SLM Masanori “Masa” Aikawa/LMGI and his team ramp up the action on the streets of Tokyo in Season 2 of the hit drama series…

by Shaun O’Banion

All photos courtesy of MAX, photographed by Kumiko Tsuchiya, unless otherwise noted

Ken Watanabe

Ken Watanabe

Loosely inspired by American journalist Jake Adelstein’s firsthand account of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police beat, Season 2 of the HBO/Max series Tokyo Vice continues to follow reporter Adelstein (played by Ansel Elgort) and his relationship with detective Hiroto Katagiri (played by actor and executive producer Ken Watanabe) as they delve into Tokyo’s dangerous underworld.

While the premiere season had a fair amount of Tokyo exteriors, this highly anticipated return takes viewers deeper into the high-rise glass and steel offices of the brutally violent Yakuza crime syndicate, the bustling bullpen of “The Meicho” newsroom, the darkened corridors of the Metropolitan Police Department, an exclusive hostess club on Tokyo’s famed Akasaka Street, and a stunning historic temple where an elaborate funeral takes place.

In expanding the world of the show’s second season, supervising location manager Masanori “Masa” Aikawa, the LMGI’s first-ever Japan-based member, and his team made it possible for production to feature numerous locations throughout the city—some of which have never, ever, been photographed before.

“I love finding and sharing a location with the team,” says Aikawa via a translator, “and then the process of planning and cooperating with all the various entities that make it all come together, from the residents to the local government and police. It’s all very exciting for me.”

L-R: Ansel Elgort with Rinko Kikuchi at The Meicho office

“Everyone who loved Season 1 said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen so much of the city on screen before,’” says veteran EP and director Alan Poul (The Newsroom, Six Feet Under), “but my feeling, watching the season as many times as I did, was that we didn’t show enough.”

“It became abundantly clear that even though we felt we hadn’t seen that much of it, for the audience, the city of Tokyo had become a major character in the show,” adds showrunner J.T. Rogers (HBO’s Oslo). 

For the first season, Poul and Rogers both felt like they’d been forced into shooting a lot of people in rooms.

Aikawa and his team would have to be on top of their game to deliver locations that would fulfill the creative vision for the second season—and playing the game in Japan is not always the way it is played in other parts of the world. According to Aikawa, there are many locations in Japan where “money doesn’t talk.”

Ayumi Tanida (center) with Tokyo skyline

The Japanese Way 

Everything in Japan is based on relationships, and while LMGI members in other parts of the world know how important it is to build a relationship and camaraderie with property owners, in Japan, it is the only way anything gets done.

In terms of getting specific locations approved for shooting, the process begins and ends with the property owners, and it can take four, five or even six months to get a single location. 

“It’s enormously labor- and time-intensive,” explains Poul. “In many cases, it means going somewhere and bringing a little box of sweets and staying for at least one cup of tea.”

And if someone from Masa’s team goes and creates that relationship, that person must remain the only point of contact for that location. “You can’t show up and say, ‘oh yeah, yesterday you talked to Joe. Well, I’m Dave, one of the other location scouts, and I’m going to handle things today,’” continues Poul, “that’s not possible. You have to keep the continuity of the first contact.”

Another tricky element is that if the team scouts a location but opts not to use it, that can be viewed as an insult. “Masa and his team essentially live on a tightrope,” says Rogers, “because you might want to use a place later on, but by simply not choosing it now, you’ve offended the owner.”

Gaining permissions and access for filming around the world is often more of a top-down process … working with film commissions, city offices and police, then residents. In Japan, everything is bottom up. You start with residents and, while you may get support from the top, ultimately, the decisions at a city level get made by the local police because as Poul explains, “Should anything go wrong, they’re the ones whose necks are on the line.”

Japan also operates very differently from other countries when it comes to gaining actual control of an on-location set. Shutting down and “owning” a street or having traffic control just aren’t things that happen there. 

Ultimately, if you are granted permission by the police, it’s only a “street usage permission,” which means that the police are aware of your presence and that you’ve proven the support of the location and its neighbors … but not that you control a street or location in any way, shape or form.

American execs and creatives had to come to terms with the sheer size of the Japanese Location Department required to navigate the subtleties of traditional culture and the intricacies of government bureaucracy. 

Co-executive producer Satch Watanabe even told the Tokyo Vice production company Fifth Season that for Season 2, they would need an expanded prep in order to do what Rogers, Poul and the other members of the team wanted to accomplish.

This desire to open things up began what Poul refers to as “the long dance.”

Ansel Egort

The Long Dance

“In Season 1, we were kind of pariahs,” says Rogers. “It was like, ‘who are these gaijin 外人 (foreigners) coming over here and making a show about the Yakuza?’ In terms of locations, Aikawa and the team had to take us around—along with highly respected series star Ken Watanabe—to all of the government offices to sort of calm everyone’s fears about how we might portray them and their city.”

“It was also that the Yakuza are a pretty taboo topic,” says Poul. “Then there’s the fact that the book our show is based on was so controversial that it was never published in Japan. Basically, we had so many strikes against us out of the gate and nobody wanted to deal with us.”

Rogers and his writing staff began writing things into the scripts that, in Season 1, literally would’ve been impossible for them to pull off, like gunfights in the street, motorcycles tearing through neighborhoods and even a car chase.

“I go to Masa,” relates Rogers, “and I’m like, ‘look, I get the level of ask here, but we need it.’ We’re very lucky because Masa is so good at what he does. He’s so patient and he knows that I wouldn’t push for something if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.”

Tokyo. Photo by Masa Aikawa/LMGI

A Distant Dream

Masanori “Masa” Aikawa became interested in film and television at a young age. His father, a big film buff, loved Western cinema and would often bring home the latest laserdiscs of Hollywood films from the ’70s and ’80s like Back to the Future, the Alien film series and RoboCop. Aikawa was entranced by these films and the vision of directors like Robert Zemeckis, Ridley Scott and Paul Verhoeven. 

Fueled by his father’s love of film and his growing passion for storytelling, Aikawa decided that he wanted to pursue a career in the industry, but the question was, how would he even begin?

“I don’t speak English and, having grown up in Japan,” Aikawa says, “the idea of ever having the chance to participate in Hollywood productions seemed impossible. To me, Hollywood was a distant world, so it didn’t even cross my mind to make Hollywood my goal.”

Instead, Aikawa focused on finding a way into the Japanese film industry. 

“I participated in my first Japanese drama production as a sort of field trip about 20 years ago,” he recalls, “and after being able to see the process up close, there was no going back. I decided to learn how to produce.”

Up the Ladder

In Japan, there are two ways to get into the business. The first is to find your way into a job at a major Japanese studio like Toho or Toei, Kadokawa. The other, much like anywhere else, is to begin as an assistant in production and work your way up. Given his lack of connections, Aikawa had no choice but to take the longer route. 

The production department in Japan, called Seisaku-bu 制作部, is comprised of a variety of different teams. “It’s a very diverse department here,” he explains. “Production handles everything from location scouting to transportation, hotel arrangements, catering and budget management.” 

For 10 years, Aikawa observed and worked in every Seisaku-bu, learning about the responsibilities of each before moving up to Seisaku-tanto (the Japanese equivalent of UPM) and then later, as a producer on several films. It was during those years that he began to develop an affinity for those who found and handled locations. 

In 2019, Aikawa was hired to work with the location division of Seisaku-bu on a Chinese film that was shooting in Tokyo. There, he befriended one of the Japanese producers who would offer him a huge opportunity… and his big break. 

Tokyo. Photo by Masa Aikawa/LMGI

A Dream Realized

The producer had signed on to a major international series for HBO. Veteran filmmaker Michael Mann was on board to direct the pilot and also serve as an executive producer. His visual sense would shape and define the vibe and the look of the new series. 

Seeing that Aikawa had done an incredible job finding and securing locations for the Chinese feature, the producer invited him to join the location team on the pilot episode of Tokyo Vice. 

“I joined the project as a scout in 2020,” says Aikawa. “Janice Polley/LMGI was the SLM for the pilot and was very welcoming.” 

“I didn’t communicate with him much directly due to the language barrier,” recalls Polley, “but he was a great scout. That was obvious.”

She remembers having a conversation early on with Aikawa and the rest of the team (via a translator) in which she told them that it was absolutely critical for them to help Tokyo government officials understand how important international film and television could be to the city, and to the country in general.

“Basically, I told them not to give up or give in,” she says.

But just days into filming the pilot, the pandemic shut production down. “We were still looking for locations all over the city and beyond,” Aikawa says, “but then, of course, everything stopped.” It would be eight long months before filming for the pilot could once again move forward.

The Architect’s house. Photo by James Lisle

Tokyo in Tokyo

“There were, initially, many versions of ‘Tokyo,’ including the possibility of shooting Osaka for Tokyo, which is a lot easier,” Mann said in a 2022 interview with Gold Derby editor Christopher Rosen, “but I wanted to do Tokyo in Tokyo and have the viewers experience this immersion into Jake’s life.” 

That worked for Rogers and Poul. Even though filming in Tokyo would offer many challenges, they both knew the city well and understood what filming there would mean for the series.

Rogers grew up in Malaysia and, as a child, would visit Tokyo frequently. Poul had lived in Japan for three months at age 17 as an exchange student and completely fell in love with the country. While at university, he majored in Japanese language and literature and spent a year living in Tokyo, during which time he became fluent in the language.

One of the critical locations Mann selected early on was an eight-story office building near the Tokyo Bay which would serve as The Meicho offices. Initially, it was thought to be less than ideal.

“It’s right in the middle of Tokyo,” Poul says, “parking is a nightmare, and it’s a building that’s being used on other floors for a lot of different things, so there’s a ton of restrictions. It was also a difficult negotiation and very expensive, but Michael understood the value of that location and the ability to look out of the windows and see the city for real, see the elevated train… I mean, you could spend a lot and use CGI or LED screens but … the shots we get are pretty amazing.” 

“The mix of periods in Tokyo is really extraordinary,” adds Aikawa. “We’re known in film and television as the very modern city with neon and light, so the idea that right in the middle of all of that sits a temple from the 1300s is sort of a crazy thing … but this is how we live here and it’s fun to be able to show that.”

“The locations Masa and the team find allows the other cast members and I to completely immerse ourselves in the world of the show every time we step on set. They really do an incredible job.”

                                    –Ken Watanabe, executive producer/actor

Hopes Dashed

When the pilot was completed, Aikawa would assume leadership of the location team for the remaining seven episodes of Season 1 and be invited back for its second. Thinking ahead, they had searched for practical locations that would not only work for Season 1, but for all that might follow.

When the second season ramped up in June of 2022, Aikawa’s first calls were to the owners of four key locations from Season 1. He had no idea that he and his team were about to deal with major issues … with all four!

For the many scenes set at The Meicho, production had been able to secure two full floors of the building: one which was dressed entirely by the art department to serve as the main floor of the paper, and the other used for crew staging and holding for the hundred or so background playing “reporters.” But the building had changed hands—and the new owner was not very excited about hosting the production company. 

The building that served as the Chihara-kai headquarters and Yakuza gangster Ishida’s office was set to figure heavily in Season 2 and Masa found that it was freshly on the market with a buyer already at the table. 

Meanwhile, a new building was being erected right next door to the house that had served as the home of detective Katagiri and his family. Not only would scenes not match for Season 2, which picks up exactly where Season 1 left off, but Aikawa would have to enlist the support of whoever owned that new building as well!

Lastly, the building where the police station had been shot was simply no longer available and no amount of negotiation could change that reality.

So, negotiations would have to begin anew with the three remaining locations, and they simply had to secure them—no matter the cost. 

“It was a major negotiation,” says Aikawa, “and if I’m being completely honest, for a little while, I wasn’t entirely sure we would get them back. But from my point of view, there was no other option. We just had to make it work, and so we did.”

Money Talks, Just Not in Tokyo

The only way to make it work was for Aikawa and his team to go back again and again in order to gain the trust of the new owners and build real relationships with them. 

It took more than a month to get permission to shoot the offices of Ishida and the Chihara-kai again and roughly the same amount of time to re-secure permission to shoot the Katagiri home and The Meicho. The police station was eventually recreated on stage, but that was by no means an easy negotiation as stage space in Tokyo is at a premium.

“We don’t have a ton of stage options in or near the city to begin with,” says Satch Watanabe, “and then Netflix rented all the big stages from Toho Studios for something like 10 years, that made it even harder for other projects to get space. People started renting out warehouses. Now you have to go even further away from the city.”

And, of course, in a city as densely packed as Tokyo, it’s not just about the locations themselves but where to keep all the support vehicles and the “backyard,” or what North American productions call “basecamp.” 

Akasaka Street: Unprecedented 

In Season 1, Adelstein’s American friend Samantha (played by Rachel Keller). decides to open her own hostess club in Tokyo’s trendy Akasaka District, comprised of luxury hotels, upscale bistros and various corporate headquarters. 

The interior of her club, which throughout the season goes from being under construction to open and full of customers, would be shot inside of a converted gymnasium, but for one pivotal scene in Season 2, the producing team had a request. They wanted to shoot the exterior on the real Akasaka Street. More than that, they wanted to essentially control the entire block for a period of time and fill it with police vehicles.

“No big Japanese series or film had ever shot on that street,” says Aikawa, “mostly because they would never be willing to expend the enormous time and resources required to get the approval, so if we got it, it would be unprecedented.”

Even Rogers understood that sometimes production could expect too much from its location team.

“I can say, ‘I want this, I want that,’ but in a city like Tokyo in particular, you have to trust your team. If Masa says they can’t make it work, and I know how hard they’ve tried, I have to go, ‘fine, give me the script back, I’ll give everyone a new version tomorrow morning with a new location.’”

But Masa and his team knew there was no way to fake Akasaka Street. And on a show that, after only one season, had grown in respect for having gotten things right—even among the Japanese community—they knew they simply had to find a way to make it work.

“We made the initial contact with the police six months before,” says Aikawa, “and they told us they would only consider our proposal after we had gotten permission to shoot from every single business in the area.” 

Aikawa assumes the police figured that he and the team would simply abandon the request given that it meant speaking with and gaining the permission of a few hundred businesses. They were wrong.

“We went to every single owner multiple times over that six-month period until we got permission,” says Masa. 

Ultimately, they were given limited control of the street for just six hours, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. 

Poul chalks up the approval to a number of factors. 

“First, Masa and his team just did a great job putting it all together. And then, I think, it’s that once the first season had aired in Japan, they realized we weren’t doing with our show what other foreigners had done before which is to make it all into this sort of cheesy exoticism. 

“At the same time, we had sort of become VIPs in a way thanks to a couple of members of the parliament and our U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, who is no stranger to the entertainment world and even hosted a party on our behalf at his official residence. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it was down to the cooperation of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) under the leadership of Governor Yuriko Koike.”

Koike even asked Poul if he’d be willing to serve as the official Tourism Ambassador for the Tokyo Metropolitan government. “Believe me, I’m not so deluded to think that that carries a lot of weight with the cops, but it does create a superficial perception of our being welcome in the city,” he says.

Members of the local Japanese industry are amazed by what Aikawa and the producers have pulled off. Poul has been asked to give a seminar to some 300 industry professionals under the auspices of the Visual Industry Promotional Organization (VIPO), a quasi-governmental agency in Japan that is trying to facilitate production there. 

Fortunately, with the first season having aired to much critical acclaim, it seemed the doors had opened a bit wider to the team when they reassembled for Season 2. 

Jake’s Apartment

During prep for the pilot, Mann was wandering around the city when he found himself in Akabane (赤羽), a neighborhood in Kita, Tokyo, near the border with Saitama Prefecture. He was immediately taken with it as the place where the young reporter might live.

“I had already found another location in an area Michael had been to quite a bit,” recalls Aikawa, “but from what I heard, he had gotten lost in Akabane and decided he liked the atmosphere there.”

Aikawa knew that filming in Akabane would not be an easy get—particularly since much of the shooting there across both seasons would require night work. “Of course, with night shoots, you’re mostly worried about noise complaints,” says Masa, “and we did get some, but in the end, we worked it out with people, and I guess we did OK because when Season 2 came around, we were allowed to come back.”

Some of the filming there also involved car and motorcycle stunt work which also complicates things in terms of safety because Tokyo doesn’t have “movie police” the way most of our major cities do. 

“It’s kind of unthinkable there,” says Poul, “so even though you have permission from the local police to be there, they still have the power to shut you down at any time and you can’t just say, ‘well, we have a contract.’”

They also have to be extra careful when doing stunt work or gunfire in a public space. 

“If you’re in the middle of rolling,” adds Poul, “and grandpa is carrying his groceries from the local grocery and wants to get through to his house, you ask him politely if he’ll wait until we cut, but if he says, ‘no, to hell with you, I’m going now,’ he can walk through your shot and you are not allowed to stop him in any way.”

One neighborhood sequence in which Jake unwittingly contributes to the theft of a motorcycle took a full four months to gain approval. For one, it’s a night sequence in a residential area, and the guy who steals the bike has to tear out into the street and head off in the opposite direction of traffic as precision drivers screech and pull over. 

But more than that, according to Poul, “It was because we were portraying a character breaking the law and going the wrong way down the street!” 

Production also filmed the interior of Jake’s residence there, which is its own kind of challenge since, according to Aikawa, “The apartment is the size of a postage stamp.”

The Temple

Scenes for the funeral of one of the show’s major characters were shot at the Ryūkō-ji (龍口寺) Temple in the city of Fujisawa, Kanagawa prefecture (a Tokyo suburb). The temple itself dates to 1337 and features a long stairway up to the Hondō or main temple. 

On the day of the filming, it rained, and Aikawa feels that it actually served to enhance the tone of the scene. Even with hundreds of extras attending a massive funeral in a downpour, the day’s work was far less complicated than almost anything else they had shot during the season.

“It’s a private property and we were able to stay inside the temple grounds at all times,” says Poul, “so all Masa needed to handle was negotiation with the temple management and then they basically let us do whatever we wanted, including bringing in cranes. So, I mean, it looks terrific, but that, paradoxically, was easier than being on the street.”

The Shrine

A location they returned to after its first appearance in Season 1 is The Atago Shrine (愛宕神社), which appears in a flashback where Samantha and her friend meet. The property dates back to the year 1603, though most of the buildings which exist there now were built in 1958. Located on Atagoyama, a view of the city from Tokyo prefecture is now obscured by high-rise apartment buildings. 

“In a similar way to Ryūkō-ji, the Atago really shows off the contrast between the shrine and the modern city,” says Aikasa.

According to actor and EP Ken Watanabe, locations like the Shrine, the Temple, or even just the Katagiri home are what make it possible for the cast to do their best work.

“Recreating ’90s-era Tokyo is incredibly challenging due to the need for authentic and accurate locations that fit the period,” he says. “The locations Masa and the team find allows the other cast members and I to completely immerse ourselves in the world of the show every time we step on set. They really do an incredible job.”

A Killer Sequence on a Singular Highway 

In another pivotal sequence, detective Katagiri is transporting a witness from one location to another by car. As written, the scene took place on a four-lane highway—another near impossibility to get access to in Tokyo—and yet they were granted permission. Sort of.

Normally, you want to present options to the director. But given that they needed to create a traffic jam where a speeding motorcycle whizzes between cars and an assassin fires a gun into a car, there was only one choice.

“Masa and I went to the director and the DP and basically said, ‘For what you want to do, we found one location. Make yourself like it,” laughs Poul.

“Thinking back, I don’t think there were any easy locations on this show,” says Aikawa, “but this one was a bit easier than others.”

Both he and Poul agree that the sequence is owed directly to their relationship with Governor Koike, because what looks on the show like a four-lane highway is actually just a street directly outside of the Tokyo City Hall, which is the big building you see in the background.

They had to shoot it on a Sunday, of course, but since they had the support of the governor and they were in front of that building, it meant that they got a spectacular amount of access and control.

Looking Back/Looking Forward

With all 10 episodes of Season 2 now streaming on Max, Aikawa feels a deep sense of appreciation for what his team was able to accomplish. “I’m grateful for the work of the entire team and also for help of everyone in the local government, at the Tokyo Location Box (Tokyo’s version of a film commission) and especially to all of the property owners who worked with us and made it all come together,” he says. 

According to Satch Watanabe, 76% of the season was shot on location.

A third season of the series has yet to be ordered as of press time but, not one to sit idly by, Aikawa has already jumped into a new venture: his own company.

“When we wrapped the season, I started Tokyo Rock Studio with a few members of my Tokyo Vice team, so we can use our collective experience going forward,” he shares. “The feeling was that if I just let the team break up and another huge overseas production comes into Japan, we might not be able to get everyone back together again.”

Aikawa is also grateful to the membership of the LMGI for making him its first-ever Japanese member. 

“I sincerely thank my fellow LMGI members for attending FOCUS in the UK last year. It was amazing for me to visit the LMGI booth and to have a chance to talk to my wonderful LMGI colleagues,” he says. 

“I am thrilled to be connected to others in the world who are in the same line of work as I am and to have made new friends with whom I can share and exchange information. I hope that in the future, I will continue to connect with LMGI members and international filmmakers to share the many wonderful locations we have in Japan.”