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The JDM Classics of Tokyo Vice

Max’s Tokyo Vice takes viewers deep into the underbelly of the Japanese mafia, populating neon-soaked streets with a who’s-who of JDM classics.

Casting the JDM Cars of Tokyo Vice

Max (formerly HBO Max, formerly HBO…) recently concluded the second season of their surprise hit series Tokyo Vice. Loosely based on the memoir of American journalist Jake Adelstein, the series dives into the criminal underworld of 1990s Tokyo. The showrunners gained unprecedented access for filming and went to extraordinary lengths to replicate the look and feel of one the world’s most storied cities.

Part of that verisimilitude meant populating the streets of ‘90s Tokyo with loads of JDM classics (Japanese Domestic Market) from sports cars to ordinary commuters. Indeed, Tokyo Vice is as exciting for JDM car spotting as it is for the yakuza power struggles (at least for some of us). With Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Ferrari) as executive producer, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the cars of Tokyo Vice play a significant role in building both the overall aesthetic of the show and providing additional characterization for the main players.

Nissan Fairlady Z

Nissan Fairlady Z - imcdb.org
Nissan Fairlady Z - imcdb.org

Driven by Ken Watanabe’s Detective Hiroto Katagiri, the 1979 Nissan Fairlady Z is the series’ most revealing car. Already a classic by 1999, the series temporal setting, the impeccably kept Fairlady Z reveals a lot about its owner. The methodical nature of Det. Katagiri is perfectly reflected in his choice of cars as the S130-generation Fairlady Z was more of a GT cruiser than a pedal-to-the-metal canyon-carver. While it was powered by either a 2.0L or 2.8L straight-six, the Japanese version was never given the turbocharger that the US iteration got. The second-gen Fairlady was offered as either a two-seater or as a 2+2. Family man Katagiri drives the more kid-friendly four-seater. While Katagiri-san gets to cruise in a slick-looking classic Nissan, the rest of the Tokyo police roll in either Toyota Crowns or Nissan Cedrics.

Nissan President

Nissan President - imcdb.org
Nissan President - imcdb.org

Gangsters rely on appearances to accomplish a lot of their intimidation, Japanese yakuza especially so. The Nissan President driven by Sato, a soldier in the Chihara-kai clan, helps makes an impression of power and authority. As Nissan’s premier JDM luxury car, the President was loaded with high-end materials like Connolley Leather, rode on a pillowy suspension, and drew power from a 4.5L V8. The 1990 model driven by Sato was the debut year of the President’s third generation, the first to not be entirely hand-built.

Kawasaki ZR250 Balius II

Kawasaki ZR250 Balius II - imcdb.org
Kawasaki ZR250 Balius II - imcdb.org

To best illustrate both her independence and her risk-taking tendencies, nightclub owner Samantha rides a Kawasaki ZR250 Balius II. This sport bike was powered by a 249-cc four-stroke four-cylinder DOHC engine making 45 horsepower at a buzzy 16,000 rpm. Though it was exported, the ZR250 was primarily sold in its native Japan.

Toyota Century

Toyota Century - imdb.com

The Toyota Century is something of an automotive institution in Japan. The JDM luxury car is the ride of CEOs, government officials, and, apparently, yakuza bosses (oyabun). In Tokyo Vice, Ishida, the oyabun of Chihara-kai, gets driven around in a Century, a ride befitting his status. The Century has been in production since 1967. In those decades, it’s seen just three generations, including its inaugural generation spanning all the way from ’67 through 1997. Ishida’s Century is a 1987 model powered by a 4.0L V8 (second-gen Century got a V12!).

Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W220)

Mercedes-Benz S-Class - imcdb.org
Mercedes-Benz S-Class - imcdb.org

Contrasting with the old-school ethos of Ishida is his nemesis Tozawa, a competing yakuza boss determined to overthrow the older generation. To illustrate this contrast, Tozawa’s ride is a brand-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W220-gen). The 2000 S-Class was not only one of the most luxurious vehicles you could buy but also one of the most technologically advanced boasting features like its Airmatic adaptive ride control. Time has not been kind to the W220 S-Class as many of those advanced features failed to hold up over the years, bogging the car down with reliability issues.

Even so, in 2000 you’d be hard pressed to find a more prestigious vehicle than the S-Class. In addition to all the gizmos and luxury features, the S-Class offered a comically long list of engine options that included three V6s, four V8, two diesel options (an I-6 and a V8), and three different V12s including the S65 AMG’s twin-turbo V12 with 604 horsepower. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a powerful bit of new-school foreign luxury that perfectly illustrates Tozawa’s flouting of tradition.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R34

Nissan Skyline GT-R R34 - imdb.com
Nissan Skyline GT-R R34 - imdb.com

Even minor characters in Tokyo Vice get paired with the perfect vehicle for their personalities. Case in point, the 1999 Nissan GT-R R34 driven by the boyfriend of hostess Polina, the materialistic Akira. The Skyline GT-R had just entered its fifth generation in 1999, the year the show is set. The brand-new sports car helps show Akira’s desire for status, especially since the Skyline GT-R R34 was arguably the pinnacle of 1990s JDM. Equipped with its signature all-wheel drive system and its boost-loving RB26 motor, the Skyline GT-R R34 was an unparalleled marriage of period aesthetics and high-end performance. (For more on the Nissan Skyline GT-R, click here.)

Toyota T-100

Toyota T100 - HBO Max
Toyota T100 - HBO Max

In season two, Sato and high-ranking yakuza Hayama make a trek to Nagano to acquire illegal guns in anticipation of a showdown between Chihara-Kai and Tozawa. A former clan member, Ota, deals in black market firearms and it would appear a whole lot else given his ride, a Toyota T-100 (not a Terminator). For American audiences, the T-100 is not unfamiliar as it was Toyota’s full-size truck offering in North America from 1992 through 1998. Significantly, the T-100 was export only, meaning the gun-running Ota drives is a grey market vehicle, certainly befitting his character’s shady connections. Props to the Tokyo Vice production staff for including this obscure, “if you know, you know” level of detail.

Subaru Leone

Subaru Leone - HBO Max
Subaru Leone - HBO Max

In the same episode, Sato and Hayama are fleeing Ota’s rural cabin on foot, in the snow (Ota having been dispatched in a drunken fight and his cabin set alight). These two dubious travelers are encountered on the road by a family in their Subaru Leone station wagon. The Leone is another JDM car that might be familiar to some Americans as the third generation, like the wagon in question, was imported Stateside.

JDM Extras

Nissan Caravan - imcdb.org
Nissan Caravan - imcdb.org

Tokyo Vice producers ensure an impressive level of historical fidelity with their choice of background vehicles. As we noted, the series features a plethora of JDM vehicles to spot in random shots around the city. Look closely and you’ll glimpse vehicles like the Honda Today, Toyota Town Ace, Nissan Silva, Nissan Wingroad, Honda Street, Toyota Hilux Surf, and many more. The series even gives a nod to bosozoku car/bike culture with a storyline involving stolen motorbikes and a bosozoku biker gang.

Between the stellar storytelling, superb acting, and note-perfect production value, we can’t recommend Tokyo Vice and its collection of JDM classics enough.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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