‘Tokyo Vice’ Bosses on Max Cancellation and Holding Out Hope for a Potential Season 3: ‘We Don’t Accept the Condolences Yet’

When the news broke earlier this month that Japan-set crime drama “Tokyo Vice” had been canceled, it came as a blow to fans, but not exactly a surprise. For two seasons on Max, the show — adapted by showrunner J.T. Rogers from journalist Jake Adelstein’s memoir of the same name — stood out as an increasingly rare gem in a contracting, decidedly post-peak TV landscape. Starring Ansel Elgort as a fictionalized version of Adelstein, a journalist who embeds with the yakuza as a reporter at the country’s largest daily paper, “Tokyo Vice” delivered an immersive, detailed portrait of the global capital at the turn of the millennium.

Better yet, “Tokyo Vice” improved over time. Season 2 broadened the story’s focus from Jake to a larger ensemble, while also bringing his long-simmering conflict with ascendant boss Tozawa (Ayumi Tanida) to a head. The finale offered a satisfying conclusion, ending on Jake and his unofficial partner Detective Katagiri (Ken Watanabe) attempting to sit in stillness after their successful bid to bring Tozawa down. But the scene was preceded by 10 episodes that proved just how deep the show’s bench had become, from its following the closeted nightlife of Jake’s colleague Trendy (Takaki Uda) to cultivating rising yakuza boss Sago (Show Kasamatsu) as a lead in his own right. These character portraits helped Tokyo’s dizzying sprawl feel intimate, without ever losing a sense of scale.

More from Variety

“Tokyo Vice,” in other words, felt like it could keep plumbing the depths of an endlessly fascinating city, an endeavor Rogers and executive producer Alan Poul, a director with extensive prior experience living and working in Japan, confirm they’d like to keep going. “We’d love to go forward,” Rogers says, “I have very clear ideas about the continued expansion of the world.” In a conversation with Variety, Rogers and Poul looked back on Season 2, discussed the challenges of filming on location, and laid out their plans for pursuing a potential Season 3.

On a personal note, I’m such a fan of the show.

Alan Poul: Thank you. As you can imagine, there’s been a bit of an outpouring. We take the love. We don’t accept the condolences yet.

It sounds like you guys knew going in that you’d have at least two seasons of runway. What were some of the things that you wanted to accomplish in Season 2 that you had planted the seeds for in Season 1?

J.T. Rogers: In terms of broad story points, the dominoes that fall, let’s say from Episode 7, certainly eight through 10, where we sort of realize, “Oh, this is all, in some ways, pre-planned or fated” — that was all planned by me since the beginning. And you know, one of the great things about going in knowing we have more than one season was that I could cliffhanger everything at the end of Season 1. Which has now become a big no-no, because of the fear of, “What happens if we don’t come back?” It was very satisfying to get to shooting those moments at the end. Some of that stuff had been literally years in the way to get to it.

Poul: Having the break between seasons was incredibly beneficial. Not just because we got to restore and revive ourselves, but also, in between Season 1 and Season 2, Season 1 aired in Japan. In Season 1, we were a group of very well-prepared and well-meaning foreigners who, if past history is any guide, were likely in the eyes of the Japanese to get things wrong and mess it up. Also, we were coming into a post-COVID environment where the city was very hesitant to let us operate on a large scale. And we got it done. We did what we wanted.

But between Seasons 1 and 2, the pandemic ended, and the show was very, very well received in Japan. Therefore, we came back as the people who had gotten it right. We kind of went from being suspicious pariahs to roll-out-the-red-carpet VIPs in the course of that year between the two seasons, and that meant that we were able to engage with the city and show the city on a scale that would not have been possible in the first season.

Rogers: One of the things that we’re both very proud of, is that across the two seasons, more of Tokyo is seen than anything that’s ever been filmed, Japanese or foreign. It was that way because it was just requisite for the story that I had built. And it was Herculean. In the sort of perverse way that Alan and I work, even though things were going to be easier on paper in Season 2, we both felt strongly that even more of Tokyo needed to be seen. So it was sort of like going back to our team going, “OK: Good news is, everyone likes us. The bad news is, we need to do twice as much.” But you see it.

There’s the scene outside of Samantha’s club, almost at the very top of Episode 6, when you see the carnage after the shooting and Jake races in on his bicycle, but Katagiri’s already there. That had to be shut down, and that street had never been shut down for anything, ever. The scene of the shooting, the assassination of the gangster who’s in the car with Katagiri and his partner, they’re in a traffic jam. And that’s an actual — we have 100 period-correct cars shutting down that street, in front of City Hall. It was really extraordinary.

You definitely feel that expanded canvas through subcultures of the underworld that are new to the show, like gay nightlife. What appealed about those scenes to explore and illuminate for the audience?

Rogers: We’re always looking for, as you said, subcultures and things we haven’t seen before. We established in Season 1, early on, that Trendy was closeted, because of the rigors of the Japanese culture at the moment where he’d be worried about his job. So that was always in the cards. And if I may, Alan was very helpful. I don’t mean that flippantly. It couldn’t just be that we’re gonna see Trendy’s life, or gay subculture. It’s, what was it like in 2000? So Alan was super helpful, because he’s been going back and forth to Japan.

Poul: As the queer half of this team, I have to say — tip of my own hat — I was around queer Japan in the ‘90s, and even in the ‘80s. So I was able to draw on some personal experience and also the expertise of friends. But also, I will say that, with the help of our incredible location team, we were able to secure full cooperation of the Shinjuku Ni-chōme area, which is a particular area that’s famous for having the gay bars in Tokyo. There are gay bars elsewhere, but it’s the highest concentration. We were able to take over a whole bar, and we were able to, in that scene in the bar when [Trendy’s American love interest] Jason takes Trendy out, cast entirely with locals who were recruited from the bar’s regular patrons. So all the way through, we kept things as authentic to the subculture as we possibly could.

Another way in which the show shows us more than we saw in Season 1 is that it feels like much more of an ensemble than just Jake’s story. Was that something you were planning for from the beginning?

Rogers: Yes, very much. I remember when I pitched the show originally to Max, I said, “This is not going to be the Jake show. This is going to be an ensemble show with Jake the first among equals,” and would expand outward. Of course, a show teaches you what it is. It becomes a living thing. You become, consciously or unconsciously, intrigued by certain characters or moments or locations after Season 1 that’s going to affect the writing as you continue polishing — or casting, or directing.

One of my touchstones as a maker of TV is “The Wire.” And what I love about that show, among other things, is that each season, like a Balzac novel, just gets bigger and bigger. And you never lose sight — no one actually ever disappears, unless they’re dead. There’s always a looping back. And they continue expanding, and it makes it feel like you’re actually experiencing a world.

Poul: The initial way into the show is through the character of Jake, and Jake is sort of the fish out of water. But he’s the fish out of water who has been living in the water for three years, having mastered the language. He’s still very much an outsider to the culture of journalism in Japan, and so his bumping up against the rules is a big part of what happens in Season 1. But Season 2, as he becomes more and more familiar with the workings of the newspaper and, on the opposite end, of the police, it makes sense not to just completely focus on the outsider, but to get to know the people who have already been living in the culture better. And we were blessed with such an extraordinary cast, it was no trouble at all finding the time to do justice and to build up their characters, because they were all true thoroughbreds and also big stars in their own right in Japan.

Were there any particular sequences this season that were especially difficult to pull off from a logistical point of view? 

Poul: From a directing point of view, the sequence that opens up Episode 2, where we see our young motorcycle gang member who we’ll get to know as Tats stealing the bike. Just getting the permission to portray a bike stealing on a busy street in the busy Kanda section of Tokyo and, God forbid, have him take off down the street in the opposite direction from traffic on a one way street — that was four solid months of negotiation, just to get permission to do that. I think it’s a really fun sequence; it doesn’t necessarily look like a sequence that might have taken four months of negotiation before you could do it. But that was a case in point.

Rogers: One that comes to mind is the fight to the death in the bath house in Episode 8. One, to find the place, to get permission, to get ex-Yakuza who were officially signed off illegally as no longer members of the yakuza as extras. Because that’s crucial. We can never have any dealings with anyone in the yakuza, and we never did. Two, to figure out how to get an entire army of crew and all the actors in a space the size of a thumbnail. I got really used to sitting for hours on set with my leg wrapped around my head in some tiny room. Because, you know, Japan is a series of small spaces by Western considerations. So that was incredibly complex to choreograph in a tiny space with all the crew, with people incredibly hot, and humidity and being in that space. That was pretty grueling. But like Alan’s sequence that he shot with the motorcycle gang, I think the proof was in the pudding. It was worth it to get it on screen.

Poul: Also, one critical element of that scene was, when you’re in a public bathhouse like that, everybody’s naked. Although generally, people tend to carry their modesty wash rag in front of them, they’re pretty casual about their nakedness. But we were in a situation where neither our lead characters nor the fully tattooed extras we had to  recruit for the scene were comfortable showing full frontal nudity. So it was a true challenge for Corey Walter, our director of photography, who tried to shoot all those different angles within a violent action sequence taking place without seeing things that we were not contractually allowed to see.

Rogers: To add to that, I just remembered that roughly half of those people who are wearing tattoos in that sequence, including our principles — those are all our genius tattoo artists. Those are all hand-drawn the morning of, and of course, then we didn’t know how long we would have in the water. So we would have a day where people would come in and just be dragged around on the wet mat. And we literally timed how long the tattoo would last so we could figure out how much time we had. Because one thing we couldn’t do is redo the tattoos, because for a full body tattoo, that’s a seven hour process. So there was a lot going into this.

Alan, you spent more time in Japan earlier in your career. How did this show differ from those previous projects?

Poul: I had worked on some documentaries, but in terms of narrative filmmaking, the real precedent was two of the first films I ever worked on, which were Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” and Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain.” Especially “Black Rain” was a notoriously difficult shoot. Because Japan had nowhere near anything resembling an infrastructure that would allow for the facilitating of shooting. After that experience, I said, “I can’t be the Japan guy in Hollywood.” Because basically, it was like a game of Whack-a-Mole and you’re the mole. You’re the messenger everybody wants to kill. So I kind of closed the door and pursued a career elsewhere, for all my Japanese interests.

I was, like, the last player to join [“Tokyo Vice”], because J.T. and real Jake and John Lesher had been trying to make this as a feature for many years. And then when Fifth Season came on, and when it was converted into a dramatic series, they asked me to join. This was a huge, full-circle homecoming moment for me, in that I decided that the time was right to go back. And what I found was that in the wake of all the confusion that had happened with “Black Rain,” the Japan Film Commission was born out of that. And there have been many attempts to make Japan a more location-friendly country and Tokyo a more location-friendly city. What I came up against was the ways in which things have gotten better, and then the many, many ways in which it had not. Then we launched our own kind of diplomatic force to make it better. And I think what we’ve left behind after these two seasons is a city that is tangibly friendlier to filmmakers from other countries.

Shifting more into the potential future of the show, Season 2 ends in much more definitive fashion than Season 1. Was there an understanding this could be the series finale?

Rogers: I wanted to find a way to land the plane. To Max’s credit, I asked for two extra episodes, which did about kill us by the time we got around to shooting them. Boy, is there a difference between eight and 10 episodes! There’s some more useful naivete. But I wanted to land the plane in a way that if, God forbid, there was never going to be any more, that it would have a satisfying arc. But I wanted to do so in a way that would — there’s a difference in the ending a season that feels like, “Oh, that was it. That’s wonderful. But I could see where, in some way, I can feel the sound of something coming.” As opposed to shows where you’re like, “Wait, why are they back?” They all got married, or moved to Montana. I felt we succeeded in that, which I’m very proud of, with many, many, many, many drafts of that last episode.

But the idea was always, and certainly now, that if we can, we’d love to go forward. I have very clear ideas about the continued expansion of the world, following the people we know and new people as well.

Is there a wish list somewhere of what you’d like to explore?

Rogers: [holds up phone] On my iPhone.

Poul: That might be a spoiler!

Rogers: No spoilers.

Poul: It might come to pass.

So it exists, but you can’t share it with me?

Rogers: There’s all sorts of macro and micro planning and writing done and happening. But that’s all in the hopes of going forward. And I don’t want to share it because I want it to be an enjoyable surprise.

You told my colleague that you had done some of the planning for potential Season 3. Does that mean outlines? Does that mean scripts? Does that mean a pitch deck?

Rogers: I’m not gonna tell you!

Poul: We haven’t shot it yet.

Rogers: But I’m living with it constantly. And I always carry a notebook.

Now that Max has said the run is concluded, are you actively searching for other partners? What’s that process like right now?

Poul: Well, our partners on the show, Fifth Season, is the studio behind the show. And it’s worth remembering that Fifth Season sells the show internationally. Max exists in North America, most of South America and a few European territories, and the rest of the world is sold by our friends at Fifth Season. And they’ve sold very well. It’s been a global hit. So we look to our partners. We haven’t even really put our heads together yet, because this is all very new. But there are many territories in Europe and Asia and Africa and Australia that still will want the show, and we have to see how our partners, Fifth Season, are going to prepare to respond to them.

When I published my review of Season 2, I got a lot of anecdotal responses that were like, “Oh, that show’s coming back! That’s great news, but I didn’t know about it personally.” Did you feel like the show was marketed in the way that you wanted it to be?

Poul: We were always told that there was no guarantee of a Season 3. So our only desire was for Season 2 to be as successful as possible. And to that end, I feel that it was well-marketed, because it reached a lot of people. And because we got, in my experience, what is for a second season of a drama series an extraordinary amount of press, at the launch of Season 2, for which we were very proud.

Rogers: I mean, it’s really interesting making TV now. We’ll see as this great contraction continues, but off of what Alan said, just being so pleased that we registered, let alone celebrated, amid the ocean of content that sort of exploded. A lot of the work that was pent up because of COVID. It’s the first thing I’ve done where strangers are stopping me in the streets: “What happens to so-and-so?” From all walks of life.

Do you have a sense of what the ideal next home for the show might be?

Poul: I think we’re keeping our options open. We love and trust our friends at Fifth Season. They’re gonna guide us in that. Our goal right now is to support them as they work, and frankly, for me to just keep building the world as we wait.

So for those of us who want it to continue, there’s no number to call. We can’t send acorns to a network office or anything.  

Poul: Well, here’s the thing. This is all just beginning. What would you send?

Maybe an origami crane? It’s paper. It’s on theme. 

Poul: OK, well, you heard it here: You may have just started something.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.