Tokyo Vice Director Talks About the Gravity of Tokyo


Since first visiting Japan as an exchange student over half a century ago, Alan Poul has since built a distinguished career as a producer and a director in Hollywood, while maintaining close ties with Japan. His latest project is the hit crime drama series, Tokyo Vice, which was filmed entirely in and around Tokyo. Poul discusses the Japanese capital as a filming location.

Poul (right) with Watanabe Ken (center) and Ito Hideaki, starring as detectives, shooting season 1, which Poul directed himself on location in Tokyo, back in 2010. Photo: James Lisle

The first season of Tokyo Vice became a huge success and won plaudits all around the world. What do you think is the reason for its success?

For one thing, there is currently  a fascination with Japan, especially among young people, which came initially from their love of manga and anime, but has moved on beyond.  Now it's become an overall fascination with Japanese culture. The other thing that people love about the show is the characters. More than in your typical police crime drama, our characters feel very real, and we have an amazing Japanese cast who really brings these characters to life in such an impressive way. The show has been very well received in Japan. For me, one of the main goals of doing the show was to present Japan in an authentic way, so it makes me especially proud that I have had compliments from many of our Japanese viewers. 

From season 1. An American journalist working for a Japanese newspaper, played by Ansel Elgort, tries to unmask Tokyo's underworld with a detective, played by Watanabe Ken, as his ally. Photo: courtesy of HBO Max/James Lisle

What do you think makes Tokyo unique?

I think the easiest thing to say is that Tokyo works. The city works in a way like no other city that I have ever lived in or visited. It is a very chaotic city, but somehow things function smoothly and on time, which is amazing. I think the key is that there is an unspoken agreement between people that they will respect each other and everybody knows that there are lines that should not be crossed. Also, although it's a city where most people are private and would not want to have much interaction with strangers, there is a level of courtesy and commitment to service that is way far beyond that of any other city that I have visited.

From season 1. Poul with Watanabe. "Ken-san was the soul of the production because he was the person that all the rest of our Japanese cast looked up to." Photo: James Lisle

At the start of shooting season 2, you visited the Tokyo governor.

In season 1, we arrived in the middle of the pandemic. People did not want a bunch of foreigners coming in and filming. We were really outsiders, and yet we had the nerve to try to make a show in Tokyo. So everybody was suspicious. But by season 2, because people had seen season 1, it was night and day and suddenly, we were VIPs. The key in terms of changing that attitude was Governor Koike Yuriko. She welcomed us and gave us support, and it made a huge difference in how we were received. And our other important friend was U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel, who came to visit the set. So with two big friends like that, it really changed the city's perception of us.

You worked on other films shot in Japan including Black Rain, a 1989 film shot in Osaka, on which you were an associate producer.

Black Rain was the biggest Hollywood production to go to Japan at that point. It's a great movie, but the shoot was kind of a disaster. There was no Japan Film Commission then. And as the person in between two cultures, it was very difficult for me because I was the messenger whom everybody wanted to shoot. And I became very close to Matsuda Yusaku, one of the main actors in the movie, who passed away in 1989.  As it became clear that he was not well, I had to take care of him. It was difficult to see how much pain he was in. 

Poul and Watanabe shot the climactic scene of season 1 overnight. The actor, who usually leaves quietly at the end of a shoot, came over to Poul and tapped his shoulders saying, "Good scene!" Photo: James Lisle

What can you tell us about the Tokyo depicted in season 2?

One thing was that, because we were able to work more closely with the police and obtain location permits, we filmed action scenes in the streets that are very, very, difficult to do even for a Japanese film company. And I think that part of what we were able to do with season 2 could become a role model for how to work with the local governments, and police in Japan in order to make things run more smoothly. Also, we have big scenes taking place at places like the inside of a Buddhist temple, so we were able to show more of the ceremonial aspects of Tokyo life. I know our American and European viewers felt they were getting an amazing look into the city, but season 2 will be double that.  We really show a much bigger canvas of the city.

Tokyo Vice Season 2(HBO Max/WOWOW)will be out in Spring 2024.

Tokyo Vice Season 1 official trailer.

Alan Poul

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Born in Pennsylvania, in 1954, Alan Poul is a seven-time Emmy-
nominated American producer and director. He first visited Japan in 1971 as a high school exchange student. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in Japanese Language and Literature, went on to work on films such as Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters and Black Rain, which he associate-produced, and acclaimed TV drama series like HBO's Six Feet Under. He was appointed as a Tokyo Tourism Ambassador in 2023.
Interview and writing by Shintani Yoko