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Since the dawn of the cinema we have relied on movies to allow us to escape and experience other worlds, cultures, and lives. We seek to use movies as windows into exotic scenes and lifestyles. A great example of a film series that helps us accomplish this experience would be the Fast and the Furious franchise. As most people around the world possibly live mundane and repetitive lives, one might view film franchises such as the Fast and the Furious as a way for us to escape and safely live out our fantasies of living a more dangerous and exciting lifestyle, such as one that involves racing and heists.
Although all the Fast and Furious attempt to portray different racing cultures, the one that takes the biggest leap into a whole new culture would be the Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, or just Tokyo Drift, functions as a symbol of Japanese culture as a whole with an emphasis on cars.
Although the film is meant to focus primarily on racing, it seems that an underlying focus might be race and ethnicity which function in startling ways throughout the film. Unfortunately, portrayals such as this seem to be rather typical and go hand in hand with the film industry’s history of showing us different and ‘exotic’ cultures. A distinguished professor and theorist by the name of bell hooks has thoroughly studied this pattern of cultural commodification and authored a few works describing it as well as criticizing it.
In one of her essays entitled “Eating the Other”, hooks explores and comments on the West’s history of transgressing different cultures and races through this notion of portraying them as ‘Otherness’ while ensuring to reinforce a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy status quo. So how is bell hook’s white supremacist capitalist patriarchy status quo portrayed in Tokyo Drift?
As I watched the film I noticed quite a few prominent themes which seem to portray this status quo in effect. The first and most obvious theme I noticed was the classic Hollywood plot of a white male who upon being introduced to a completely new culture seems to be able to easily dominate it. In Tokyo Drift our protagonist is Sean Boswell, a high school student who is forced to leave the United States in order to avoid going to jail for illegal street racing. Sean ends up having no choice but to move in with his father who lives in Tokyo, Japan. Although Sean doesn’t speak any Japanese and is placed into a Tokyo high school where he knows no one, he somehow manages to end up in the Tokyo underground street racing world within 24 hours. In addition to being introduced to the racing world, he is also introduced to Neela who is also foreign student from Australia and she becomes his love interest. It turns out Neela already has a boyfriend Takashi, also known as DK which stands for ‘Drift King’. DK is the king of drifting, a driving technique where a driver intentionally oversteers the car causing a loss of traction but can still control the car. Drifting originated in Japan and became very popular in Japanese motorsport competitions as well as the rest of the world. In Tokyo Drift, when Sean first hears the word ‘Drift’ he has no idea what it means and obviously has never tried it in his life. Following an altercation with DK, Sean ends up trying to race him through a parking garage which calls for superior drifting skills in order to be able to navigate it with speed. Sean having no experience whatsoever with drifting ends up losing the race all while destroying the car he was driving through his attempts to drift around corners. Following this defeat, Sean begins to learn how to drift and continues to practice. Within a few weeks he is confident enough to challenge Takashi for his title of Drift King. Instead of using any of the other Japanese cars seen in the movie which are probably already heavily modified for racing and drifting, Sean takes his father’s 1967 Ford Mustang GT project and restores it using mostly Japanese parts including a Nissan engine. With this Mustang, which at this point is basically a Japanese car with an American body, Sean finally beats Takashi and wins the title of Drift King as well as Neela. This type of narrative seems to be typical in Hollywood. We have seen these plots before in films such as in the 2003 film ‘The Last Samurai’, where an American military advisor relocated to Japan and quickly picks up the ways of a Samurai and is able to defeat other Samurais which have dedicated their whole lives to practicing Samurai swordsmanship and also win over the heart of a Japanese girl. Another example of this classic Hollywood plot can be seen in the 1990 film ‘Dances with Wolves’ where we have a Union Army lieutenant who adopt the Lakota Indian way of life and wins over a Lakota woman in the process. As we can now see, films such as Tokyo Drift, the Last Samurai, and Dances with Wolves all satisfy a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy by showing audiences that a white male will always be dominant, even when facing a completely different culture. Tokyo Drift is no exception to hooks’ theory that movies “affirm ‘white power’ when they flirt with having contact with the Other” (hooks, 36). White power is clearly represented as Sean becomes better than the Japanese at their own racing techniques, using an American car not made for drifting, all while winning over their women in the process.
When Sean first arrives to Tokyo, his first friend is another exchange student named Twinkie who is played by the rapper Bow Wow. Although Bow Wow in this film is an Army brat who is attending a high school in an upscale district in Tokyo, he plays the role of a typical Hollywood African American teenager. Though you would think that an Army brat attending a great school in Japan would be very well disciplined and would break stereotypes, that is not the case in Tokyo Drift. Bow Wow plays a role of a black teenager who acts as if he is at a lower income level by being a thief and a hustler. Bow Wow’s character is first introduced to the audience when he strikes up a conversation with Sean at school in order to attempt to sell him a variety of goods which are implied to all be stolen. There is even a scene in which Bow Wow is getting beaten in a fight by a Japanese classmate in front of a laughing crowd which includes people of varied races. This scene reaffirms hooks’ notion that “much of psychic pain that black people experience daily in a white supremacist context is caused by dehumanizing oppressive forces, forces that render us invisible and deny us recognition” (hooks, 35). I believe that this idea is evident in fight scene as we see Bow Wow, the only African American character in this movie, placed at the bottom of the totem pole as he gets beat up as a sort of show for the primarily Japanese audience, desperately in need of Sean to come save him. Although Bow Wow’s character clearly can’t fight or be respectable or honest, he does excel in one thing: sports. The only time we see Bow Wow perform something positively in the film is when there is a short clip of everyone playing soccer on a rooftop and his character seems to the best player. This clearly reaffirms another theme in which the typical Hollywood African American role is an untrustworthy thief, but of course can perform great at sports.
Lastly, the most striking theme I have found in this movie is within the cast itself. Although the film takes place in Tokyo, Japan and features a mostly native Japanese cast, no one in the main cast is even full Japanese. The films main antagonist Takashi is played by Brian Tee, who is a Japanese-Korean actor who was raised in the United States. Takashi’s right hand man Morimoto, is played by Leonardo Nam, an Argentinean Australian actor of Korean descent. Han who is another main character who resides in Tokyo and is friends with both Takashi and Sean, is played by Sung Kang a Korean actor. Neela is played by Nathalie Kelley who is Peruvian actress from Australia. Even though this film tries to accurately portray Japan, they overlooked the fact none of the main cast is even really a Japanese actor. Japan has a large established film industry that is one of the oldest, surely there is no shortage of great Japanese actors that could have been chosen for these main roles. Instead however, if anything we find mostly Korean actors acting as if they are Japanese for this movie. As hooks explains, “within a commodity culture, ethnicity becomes a spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks, 21). This seems to be evident as Korean actors are just thrown into these roles since they just look Japanese enough to our mainstream white culture. Even if they are actually Korean actors, the way they look is just as exciting for us.
In conclusion, Hollywood’s history of transgressing different cultures extends all the way to the Fast and the Furious film franchise, including in the third installment Tokyo Drift. In this film we have a clear white supremacist capitalist patriarchy agenda when is obvious as soon as soon as we see our protagonist Sean step climb into a car in Tokyo. The entire plot revolves around Sean reinforcing his white power by quickly becoming the best car drifter around within a matter of weeks. Sean has no problem conquering the other ‘Japanese’ characters in their own sport as well as in their own women. In addition to our terrific stereotypical white male lead, we have another stereotypical portrayal which is played by Bow Wow. Bow Wow’s character is the same as most black teenage characters in Hollywood. Even though he is in a rich and modern city, he plays the role of a street hustler and thief. Lastly, we the whole movie is a great example of the commodification of otherness since we gave mostly Korean actors Japanese roles. The fact that they are East Asian is a good enough ‘spice and seasoning’ to be thrown into this movie and give us a taste of the Other. From these findings, it is clear that Tokyo Drift is unfortunately like most other films before it who give us the same plot of the white male lead dominating everything and everyone in his path.
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