Cover Ken Watanabe talks about working on the new HBO series ‘Tokyo Vice’ (Photo: HBO GO)

The Oscar-nominated actor tells Tatler about working on the new crime drama, which also stars Ansel Engort—and capturing the fascinating criminal underworld of the Japanese capital in the 1990s

Ken Watanabe is starring in HBO Max’s Tokyo Vice, a highly anticipated new crime drama directed and written by J.T. Rogers premiering on April 7. 

The show is based on the 2009 memoir by American investigative journalist Jake Adelstein, who worked at a major Japanese newspaper in the 1990s as a reporter and was its first foreign staffer. In the show, Adelstein—portrayed by Ansel Elgort—explores the seedy Tokyo underworld with the help of Watanabe’s Hiroto Katagiri, a Japanese detective who takes Adelstein under his wing.

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Watanabe, who began his film career in 1979, is one of the most recognisable faces in Asian entertainment. Perhaps the most famous Japanese actor in Hollywood, he played Lord Katsumoto Moritsugu in 2003’s The Last Samurai, and his performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the following year. Other notable works include Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) and Godzilla (2014). He has won numerous acting awards in his home country, including Best Actor in the 2007 and 2010 Japan Academy Film Prize.

In an exclusive with Tatler, the actor dives into his character in Tokyo Vice and weighs on whether the series shows the real Japan.

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Tell us about your experience in filming Tokyo Vice. 

This series needs a really long time to show the story and each character’s background. It’s episodic but has the production size of a movie.

It’s really difficult to scout locations in Tokyo, especially ones that look like in the 1990s—which is a little bit traditional. We needed more props. 

We shot during the pandemic. We’d stop as we needed to get tested and be separated into different zones or different departments. It was nerve-racking and I didn’t meet anybody outside of work. It was tough work.

What stood out to you about your role? 

I’ve played cops a lot before, especially in Japan. But the feeling is a little different this time because the character is in the grey area. He has a sense of justice and he shows us the underbelly of Tokyo. It’s scary and dangerous. 

In the 1990s, it was a time of huge change in Japanese society—especially [in] the transition to digital, [and] the feelings of the people as well as the objects. It was a time of transition, and we want to show that. I think that’s a really interesting perspective.

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Did you meet any Tokyo detectives and organised crime members to prepare for the role?

We had advisors. Sometimes, they came on set so that we could ask [questions].

I tried to check the Japanese dialogue with former cops, gang members and newspaper companies because some of the words were too technical—I wanted to make sure that the audience understands the language and dialogue. 

I also asked them how I should do the interrogation scenes.

What was it like to work with Ansel Elgort?

I really saw Ansel’s passion while working with him. I’d teach him about the things he needed to feel as an underground reporter discovering this society. 

At first, our characters didn’t trust each other and we needed to keep our distance. As each episode goes by, we become closer.

He learned Japanese [for four hours a day] and about Japanese culture—and even tried to capture “Japanese feelings” as much as possible. 

I was also an advisor for the Japanese dialogues, so we often talked about that.

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Do you think the series shows the real Japan?

I also don’t know—because it’s supposed to be hidden [in the show], right? 

The original book [that the show is based on] doesn’t have a Japanese version, because it’s so dangerous [to reveal the “real” Japan]. Japanese companies really like to keep their secrets and distance. Maybe this is the first time that we’re showing the underbelly of organised crime. 

We don’t want to just show violence. The characters all have their own stories and background and that’s something that we also want to highlight.

How do you think the audiences will react to the series?

It’s showing Japanese society through a different perspective. We tried to capture real feelings and take a look at a realistic Tokyo through different characters. We also did this by being really consistent. The art department worked really hard with the wardrobe and the props to be as realistic as possible. I hope we can show the audience the real Tokyo underground of the 1990s.

‘Tokyo Vice’ premieres the same day as the U.S. with three episodes on Thursday, April 7 exclusively on HBO GO available via Now TV.

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