Ken Watanabe on Filming the ‘Tense,’ ‘Scary’ Finale to ‘Tokyo Vice’ and Plans for an ‘Exciting’ Season 2

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[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Tokyo Vice” through Season 1, Episode 8, “Yoshino.”]

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Before Ken Watanabe signed on for “Tokyo Vice,” he didn’t know how season 1 would end. Even now, with the finale available in the United States but yet to air in his home country of Japan, the actor behind the “incorruptible” detective Hiroto Katagiri has not seen the climactic episode, including their devastating showdown in the warehouse.

Still, he loves that scene and feels the pain of viewers left hanging by its do-or-die suspense.

“I read the script just before shooting and [I said] ‘Is this the end? Is this the end of the episode?’” Watanabe said in a recent Zoom interview. “It’s like a trap set by JT Rogers.”

The series creator, drawing on Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir, crafted a first season that ostensibly follows the American reporter’s initial foray into Tokyo’s dangerous underworld, with Watanabe citing the “American perspective” of the scripts. as a key reason why he joined the project as a series regular and executive producer.

“The [show’s] The most interesting perspective is that of an American journalist looking at Japanese customs,” Watanabe said. “Also, it’s a bit historical, set in the 1990s, [and uncovers] The dark side of Japan. I had a curiosity. So, I could choose to be just a producer or just an actor, but I read a script and [thought] I definitely need to join the company as an actor, [too].”

As obsessed with his next scoop as he is with the mysterious Yakuza crime syndicate, Jake (Ansel Elgort) often turns to Katagiri for guidance and information. The seasoned detective has been working for decades to keep the peace without giving in to bribery, as have many of his fellow cops. Katagiri’s honest pursuit of justice requires planning and patience, two attributes Jake can overlook as he pursues his next perpetrator.

Ken Watanabe in “Tokyo Vice” - Credit: James Lisle / HBO Max

Ken Watanabe in “Tokyo Vice” – Credit: James Lisle / HBO Max

James Lisle/HBO Max

Despite her diligence, in Episode 8, “Yoshino”, Katagiri’s best laid plans go awry, and Shinzo Tozawa (Ayumi Tanada), a vicious Yazuka leader, makes his move. The enforcers break into Jake’s apartment and warn him to back down on his boss with a bloody beating. But Katagiri’s threat is much worse. Thinking that he is about to catch Tozawa and his men transporting drugs, Watanabe’s detective arrives at the target warehouse early and waits for his new partner, Jin Miyamoto (Hideaki Itô). Only Miyamoto never shows up. Darkness falls and Katagiri enters the warehouse on his account, where Tozawa ambushes him: first confirming that he has gotten rid of Miyamoto, then playing the ace on him.

“I have let you do as you please for a long time, Katagiri, but I have reached the end of my patience,” says Tozawa. “So you will leave me alone, or I will have your wife and daughters killed.”

Caught in the pale yellow glow of Tozawa’s headlights, Katagiri’s furious expression softens at these words. His face goes blank. His shoulders slump. As Tozawa reiterates his ultimatum, Watanabe’s character can only stare ahead in stunned silence, teary-eyed at the mention of his daughter’s name. Throughout it all, Katagiri keeps his gun pointed at Tozawa. Looking at Watanabe, it’s unclear if Katagiri isn’t willing to let this evil leader go, or if he just doesn’t know he’s still held at gunpoint by him. Either way, when his arms finally drop, it’s an admission of defeat that hurts even more given the personal stakes set by his enemy.

“It’s a really dark scene. It focuses on that tension,” Watanabe said. “We totally understood the feeling of the scene: the director [Alan Poul], the team, Ayumi Tanada, everyone, so we don’t talk about it. He was very calm. We went block by block to build the perfect moment.”

With the set reflecting the solemn tone of the scene, Watanabe kept things simple on the day of the shoot.

“Actually, this was when I met [Ayumi Tanada] for the first time. Of course, I read the script and imagined his face, his feelings and his background, but I still haven’t met him,” Watanabe said. “So, I don’t really talk much [with Tanada]. I just say hello or something, and we split up to keep the tension with us.”

Watanabe said that its opening scene in the ending helped emphasize its climax. Katagiri is at home, bathed in sunlight, drinking tea while he talks to his wife and daughters. The family sits and laughs at the breakfast table, but the idyllic setting doesn’t change the ending. For one thing, few could expect Tozawa to go to such extreme private measures to gag a stubborn detective.

But in the first scene, Katagiri’s youngest son also hands her a drawing he made of Jake, whom Katagiri recently stopped helping after the reporter went against his mentor’s advice and jeopardized his case. Despite their friendship, Jake even had dinner with the family, Katagiri interrupted him. It’s important to remember the fractured state of him as the episode begins, so instead of focusing on the soon-to-be-threatened joyous home life, viewers are fixated on the gap between colleagues.

Ken Watanabe in “Tokyo Vice” - Credit: James Lisle / HBO Max

Ken Watanabe in “Tokyo Vice” – Credit: James Lisle / HBO Max

James Lisle/HBO Max

“It’s very, very scary,” Watanabe said of the warehouse scene. “Each character has a different and deep situational background. We rely on each character’s narration in each episode. […] So even if it’s a small scene, I was just concerned with getting the message across as quickly as possible.”

Such a short but critical scene comes at the very end of the ending, when Jake goes to Katagiri with video evidence of a murder involving Tozawa, and Katagiri cautiously welcomes him into her home. Does Katagiri’s election indicate that he is willing to pursue the case against the man who threatens his family? Does it mean that he is as incorruptible as Tozawa always thought?

“I don’t talk about that,” Watanabe said. “Let’s move on to the next question.”

But the actor and executive producer do have some sneak peeks for season 2, if HBO Max picks up the series.

“It’s more exciting. Season 2 is more complicated,” she said. “There are things we could explain about [Emi’s] background, journalist [played by Rinko Kikuchi]and Sato [played by Shô Kasamatsu], and the gangs. But it’s more exciting, definitely.”

As long as Watanabe remains on board, there is no doubt that it will.

Season 1 of “Tokyo Vice” is available on HBO Max.

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