Two years ago, when Show Kasamatsu walked on set for his first day filming the HBO Max crime drama Tokyo Vice, he was, perhaps, overprepared. The actor, then 27 years old, describes himself as a rigorous memorizer of lines, and given his relative lack of familiarity with English — he told me this story through an interpreter — that meant endless hours running dialogue that included long blocks of the foreign language , which he had begun learning phonetically, by studying tapes of what his character was meant to say.
But an hour went by, then another, and then several more without any indication that he’d be allowed to deliver a single line. Michael Mann, the legendarily fastidious American auteur who directed the pilot and has an executive producer credit on the series, was unhappy with the clothes the wardrobe department had pulled for Kasamatsu. One shirt reflected light strangely, another clashed with an extra. It took five full outfit changes before the day’s scenes could begin in earnest.
Tokyo Vice is an extremely stylish show – in one memorable scene, Sato, the low-level yakuza enforcer played by Kasamatsu, debate Bape v Dunk sneakers with Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort), the white American reporter whose memoir was adapted for the show. The pilot is shot almost entirely from the perspective of Adelstein, and the opening sequence suggests that if a co-lead were to emerge, it would be Hiroto Katagiri, Ken Watanabe’s organized crime investigator. Instead it’s Kasamatsu who becomes Elgort’s counterweight, and who steals virtually every scene he appears in. Where Adelstein is nakedly ambitious and Katagiri is a smart inversion of the Mann detective archetype — stable rather than neurotic, and dedicated to his family — Sato personifies the show’s moral grays, and announces Kasamatsu to Western audiences as a magnetic onscreen talent.
For all the slickness of his dress and the ease with which he moves through Tokyo, the young yakuza lacks Adelstein’s formal education. But they have ingratiated himself to some of the most terrifying men in that city, and people — lower-level affiliates, clubgoers, the kids at an arcade who ask him to play their first-person shooter game — understand this, if only subconsciously. Sometimes he’s the most powerful, potentially dangerous person in a room; other times, he is a glorified assistant, nodding meekly or chopping scallions. So when he speaks slightly halting English, it serves to keep his objectives, like his level of confidence in achieving them, inscrutable — and when he slips into American idioms, it makes the audience wonder if Sato knows more than he lets on.