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


Welcome to My Favorite Moment! In a new week-long series IndieWire spoke to the actors behind just a few of our favorite television performances of the year about how the onscreen moment they are most proud of came together.

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

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

Still, he loves that scene, and he feels the pain of viewers left hanging by its life-or-death cliffhanger.

“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 laid by J.T. Rogers.”

The series creator, working off Jake Adelstein’s 2009 memoir, crafted a first season ostensibly tracking the American reporter’s initial foray into Tokyo’s dangerous underworld, and Watanabe cited the scripts’ “American perspective” as a key reason he joined the project as a series regular and executive producer.

“The [show’s] most interesting perspective is from an American journalist looking at Japanese customs,” Watanabe said. “Also, it’s a little bit historical — set in the 1990s — [and uncovers] the dark side of Japan. I had a curiosity. Then, 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 the mysterious Yakuza crime syndicate, Jake (Ansel Elgort) often leans on Katagiri for guidance and information. The seasoned detective has been working for decades to keep the peace without bending to bribery, as so many of his fellow cops have done. Katagiri’s honest pursuit of justice requires planning and patience — two attributes Jake can overlook when chasing his next byline.


Ken Watanabe in “Tokyo Vice”

James Lisle / HBO Max

Despite his diligence, in Episode 8, “Yoshino,” Katagiri’s best laid plans go awry, and Shinzo Tozawa (Ayumi Tanada) — a vicious Yazuka leader — makes his move. Enforcers break into Jake’s apartment, warning him to back off their boss with a bloody beating. But Katagiri’s threat is far worse. Thinking he’s about to catch Tozawa and his men moving drugs, Watanabe’s detective arrives to the target warehouse early and waits for his new partner, Jin Miyamoto (Hideaki Itô). Only, Miyamoto never shows. Darkness falls and Katagiri enters the warehouse on his own, where Tozawa ambushes him: first confirming he’s disposed of Miyamoto, then playing his ace.

“I’ve let you do as you wish for a long time, Katagiri, but I’ve reached the end of my patience,” Tozawa says. “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 slouch. As Tozawa reiterates his ultimatum, Watanabe’s character can only stare ahead in stunned silence, his eyes welling up at the mention of his daughter’s name. Throughout it all, Katagiri keeps his weapon pointed at Tozawa. Watching Watanabe, it’s unclear if Katagiri is unwilling to let this villainous leader walk away, or if he’s simply unaware he’s still holding him at gunpoint. Either way, when his arms finally fall, it’s an admission of defeat that stings all the 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 crew, Ayumi Tanada, everybody — then we don’t talk about it. It was really quiet. We went block by block to build up the moment just right.”

With the set mirroring the scene’s solemn tone, 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 I imagined his face and feelings and his background, but I didn’t meet him yet,” Watanabe said. “Then, I really don’t talk about a lot [with Tanada]. I just say hello or something, and we separate to keep it tense with us.”

Watanabe said his opening scene in the finale helped emphasize its climax. Katagiri is at home, bathed in sunlight, sipping tea while talking to his wife and daughters. The family sits and laughs at their breakfast table, but the idyllic scenario doesn’t tip the ending. For one, few could expect Tozawa will take such extreme, private measures to muzzle a dogged detective.

But the first scene also sees Katagiri’s youngest child hand him a picture she drew of Jake, who Katagiri recently stopped helping after the reporter went against his mentor’s advice and jeopardized their case. Despite their friendship — Jake even had dinner with the family — Katagiri cut him off. It’s important to remember their fractured status when the episode begins, so rather than focus on the joyful home-life that will soon be under threat, viewers instead dial in on the rift between colleagues.


Ken Watanabe in “Tokyo Vice”

James Lisle / HBO Max

“It’s so, so scary,” Watanabe said of the warehouse scene. “Each character has a different, deep situational background. We lean on the storytelling for each character in each episode. […] So even if it’s a small scene, I was just concerned about getting the point across as quickly as possible.”

Such a short yet critical scene arrives at the very end of the finale, when Jake goes to Katagiri with video evidence of a murder involving Tozawa, and Katagiri warily welcomes him into his house. Does Katagiri’s choice indicate he’s willing to keep pursuing a case against the man threatening his family? Does it mean he’s as incorruptible as Tozawa always thought?

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

But the actor and E.P. does have a few teases for Season 2, if HBO Max renews the series.

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

So long as Watanabe remains onboard, there’s no doubt it will be.

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

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