Tokyo Vice on BBC 1: What is the series based on, and how many episodes of the Ansel Elgort crime drama are there?

90s Japanese criminal underworld, here we come

Hideaki Ito as Jin Miyamoto and Ansel Elgort as Jake Adelstein in Tokyo Vice
(Image credit: BBC/HBO Max/James Lisle)

Ansel Elgort takes us to late 90s Japan, in his latest role as a journalist who becomes entangled in a criminal network.

Ansel Elgort stars as crime reporter Jake Adelstein in BBC 1’s Tokyo Vice, a HBO series available on BBC1 from November 22. Transferring from the University of Missouri to study in Japan, Jake never leaves to return to his homeland and becomes the first foreign employee of one of Tokyo’s most prominent newspapers. Starting at the bottom, Jake is first tasked with covering petty crime. When a fatal stabbing and a suicide both seem connected somehow, nobody at the paper will investigate why. Jake takes it upon himself to find out what’s going on, in turn becoming embroiled in a criminal underworld run by the yakuza. Read on to find out what the series is based on, and how many episodes will be available to feast your eyes on.

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What is Tokyo Vice based on?

Tokyo Vice is based on the memoir of the real life Jake Adelstein, entitled Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, and published in 2009.

However, since the drama began airing, controversy has arisen surrounding just how accurate the original memoir is. Adelstein claimed to have gone undercover in the Yakuza, when employed at Tokyo newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun - this part of his memoir is essential to the narrative of the TV adaptation. One of his former colleagues at the publication disputes this ever happened, casting doubts on the authenticity of the memoir. 

Adelstein’s former co-worker Naoki Tsujii told Hollywood Reporter “There is absolutely no way that a journalist at the Yomiuri would be allowed to go undercover - a journalist wouldn’t even ask their bosses if they could do that. In Japan, even the police don’t do real undercover operations; it’s basically illegal and evidence can’t be gathered that way, though there have been some legal reforms recently. … The Yomiuri was very strict about that kind of thing”.

Adelstein has responded to these claims, insisting his version of events are entirely factual. He said “We don’t have any rules like that … for obtaining information; it was by any means possible, except buying information is forbidden”. The show creators have also responded to the rumours that parts of the memoir could be fabricated. They have pointed out that entertainment rather than facts, was their main priority when writing the series. Executive producer John Lesher said “There were so many things that we embellished and created that had nothing to do with, let’s call it ‘the real Jake Adelstein story’. Whether the book is true or not, you should take it up with him and the people depicted in the book. I wasn’t there”.

Ansel Elgort as Jake Adelstein in Tokyo Vice

(Image credit: BBC/HBO Max/Eros Hogaland)

Is Tokyo Vice a good book?

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan is a bestselling book, and had largely positive reviews on book review sites - this indicates it would be a good book.

One Good Reads reviewers wrote "Journalist Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan is a remarkable achievement on a number of fronts. Here you've got a guy who comes to Tokyo to study at Sophia University (in the early 90s), lands a job reporting in Japanese for the Yomiuri Shinbun, works round the clock to make connections and eke out information at police branches and on various strata of the underworld, and gets the stories out there in the face of media red tape and threats of reprisal to himself, family and friends.

Having lived in Tokyo for about as many years as Adelstein, I remember quite a few of the cases he covered. His book filled in plenty of blanks, and as disturbing as some of his experiences and possible lapses of judgement were, I have a lot of respect for what he's been able to accomplish. Surprised I haven't run into him over the years in one of Tokyo's seedier warrens, and I look forward to reading more of his work".

Another added "Fascinating look at how the yakuza subculture coexists with Japanese police and mass media. Jake Adelstein left Missouri at 19 to study abroad at Sophia University in Tokyo, and upon graduating became the first gaijin (non-Japanese) hired on as a career journalist at the highly esteemed Yomiuri Shinbun. Tokyo Vice spans his newspaper career covering Organized Crime and Vice Crime in and around Tokyo from 1993 to 2005 (plus a couple years post-Yomiuri). Thrilling, suspenseful, filthy, tragic, true life reporter drama!" 

Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein £8.52 | Amazon

Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein £8.52 | Amazon

Read the bestselling memoir that inspired the major HBO series now showing on BBC1 starring Ansel Elgort.

How many episodes of Tokyo Vice are there?

There will be eight episodes of Tokyo Vice. The series premiered with a double bill on BBC1 on November 22. The remaining episodes will air weekly from this date, and be available to watch on BBC iPlayer's catch up service. 

The series was originally going to be a standalone film, which began development in 2013 with Daniel Radcliffe set to star as Jake Adelstein. Production was slated to begin in 2014, but in the summer of that year the idea of a film was repurposed into developing a series instead. Although an eight episode run was ordered, further delays meant production didn't actually begin on the series until March 5, 2020 - just as the pandemic took hold.

Filming resumed in November 2020, concluding on June 8, 2021. Show cinematographer Diego García spoke to ScriptMag about filming in Tokyo. He said "Tokyo is a beautiful city to shoot, but it's very tricky in terms of the permits. It’s hard to let people allow you to go into their places; it's not a very filmmaking-friendly city, because there they have a different kind of respect for sound, for space. Sometimes to get the really great locations was difficult, but somehow we did it. We made it work".

Did Ansel Elgort learn Japanese for Tokyo Vice?

Yes, Ansel Elgort studied and learnt Japanese for his role in Tokyo Vice, and spent time shadowing Jake Adelstein and working as a reporter. He reportedly said it's the most preparation he's ever undertaken for a role.

According to Distractify, Elgort spent four hours per day studying the Japanese language. He said "I wanted to get to the point where I felt comfortable being able to improvise in Japanese because it’s freeing. Initially when I was just learning the lines phonetically, you felt kind of like okay well, I can only say them one way now? Are we going to do one take or something? Where’s the range going to come from?"

He added "The way you put stress on words in English is different in Japanese, so it was clearly going to take a lot of work." However, he got to the stage of being able to fully shoot scenes in Japanese, and was even able to improvise when conversing in the language. 

Ansel Elgort as Jake Adelstein and Rinko Kikuchi as Eimi in Tokyo Vice

(Image credit: BBC/HBO Max/James Lisle)

Will there be a season 2 of Tokyo Vice?

Yes, season 2 of Tokyo Vice has been confirmed. The announcement of a second instalment was made on June 7, 2022, and filming began in Tokyo in November 2022.  

Head of original content at HBO Max Sarah Aubrey said in a statement at the time "We could not be more excited to bring the passionate fans of the show another season to continue this intriguing and suspenseful crime story set in one of the most vibrant and beautiful cities in the world".

Series creator J. T. Rogers added "Writing and then making the first season of Tokyo Vice with this remarkable group of artists was a matchless experience. So I’m over the moon that we get to keep going. I can’t wait to get back to work in Tokyo with our brilliant cast and crew. Stay tuned: there are twists and turns in the tale to come!"

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Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.