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Opinion ‘Tokyo Vice’ and ‘A Hero’ challenge us to face up to our debts

Ansel Elgort in "Tokyo Vice," which premiered on April 7. (HBO Max via AP) (AP)
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Debt is on everyone’s mind at the moment. Student debt forgiveness has become a popular demand on the left, as if loans were some sort of scam on the receivers, rather than an assist for those seeking higher education and the greater income that comes with it. During the covid-19 pandemic, relief spending sent the deficit skyrocketing. And in pursuit of Twitter, Tesla chief Elon Musk has leveraged himself and his shares in his company to a degree that feels incomprehensible to the average tweeter.

Enter “Tokyo Vice” and “A Hero,” two stories that could help reset our moral compasses around debt and obligation. The Michael Mann-produced “Tokyo Vice” is an entrancing crime drama; a fun program about journalism (and a reminder that editors everywhere are wary of extraneous adjectives like extraneous); and a fascinating travelogue through the universality of the Backstreet Boys and the odd world of Japanese hostess clubs.

But “Tokyo Vice” works on its deepest level as an examination of honor and debts, as well as the trouble we find ourselves in when burdened by commitments we cannot easily repay.

Arrears are the subject of Jake Adelstein’s (Ansel Elgort) first big story for the Tokyo paper at which he is the first “gaijin”or non-Asian foreigner — employee. Residents of Tokyo, burdened by debt and hounded by collectors, are killing themselves rather than bring dishonor on their families. Jake learns that the suicides are connected to a company controlled by a syndicate of the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, and that the debtors’ life insurance policies are paying out not to their grieving families but to crooks.

“Tokyo Vice” contrasts the pitiable state of these debtors with the luxe living of not only the Yakuza but also Adelstein. He might not be a wealthy man, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned about his cost of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Samantha (Rachel Keller), a club hostess Jake has a crush on, has monetary and moral debts, too. She is a Mormon missionary who stole from her church to set up a life for herself in Tokyo. Repaying the financial debt is no simple matter: If Samantha acknowledges what she did, she would be at risk of criminal prosecution in the United States, and a conviction would prevent her from returning to Japan, the country she loves. And she cannot buy off an investigator blackmailing her for sexual favors, causing her to generate another form of debt with Yakuza soldier, Sato (Shô Kasamatsu).

Jake is warned against accumulating debts from the yakuza by Detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe). As a journalist, Jake is in the business of trading information: from the police to the public, yes, but also between the police and the Yakuza. But Katagiri understands that there are some debts Jake is better off avoiding incurring.

“Ishida will be grateful for that,” Katagiri says after giving Jake the name of a traitor within Hitoshi Ishida’s (Shun Sugata) organization. “He will offer a favor in return. Do not take it.” When Jake asks why, Katagiri’s answer is as obvious as it is chilling: “When you accept favors from the Yakuza, you open a door. Once open, it is very hard to close.”

“Tokyo Vice” manages to make the unsexy mechanics of financial debt cinematic: It’s harder to think of a more potent image of despair than a man self-immolating on a crowded Tokyo street.

More interesting is the moral avenue, one explored by Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero.” The film is an accidental ode to the Western notion of bankruptcy law, where debts can be discharged through the courts. And like “Tokyo Vice,” “A Hero” served as a meditation on the immorality of ducking out on payments owed — and an argument for extending sympathy to the lenders who get hurt when debtors default.

“A Hero” is one of the few films to truly subvert our expectations in the sense that we are trained, as viewers, to empathize with the debt-burdened protagonist and his soft smile. As the film progresses, however, the titular hero reveals himself repeatedly to be a liar. And we learn of the great sacrifices made by the man who paid off his debts. Why is this lender, and the daughter whose dowry he had to give up to satisfy the protagonist’s obligations, less worthy or important than this deadbeat?

Mann, who directed the first episode of “Tokyo Vice” in addition to serving as a producer, is often described as a masculine filmmaker, the auteur of alphas, and you can see why an examination of the honor culture surrounding indebtedness would appeal to him. “Tokyo Vice,” like “A Hero,” is grappling artistically with what we’re wrestling with culturally at the moment: the moral valence of our debts. In Mann’s world, a man pays his debts. In ours, too often, he tries to get out of them.