In the process, he forges an unlikely bond with a dogged local police detective (Watanabe), with the duo sharing information and working together to untangle sordid yakuza activities. The mixed-language show has impressed critics by going to uncommon lengths to illuminate the inner worlds and attendant subcultures of its many prominent Japanese characters — far beyond their ties to the story’s Caucasian interloper. Arguably, the series’ freshest character, though, is Tokyo itself.

Says Aubrey: “Audiences have already seen so much on television — we’ve all had seven or eight years of Peak TV — so the bar keeps rising for how you bring fresh storytelling to people. We knew that if we could go deeper and deeper into the real Tokyo, we would be able to deliver just that.”

But Tokyo’s underexposed appeal as a setting derives precisely from the fact that it has long had a reputation among production veterans as the world’s most challenging major metropolis to capture on camera.

“I’ve shot almost everywhere in the world, and in most places, the scenery and the languages change, but you can operate in more or less the same way,” says Todd Sharp, president of production at Fifth Season. “But Japan is a totally different world in terms of how the film industry works and how the local population feels about it.”

Whether in Paris, Sydney, Budapest or Seoul, any international TV series with similar ambitions to shoot on location would first approach the host country’s local film commission, which would provide information on tax incentives and assist with streamlined approval processes for desirable shooting areas. Next, the show’s location team would approach local businesses with legal paperwork and compensate them for the temporary use of their space. Most often, the parties involved are simply excited to have a movie or TV show shooting in their neighborhood. When there are holdouts, the project just increases the compensation offer. Money, inevitably, talks.

Japan has only recently introduced a very modest incentive scheme, and local officialdom historically has viewed foreign productions warily at best. The capacities of film commissions in the country are also conspicuously limited. And for local business owners, getting paid well for the use of their space is far from their first and only concern.

Alan Poul was the executive producer on Tokyo Vice best equipped to navigate the cultural challenges the show would inevitably face on the ground in Japan. Today, Poul is both an esteemed TV producer (Tales of the City, My So-Called Life, Six Feet Under) and an accomplished director (Big Love, Swingtown, The Newsroom), but he began his career on a soundstage in the 1980s on the west side of Tokyo. After graduating from Yale with a degree in Japanese language and literature, he was recruited by maverick writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi DriverLight Sleeper) to serve as an associate producer on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) — the filmmaker’s now cult-classic biopic about the iconoclastic Japanese author Yukio Mishima, which was filmed with an all-Japanese cast and crew at Tokyo’s Toho Studios. From there, Poul was hired as associate producer on Ridley Scott’s Japan-set Yakuza crime film Black Rain (1989), a project that was commercially and critically successful in its day but which encountered such notorious difficulties and local blowback during production that it was effectively kicked out of Japan before shooting had fully wrapped. For decades, industry chatter about Black Rain‘s challenges dissuaded some studio projects from even considering working in the country.

“Everything in this country is local, and everything runs on precedent,” explains Poul, who also directs several of Tokyo Vice‘s episodes. “With anywhere you want to shoot in Tokyo, the decision comes down to the local police station in that neighborhood. And if no one has shot there before, their instinct is always to say no. They operate by considering the worst-case scenario and the fact that responsibility will fall on them if anything goes wrong.”

He adds: “The only way to work here is to assuage every concern, and demonstrate extreme conscientiousness at all times — and let’s be honest, that’s not how everyone in this industry tends to behave.”

J.T. Rogers, Tokyo Vice‘s creator, came to the project as an accomplished, Tony-winning playwright (Oslo), but also as a “usefully naive” first-time showrunner, as he puts it.

“I wrote the whole show without realizing how difficult any of this would be to shoot in Tokyo,” he explains. “And this being Japan and such a polite society, when I got here, nobody came up to me from the position of, ‘Are you fucking crazy? How do you think you can make this here?’

“Of course, I soon realized it was unbelievably difficult,” he says. “But in a way, I think the show lucked out, because I came at it from a naive place of simply writing the show as I imagined it, rather than trying to cut corners in advance — so we had no option but to try to be very bold with what we attempted.”

Poul, however, knew better from the beginning. “When I told the studio how long we would need to prep, at first they thought that I was joking,” he remembers. “Because in most countries that have a film culture, if you go in two months in advance, you can pull almost anything together. In Japan, it’s six months.”

<em>Tokyo Vice</em> creator J.T. Rogers and executive producer/director Alan Poul behind the scenes in Tokyo.
Tokyo Vice creator J.T. Rogers and executive producer/director Alan Poul behind the scenes in Tokyo.

For any given night of shooting in Tokyo, Aikawa’s locations team could count as many as 20 staff members — well over double what would be required in any other city. The extreme effort his team expended to secure the Akasaka shoot was exemplary of the challenges of working in Japan — as was his dismay over the possibility of a rainout. According to Aikawa, no Japanese TV series or film had ever shot in Akasaka, mostly because the country’s smaller-budget productions would never be willing to expend the enormous time and resources required.

“When we first talked to the police about six months ago, they told us they would consider our proposal only after we had gotten permission to shoot from every single business in the area,” he explains. “I’m sure they said this assuming it would make us just give up.”

Instead, the crew systematically fanned out and went about the usual requirements for securing a location in Japan — in this case, individually approaching over 300 bars and shops within visibility of the building in Akasaka that they wanted to film.

“The location process here, like everything else, is incredibly labor intensive,” explains Poul. “It involves taking a small gift — a box of sweets or rice crackers — to every shop owner and sitting down with them to cultivate a relationship. Their primary concern is going to be that the shoot will not disturb their neighbors and regular customers, because your relationship with those around you is sacrosanct in Japan.”

These civic-minded cultural imperatives are part of what makes Japan such a “highly functional and pleasant” place, Poul says — but they also make the inescapably intrusive exercise of location filmmaking profoundly challenging.

“If you can’t give [the shop owner] a strong sense of assurance that you’re going to be thinking on their behalf, it doesn’t matter how much money you offer as a location fee,” Poul adds.

The relationship between the production and the individual vendors also requires uncommon care and continuity.

“Whether it’s the cops or the person who owns the store, they will only want to deal with one person,” Poul explains. “That’s part of why our locations team here is so much bigger than it would be in the U.S. Each location is assigned one person, who remains their contact. You can’t have someone show up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Suzy, I’m you’re new location manager today.’ That will not fly and you’ll be starting over.”

Over many months, countless visits and courtesy gifts dispersed by the van-ful, Aikawa’s team eventually won the blessing to shoot on Akasaka Esplanade from all 300-plus local establishments.

“I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever been involved in a show that went this far,” Aikawa says. “We did so much that I think the police eventually felt bad for us, and that’s why they said yes. We were very lucky that the people who happened to be in charge were able to feel our passion and became sympathetic to what we were trying to do.”

Still, the official greenlight didn’t come until just one week before the night shoot was scheduled. And even though the heavy rain that was forecast for that night ultimately didn’t fall, if it had, Aikawa and his team would have had no choice but to return to square one.

“We would have had to go back to every shop to apologize and ask if we could reschedule, and then we would have had to negotiate with the police all over again,” he says, wincing just at the thought of it.

Tokyo Vice‘s locations crew also had to consider local issues that were surprisingly apposite to the crime show’s themes.

Historically, Japan’s yakuza were deeply intertwined with the country’s entertainment industry, which traces its roots to the live clubs and cabarets once ruled exclusively by the underworld. For decades, Japanese film and TV productions always sent a location manager to the nearest yakuza office whenever they planned to shoot on location — usually with a nice bottle of saké in hand — to ask for protection and permission to operate within the gang’s territory. But beginning in the 2010s, Japanese prefectures (akin to states) began passing “Yakuza exclusion ordinances” that banned paying tribute money or doing business with the gangs.

Tokyo Vice famously hired several former Japanese police detectives who worked the yakuza beat during the 1990s to serve as cultural advisers to the show — part of Poul’s many efforts to maintain the utmost authenticity for the Japanese audience. The ex-cops, who now work as private detectives, helped Rogers and the show’s other writers and directors maintain accuracy in their portrayal of both Japanese police behavior and the yakuza’s highly ritualized customs and nomenclature.

The ex-cops also provided research to the locations department by investigating the addresses of yakuza offices in the neighborhoods where Tokyo Vice planned to shoot, so Aikawa and his team could avoid accidentally approaching them for locations buyouts and breaking the law. The old cops’ presence also reassured some in the crew that if any yakuza members were to attempt to disrupt the production, experienced hands were on set to deal with whatever might arise (on the night I was there in Akasaka, Aikawa told me he had noticed a conspicuous, slickly dressed character lurking around the perimeter of the production whom he assumed was a low-level yakuza dropping by to survey the scene).

The complexity and patience required to work within the system in Japan has meant that most Hollywood productions set in country have simply broken the rules.

“I’m hoping that we can set a positive precedent for the future,” Alex Boden (SENSE8, Terence Malick’s upcoming The Way of the Wind), one of Tokyo Vice‘s producers, told me on the sidelines of the night shoot. “Because what most productions have done is shot guerilla-style — often with fantastic artistic results, but the reputation and relationships they left behind were damaged.”

Nearly all Tokyo-set stories that film buffs will remember — such as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, or the Japan storyline of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel — were either mostly or entirely shot without legal permission whenever the camera ventured onto the city’s streets. Other major series and movies telling Japanese stories have simply attempted to re-create the country elsewhere, with decidedly mixed results. Martin Scorsese’s Silence shot in Taiwan; Disney’s hit period series Shogun was filmed in and around Vancouver; Brad Pitt’s Bullet Train was set up on soundstages in Los Angeles; Johnny Depp’s Minamata was lensed in Eastern Europe. The list goes on.

But Tokyo Vice‘s ambition to tell a story embedded in the city over several seasons precluded any temptation to flout the rules.

“We knew we were here for six months on season one, and we wanted to come back for a second season, so we just couldn’t afford to jeopardize our relationships in that way,” Boden says. “There was no other option than to do it properly from the start.”

The length of the production’s commitment to Japan has also yielded benefits. As anyone with significant time or business experience in Japan will tell you, cultivating trust in the country takes time, but it can be powerful once established.

“When we came in to make season one, we were these gaijin [the Japanese word for foreigner] making a show — and the reputation for how gaijin behaved when they filmed in Japan was not great,” Poul recalls. “Plus, we were shooting a story about the yakuza — a pretty taboo topic — based on a book that was so controversial that it was never published here. So we had so many strokes against us and nobody wanted to deal with us.”

Tokyo Vice‘s producers knew they could build on everything they had learned if the network were to greenlight a second season.

“Although everybody loves how Tokyo looked in season one, I felt we didn’t see enough,” remembers Poul. “When I watched it, I would think, ‘Oh my God, there’s just so much of people sitting in rooms.’ I wanted to get into the streets even more.”

Says Sharp, First Season’s production head: “In terms of the kinds of locations we sought out and the things we tried to shoot in the city, we absolutely made a significantly more ambitious show in season two.”

Sharp estimates that about 70 percent of season two of Tokyo Vice was shot on location in Japan, compared to 50 percent for season one.

“What really enabled that to happen,” adds Poul, “was the fact that the show aired in Japan and we became a known commodity — and the word of mouth was that the show was highly regarded because we had gotten the cultural authenticity right. That turned us from being pariahs into being VIPs.”

When the Tokyo Vice team returned to Japan to shoot season two, Poul, Rogers and Watanabe met with Tokyo’s mayor Yuriko Koike at a public press event where she espoused her unequivocal support for the project. The mayor later gave Poul the honorary title of official tourism ambassador to Tokyo. The series also received letters of support from elected members of Japan’s Diet, the national legislature.

“These gestures didn’t wield any immediate, direct power,” Poul says. “But it helped our locations department in dealing with local vendors and the cops, because the mayor had put out the word that we were to be treated well, and that the show was now smiled upon by local and national government.”

Watanabe and Elgort, preparing to shoot their characters’ encounter in Akasaka.
Watanabe and Elgort, preparing to shoot their characters’ encounter in Akasaka.

On the streets of Akasaka that Sunday night last March, Poul had pulled me aside as the moment to shoot the big aftermath scene was finally nearing. The extras were being radioed into place and Watanabe and Elgort were each taking a moment to themselves on the sidelines, preparing for their frantic meeting on camera. The vague sense of tension that always precedes a take was beginning to descend on the 50-plus cast and crewmembers scattered in various positions up and down the street. Poul pointed my attention to the arrangement of the period emergency vehicles parked in front of the building that was to serve as the fictional glitzy entrance to their story’s shot-up hostess club. Akasaka Esplanade is a one-way street, and even though the police had granted the show permission to close the road for several hours, stipulations remained. The producers had wanted to park the period ambulance and cop cars in a mish-mashed cluster surrounding the door, underscoring the feeling of chaos in the wake of a gun battle.

“Even though they let us close the road, the police said our prop cars had to obey the street signs,” Poul explained, shaking his head at the emergency vehicles lined up in a tidy row in front of the building.

Smiling ruefully, he added: “We’ve come a very long way, but we’ll never quite get it all.”

Ansel Elgort on location in Akasaka.
Ansel Elgort on location in Akasaka.

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