Tokyo Vice Season 2’s Godfather-esque Ending and the Possibility of a Season 3

Tokyo Vice producers J.T. Rogers and Alan Poul break down the season 2 finale and reveal their plans for season 3.

Ken Watanabe and Ansel Elgort in Tokyo Vice season 2.
Photo: Kumiko Tsuchiya | Max

This article contains spoilers for TOKYO VICE season 2.

The second season of the acclaimed Max original series Tokyo Vice featured a bloody power struggle between different yakuza clans for control of Tokyo’s criminal underworld in the late ‘90s. At the center was Shinzo Tozawa (Ayumi Tanida), the head of the Tozawa clan who viciously murders any rivals that won’t concede to his rise to power, while pulling the strings of the Japanese government and major news media outlets. Scrambling to dethrone Tozawa are investigative journalist Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort), veteran police detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe), and rival yakuza boss Akiro Sato (Show Kasamatsu).

In an exclusive interview with Den of Geek, Tokyo Vice creator, showrunner, and executive producer J.T. Rogers and director and executive producer Alan Poul unpack the twists and turns of season 2, explain how they set up the season’s grand finale, and reveal their plans for a potential third season.

Den of Geek: Looking at the full breadth of season 2, the midway point is really where everything gets flipped, with Ishida assassinated and Tozawa rising to power. How was it structuring season 2 in this way?

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J.T. Rogers: It took a lot of work. [laughs] It took a lot of writing, not to be flippant. Even when you have “finished” scripts, you’re constantly rewriting during the pre-production and production process, everything from needing to shrink pages to finding incredible locations to having great ideas from directors like Alan. The goal in which we were able to achieve is to get the scripts done because that was the engine of the arc, from the get-go, that was planned.

We have the amazing end to episode 5, but now we’re just building and building in the second half of the season.

In the season finale, it isn’t Katagiri, the Eliot Ness, that swoops in to stop Tozawa, but rather the yakuza policing their own. How was it bringing back the Chihara-kai from near-annihilation and having Tozawa handled this way?

Rogers: You touched on two great things that we were trying to keep in mind. One is that we’re building the second season of a genre show that uses the Eliot Nesses of the world and the gangsters of the world, but in this rigid specificity of Japan in the late ‘90s and 2000. The other thing is that the way an American crime show by an American writer would end just wouldn’t be that believable in Japan.

One of great things about writing a show that is set somewhere else and where you have very constraining constructs is that you find what is the most exciting way we can do this in the reality of a show where we want people to know this world and go “Yes, that is authentic!”

Alan, you’ve been working on Japanese crime dramas since at least Black Rain.

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Alan Poul: There was a bit of a hiatus but, yeah, I covered the waterfront for a long time. [laughs]

How did you want to approach that verisimilitude and authenticity that we see so often in Tokyo Vice?

Poul: One of the charmed aspects of this production is, from J.T. to our folks at Max, our entire Japanese team, everybody was equally invested in the authenticity. That isn’t always a given because it means more time and labor and, by virtue of that, money being spent on things that won’t have an immediate impact on the American viewer. But the team was one hundred percent on-board, which meant we were able to exhibit things in a way that even the Japanese audience will not find flawless, which has resoundingly been the case.

I think that that attention to detail and authenticity, even if you’ve never been to Japan or speak Japanese, somehow through some kind of osmosis, it seeps through. I’ve had the comment multiple times from American viewers going “I don’t really know that much about Japan, but it feels like it’s really authentic.”

Season 1 was filmed at the height of COVID, including COVID restrictions in Japan. How was it filming in locations for season 2 that you wouldn’t have dreamed of having access to while making season 1?

Rogers: Yes, in season 2, we got access to areas that we wouldn’t even have dreamed of for season 1, partially because of COVID. Ironically, there were places we were able to shoot in season 1 that – for example, when Jake and Misaki meet in that beautiful food hall that’s like the Saks Fifth Avenue of Tokyo – never in a zillion years could we get that now. We could only get it when it was closed down.

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The other thing is the city opened up to us for season 2. For season 1, they were very skeptical and rightfully so. We were a bunch of gaijin making a show about Japanese gangsters, but it was so well-received that they opened up. The challenge was, in building season 2, that I wanted to show even more of Tokyo and I know Alan was absolutely on-board for that as well. While we had more freedom, it was quite an Everest climb because we wanted to show more of Tokyo than any other Japanese or American movie or TV show that had ever been shot in Japan.

Poul: There are scenes in season 2 that no one, whether it be a Japanese film or television production or an international production, has been able to do so far. As J.T. said, it’s a combination of our suddenly being recognized by the Japanese government and general populace as having gotten it right and the COVID relaxation. That said, Japan was still in a much more restrictive phase than the States during 2022-2023 when we were shooting.

Everybody on the crew and in the cast was taking an antigen [test] every day. You couldn’t show up for work without registering your antigen test results into a database. Everybody, except for the actors when the cameras were rolling, were fully masked the entire time, which had kind of ceased being on the U.S. side.

Rogers: Those were relaxed right at the very end of our 10-month shoot. There were certain people, even though you had worked with them for years, where you were like “Oh, that’s what you look like!” [laughs]

Poul: The revelation of the lower half of the face… it’s never what you think!

One of the storylines I find most fascinating in Tokyo Vice is Sato’s, who really feels like he has the Michael Corleone arc. We see him nearly killed and then he rises to the top of the Chihara-kai by the end of season 2.

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Rogers: It would be disingenuous to say I wasn’t very well-versed in The Godfather with you. I don’t think any crime show or movie consciously or unconsciously is not going to touch-tone that. The thing that I wanted from the beginning of season 1 and was satisfying to see build, and it was doubly satisfying because Show [Kasamatsu] is so extraordinary as Sato, is that he is the classically tragic character of the show.

What does it mean to be deeply ambivalent at something, but also be extraordinarily good at it and that your ambivalence and aloofness because of your ambivalence actually paradoxically makes you better because you’re able to see things that the people who run whole-hog into the world of yakuza can’t? You’re watching his rise and you’re rooting for him, but you’re also going “I hope he doesn’t get hurt.”

He’s a very complicated person and not a “thug,” not that anyone is on the show. I’m glad you feel that way because it was very exciting to build that storyline and see it be shot.

I was surprised that Jake flew back home to Missouri in season 2 after trying so hard to fit in in Japan. What was it about having Jake check in on his family at the end of Act II this season?

Rogers: If you watch the brief scene in episode 7 of season 2 where he’s in his high school bedroom and his eyes are taking it all in, I had them put all the tokens of my high school life up all over the place. This wasn’t in my bedroom but, specifically, the camera passes over Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. That’s a little Easter egg because that’s what we wanted people to see. We wanted Jake to go home and realize “Oh, I’ve grown up a bit. They’re not as bad as I remember.” That thing that happens to so many young men especially.

But he also realizes “I’m not from here anymore” and he’s pulled back to the world that he came from. I always knew I wanted that to happen, while I was making season 1, somewhere in either episodes 5, 6, or 7 in season 2. It just naturally builds itself out as you’re writing it.

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Poul: The reason that we cast such brilliant actors as Danny Burstein and Jessica Hecht was not just so they could always be at the other end of a phone conversation. It was definitely planned from the beginning.

I did love the attention to detail and camera work with some of the reveals, like the sneaker shot revealing Kaito’s role in the assassination attempt this season and the tattoos on the other assassins rather than having them revealed straight away. How was it building in those visual cues and clues?

Rogers: It was building and layering and Alan is such a great second pair of eyes. I have him when it’s supposedly finished and go “Here’s the script. What do you think? What isn’t clear or do you think could be clearer?” Sometimes we’ll talk to the directors about episodes and go “If you’re doing that, what about putting this image in so we can tag back to that?” That’s the great thing about television, that it’s a group effort.

Poul: Trying to tell a story visually is something you can do on the page, of course, but also there’s an organic element. As we develop, as we plan, as we shoot, these things come up. We worked very closely with the Takabayashis, our tattoo artists, to come up with something that would be immediately plausible in a Japanese context, but also immediately recognizable, so you could spot it and have that daruma, the Japanese Buddha symbol, on the two assassins.

Similarly, we loved the scene in season 1 at the batting cages between Jake and Sato, when Jake gives him the sneakers. When we were plotting the assassination attempt that happens at the end of episode 7, I thought “We had this about giving the sneakers to Kaito but we’ve never seen them. Wouldn’t it be interesting and great if we call back to that visually and do a shot of the foot getting stuck in the door and see it’s the sneaker and have that be part of the reveal of it being Kaito?”

Those are the kinds of things that develop organically as you’re creating the visual structure of the show.

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With the downfall of Tozawa, there are so many feints and misdirects. We learn he gets the illegal organ transplant in America, but he’s also an FBI informant. Ultimately, it’s his wife Kazuko that takes him down. How was it layering all these Jenga blocks before pulling them out one-by-one and sending him toppling in the season finale?

Rogers: It was really tricky and also a lot of fun. You start with your finished scripts, and hopefully you’re able to do that in seasons 1 and 2. Even though you’re filming out of sequence because you’re bound to getting locations in Tokyo, like Tozawa’s hotel suite and a room in the hotel that doubles as Kazuko’s room, you have to finish filming in that location in one week, but you’re still focused on the first two episodes and then the second two.

I brought three of my senior writers back on Zoom to redo the last three episodes, just the whole Tozawa of it all because it has to feel complicated, but not be complicated and touch all those places. But I knew it would be Kazuko all along when I started season 2. I knew she would send in the tape and it was about how to organically reveal that.

Poul: In the shooting, it’s complicated material because trying to tap into what the audience is going to click into and when they put the pieces together. It’s very hard to do in the vacuum of shooting. One of the great pleasures of this season is watching every episode – I gather with friends and we watch them – and see the tumblers click into place in the Tozawa story. That’s when you know you’ve actually done your job, when you see everybody getting it in the right sequence.

I have to say, it’s a heck of a thing to title a season finale “Endgame” and tie up so many loose ends. Do you have places that you want to take the story and characters next for a possible season 3?

Rogers: I do! All along, I envisioned a two-season story. That’s why I asked, and cursed myself for asking, 10, as opposed to eight, episodes. When we hit month eight and should’ve been wrapping, instead we still had two more months to go and we got a bit bleary-eyed on set everyday, to put it mildly. I wanted to be able to land the plane in a way that would be very satisfying to the audience, but I also have worked out and continue to work out the world going forward.

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We’d love to make more. We’ll find out, and we’ll see. Time will tell…

I wanted to give Rachel Keller her roses, because her character Samantha goes on quite the rollercoaster this season, spiraling in grief and loss at the start of the season before getting drawn deeper into the world of the yakuza.

Rogers: She was one of the most complex because you have someone who is involved with the mizu shōbai and, because of that, she can touch the worlds of Sato, Jake and the other worlds of the show. But she is always still a gaijin and, no matter how close and brilliant you become at your work and how savvy you are, as she is and I hope the audience feels that way, there is always going to be a distance and tension with that.

With all of our characters, from Katagiri down, with Katagiri as the wisest character, he too makes terrible mistakes in season 2 because no one in this show can hold all the information. Mistakes are made that are terrible, but not made because they’re foolish. She is one of the characters that has to go through that.

Poul: Seeing her hit rock bottom in the first episode is jarring because she’s always had it together. But by the end of episode 2, she pulls herself together and embarks, in the wake of that disaster, on a course that takes her to more morally dubious choices that she has less and less compunction about and yet we understand why. That, to me, is what’s so fascinating about her journey.

Tokyo Vice is available to stream on Max.

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