If I had to pick a movie as a guilty pleasure, I might choose The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) – except I don’t feel guilty at all, because I love this movie. The third instalment in the now massive, globe-trotting franchise, back in the mid-2000s the future of the series seemed in jeopardy: Vin Diesel had left after one film, Paul Walker after the second. Tokyo Drift was essentially a Hail Mary soft reboot with an all-new cast that transplanted the action to Tokyo, and swapped street races for suitably Japan-inspired drifting.
While the focus of this blog is, and will remain, on Japanese cinema, my tastes are eclectic. I love all kinds of movies, and sometimes, I’ll feature them here if they have some suitable hook – maybe they’re set in Japan, or from a Japanese director working on a foreign production, or it’s a remake of a Japanese movie. In the case of Tokyo Drift, I’m using the location and a scenery-chewing appearance by Sonny Chiba as an excuse.
In Tokyo Drift, teenage Sean Boswell (played by an improbable Lucas Black, who at the time of production would have been 24, and already looked far too old to pass as 17) gets in trouble in the States for his street racing and is sent to live with his estranged father, a US Navy officer based in Tokyo. In short order he gets involved with the local racing subculture which conveniently hinges around drifting cars, in multi-story parking lots, on expressways, and on mountain tops, Initial D-style. The whole thing has a very Hackers vibe: young Sean is arrested for a crime related to his racing/hacking, moves to a new location (again), is told by his parent that he must not touch cars/computers and they freak out when they think he has. He even gets romantically entangled with a girl in the drift/hacking scene and her douche boyfriend, except this time, the boyfriend is D.K. (Brian Tee) aka ‘the Drift King’, the champ of the local scene and the nephew of a yakuza boss (Sonny Chiba), which gives him some clout.
I actually love how the yakuza arc plays out in this. When DK is first introduced, Twink (Shad Moss, but then, Lil’ Bow Wow) warns Sean off, saying he’s yakuza and not to be messed with – but Han (Sung Kang, who goes on to become a Fast & Furious mainstay) says DK is just ‘playing’ at being a gangster, holed up in the backroom of his uncle’s pachinko parlour. It’s a great way of keeping the stakes relatively low and avoiding falling into too many ‘it’s Japan, of course he’s a bad guy in the yakuza!’ tropes. Not that the movie doesn’t try to cram as much ‘Japan!’ in as possible, from Sean and Neela (Nathalie Kelley) going on a date at a rest stop stocked with vending machines to the truly absurd capsule hotel pods in the drift team’s garage.
Despite those occasionally ham-fisted attempts to shoehorn in ‘we’re in Tokyo!’ visuals, some aspects of the movie, when it deals with life for foreigners in Japan, are admirably subtle. I’m not sure how likely it is that Sean would be sent to a Japanese-language high school instead of one of the many schools aimed at the children of expats, but other details are great. His father has clearly been trying to assimilate, though the degree to which you might find that successful depends on whether you assume the woman leaving his apartment was his date or a call girl. At one point he somewhat cryptically tells Sean that the Japanese have a proverb: the nail that sticks up will be hammered down. In other words, standing out from the crowd causes trouble in Japan, and he wants his son to blend in.
Blending in as a non-Japanese is almost impossible, though; despite large populations of Ainu (native to Japan) and Zainichi Koreans (Koreans brought to Japan before and during WW2, mainly as labour, many of whom still hold Korean passports), as well as growing numbers of immigrants in general, Japan still perceives itself as largely homogeneous. Neela explains that ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) can refer to her, too, even though she was born in Japan to an Australian mother. A lot of non-Japanese living in Japan find ‘gaijin’ offensive and prefer ‘gaikokujin’, which is at least slightly more formal, if the word is to be used at all; I found it doesn’t bother me per se but, much like a lot of the Japanese language, it’s all about tone and intent: there’s a world of difference between someone using it carelessly (because it’s a common word) and using it as an insult.
The main attraction for the movie is surely the cars and the drifting, and it doesn’t disappoint – though frankly I’ve seen pro and amateur drifters pull off more spectacular feats. This was 2006, though, and outside of Initial D and Need for Speed videogames I’m not sure how widely known drifting was to non-enthusiasts. As a first introduction, the movie isn’t half bad. The cars include a plethora of JDM models – DK’s Nissan 350Z being my personal favourite because I’ve always had a soft spot for the Fairlady line, but the old Mustang – Chekhov’s Mustang – belonging to Sean’s father is a close second.
The drifting in Tokyo Drift is fine – but the internet is full of more spectacular driving, like this Hoonigan production
Of course, the film ends with a cameo (spoiler) by one Vin Diesel, returning as Dom from the original movie. Allegedly, he made the appearance for free, in return for the rights to his pet project Riddick character. He and director Justin Lin and an exponentially-expanding cast would go on to make several more Fast and Furious movies, and now in 2017, the eighth, The Fate of the Furious, is on the way with at least two more on the horizon. I always felt it was kind of a shame we never got a ‘Tokyo Drift 2’, as I grew rather attached to Sean Boswell and his Alabama drawl, not to mention Lil’ Bow Wow et al. While Lucas Black is attached to the next two films it doesn’t look like they’ll be returning to Tokyo any time soon, so this might be the franchise’s last appearance on this blog – but given its globe-trotting ways, we’ll see.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift / ワイルド・スピードX3 TOKYO DRIFT
Director: Justin Lin
US Release Date: 16th June 2006 / Japanese Release Date: 16th September 2006
Version Watched: 104 min