Reviews | Hoping for student loan forgiveness? Watch ‘Tokyo Vice’ and ‘A Hero’ for a different way of thinking about debt.

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Debt is on everyone’s mind right now. Student debt forgiveness has become a popular demand on the left, as if the loans are some kind of scam for recipients, rather than aid for those seeking higher education and the higher incomes that come with it. During the covid-19 pandemic, relief spending caused the deficit to skyrocket. And in pursuit of Twitter, Tesla chief Elon Musk has taken advantage of himself and his shares in his company to a degree that seems incomprehensible to the average tweeter.

Enter “Tokyo Vice” and “A Hero,” two stories that might help reset our moral compasses around debt and obligation. “Tokyo Vice,” produced by Michael Mann, is a gripping crime drama. a fun show about journalism (and a reminder that editors everywhere are wary of superfluous adjectives like superfluous); and a compelling travelogue through the universality of the Backstreet Boys and the bizarre world of Japanese hostess clubs.

But “Tokyo Vice” functions at its deepest level as an examination of honor and debt, and the problems we find ourselves in when we are burdened with commitments we cannot easily repay.

Arrears are the subject of the first major article by Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) for the Tokyo newspaper of which he is the first “gaijin”or non-Asian foreigner — employee. The people of Tokyo, burdened with debt and hunted down by collectors, kill themselves rather than dishonor their families. Jake learns that the suicides are tied to a society controlled by a syndicate of the Yakuza, or Japanese Mafia, and that the debtors’ life insurance policies don’t pay out to their grieving families but to crooks.

“Tokyo Vice” contrasts the pitiful state of these debtors with the luxurious life not only of the Yakuza but also of Adelstein. He may not be a rich man, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about his cost of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Samantha (Rachel Keller), a club hostess Jake has a crush on, also has financial and moral debts. She’s a Mormon missionary who stole her church to move to Tokyo. Paying off the financial debt is no small feat: if Samantha admits what she did, she would face criminal prosecution in the United States, and a conviction would prevent her from returning to Japan, the country she she likes. And she can’t redeem an investigator who blackmails her for sexual favors, which leads her to run up another form of debt with the Yakuza soldier, Sato (Shô Kasamatsu).

Jake is warned about racking up yakuza debt by Detective Hiroto Katagiri (Ken Watanabe). As a journalist, Jake is in the business of information: from the police to the public, yes, but also between the police and the Yakuza. But Katagiri realizes that there are debts that Jake had better avoid incurring.

“Ishida will be grateful,” Katagiri says after naming Jake after a traitor in Hitoshi Ishida’s (Shun Sugata) organization. “He will offer a favor in return. Do not take it.” When Jake asks why, Katagiri’s response is as obvious as it is chilling: “When you accept favors from the Yakuza, you open a door. Once opened, it is very difficult to close. »

“Tokyo Vice” manages to make the unsexy mechanics of financial debt cinematic: it’s harder to think of a more powerful image of despair than a man setting himself on fire in a crowded Tokyo street.

More interesting is the moral path, the one explored by “A Hero” by Iranian author Asghar Farhadi. 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 evading due payments — and an argument to express sympathy to lenders who are hurt when debtors default.

“A Hero” is one of the few films that really subverts our expectations in that we are trained, as viewers, to empathize with the indebted protagonist and his sweet smile. As the film progresses, however, the titular hero is repeatedly revealed to be a liar. And we learn of the great sacrifices made by the man who paid his debts. Why is this moneylender, and the daughter whose dowry he had to forfeit to meet the obligations of the protagonist, less worthy or important than this deadbeat?

Mann, who directed the first episode of “Tokyo Vice” in addition to being a producer, is often described as a male filmmaker, the author of alphas, and you can see why a look at the culture of honor surrounding the indebtedness would please him. . “Tokyo Vice,” like “A Hero,” artistically tackles what we are culturally struggling with right now: the moral valence of our debts. In Mann’s world, a man pays his debts. With us, too often, he tries to get out of it.


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