Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) is an American journalist who has become the first non-Japanese reporter for a major Tokyo newspaper. Bristling against the strict rules and overbearing heirachy of his new employer, Jake begins investigating a pair of murder cases by himself – which draws him ever-closer to Japan’s secretive yakuza.
It is worth noting that Tokyo Vice, a new Amazon Prime drama produced and co-directed by Michael Mann (Heat), is based on a memoir by real-life journalist Jake Adelstein. It is also worth noting that, after the publicity generated by this streaming adaptation, some have started to question the veracity of the claims made by Adelstein in his own book. Now the series is not the book, and as an adaptation it is easily accepted as fictional without concern over whether or not Adelstein investigated the yakuza in the manner that he describes. Where these accusations do shed a light on this new drama is in the manner Jake is represented as a fictional character.
Let’s talk about Mary-Sue.
In 1973 Paula Smith wrote a satirical fan fiction of Star Trek, in which a Lieutenant Mary-Sue joins the USS Enterprise and proves herself the superior to the entire leading cast of the popular TV series. Bolder than Kirk, smarter than Spock, and adored by all, she is a parody of a trend among young fan fiction writers to insert themselves into the fictional narrative as a sort of exercise in wish fulfillment. Later usages of the terms seem to have expanded to include any sort of female exemplar in popular fiction, which misses the point of the self-insert.
Now there is nothing wrong with fan fiction, and likewise nothing wrong with writing a “Mary-Sue”. Both are exercises in creativity, done not for monetary gain but self-satisfaction, and are a perfectly valid road towards writing original fiction without the need to use other writers’ characters. I started creative writing with fanfic – although my Doctor Who/Press Gang crossover is mercifully lost to the ages – and have since won awards for my playwriting and my criticism. The problem with the Mary-Sue arises when it occurs in purportedly original, professional work for a mass audience.
Jake Adelstein the journalist is real, but Jake Adelstein the journalist in Tokyo Vice not only feels fictional, he feels like a Mary-Sue. He is a white American who has travelled to Japan to become a journalist, and against all odds is represented as a better journalist than any of his Japanese workmates. He is smarter than they are. He is more driven than they are. He lives a Japanese-style existence in a small room above a local restaurant. When he orders food, he does so with the intimate familiarity of someone who grew up immersed in Japanese culture. When he is interviewed for his new job, his superiors are represented as inflexible and in one case antisemitic.
Perhaps the real Adelstein actually is a better journalist than most Japanese ones. Maybe he is smart, brave, cool, and attractive. I honestly have no idea, but I do know when presented as a fiction his Tokyo adventure simply does not ring true. He is too good at everything all at the same time, bolder than Kirk and smarter than Spock, and despite the positive qualities of Tokyo Vice in terms of technique, photography, and mise-en-scene it never rings true because Adelstein never rings true. Instead he feels like Lieutenant Mary-Sue.
Truth is stranger than fiction, as the aphorism goes. For Tokyo Vice to work, it needed to make its lead a lot more fallible. As it stands, it is a hard sell for an audience to buy.