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Tokyo cool is fast, furious and tres chic

When all else fails, action franchise turns to Japan to revive its cool. By Paige Ferrari

“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” follows a plot familiar to fans of the series: boy meets car, boy meets hot girl leaning on car, other cars go fast, boy’s car goes faster. (And, in this installment, drifts.)  The original  “Fast and the Furious” struck gold by capitalizing on the growing popularity of street-racing and the then-modest celebrity of Vin Diesel. The sequel threw in Paul Walker and Tyrese, and teenage boys everywhere lined up to hear multimillion tires squeal.  Now, “Tokyo Drift” combines Americans’ demonstrated lust for speed with a trend of equal staying power and box office pull: the indisputable coolness of all things Japanese. 

It wasn’t too long ago that Japanese presence in American popular culture was limited to “Speed Racer,” black-and-white samurai movies in art houses, and anime women gazing seductively from 15 year olds’ skateboards. Over the past few years, however,  more and more Japanese imports have captured a major American audience.

“Takeshi’s Castle,” a sadistic game show with hilariously torturous challenges, has become a cult hit. The Food Network’s “Iron Chef” is so popular that it endures, years after the original Japanese show has been canceled. (Viewers of the original show can attest: if there is anything cooler than Japanese, it is poorly dubbed Japanese.)

The 32nd Annual American Music Awards - Show
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Singer Gwen Stefani performs on stage during the 32nd Annual \"American Music Awards\" at the Shrine Auditorium November 14, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Gwen StefaniFrank Micelotta / Getty Images North America

Tokyo was also the backdrop for “Lost in Translation,” and host to a bulk of the butt kicking in “Kill Bill 1.” Now Gwen Stefani is pretending she’s Japanese, aping the colorful teenage fashions and peppering her new album with shout-outs to her Harajuku girls. Can anyone doubt that Japan has become a pop-culture mainstay? And why shouldn’t it be? It’s not hard to see why American and Japanese pop culture get along so famously.

They love us
Let’s face it — we will never fully embrace the beret until the French stop calling us fat, loud and obnoxious. Americans enjoy the idea that, even if only relative to the rest of the world,  Japan thinks we’re pretty cool.

Years ago, I traveled as an exchange student to Japan. I was thrilled to receive not only a great deal of warmth and hospitality, but to find that my native culture was lovingly splashed all over Tokyo. There was Harrison Ford doing a beer commercial. There was Leonardo DiCaprio on a billboard for tires. Friends of mine, who traveled to Europe or South America, struggled to navigate their new pop-culture landscape, but I had “Full House” re-runs and T-shirts emblazoned with nonsensical English sentences like “flagship candle bear parade!” to make me feel at home.

During these tumultuous times, when Americans abroad are advised to “act Canadian,” isn’t it nice to know that there’s still someplace in the world where it loses you street cred? A place where no one else is watching World Cup and there’s a McDonald’s on every corner? The Japanese can’t seem to get enough of us, so it seems downright natural to return the favor.

Very cool stuff
Ever since the ’70s, Japan has been the leader in making cool technological toys. Who doesn’t love shiny metal objects that go fast, play loud music, or blow up on command?

“The Fast and the Furious,” of course, plays to our high tech fetish with the souped-up Japanese cars featured in the movie’s previews. For the majority of the movie’s trailer, ridiculously fast super-vehicles whiz by in a neon streak while people on the sidelines scream things like, “whoa!”

American bikes like Harley Davidsons and cars like your dad’s Cadillac represent all that is American — big, loud and gas guzzling. Japanese sport bikes and race cars are, on the other hand, lean, fast and shiny. They look like the future. Whether it’s the bikes, the cars, high-definition flat-screen TVs, or talking toilets that warm on your command and tell you your blood type, we gobble up Japanese technology and are endlessly intrigued by the world of sleek automated comfort it represents.

Let me first state that I would never endorse any sort of objectification of women. I simply think it’s worth mentioning that Japan, a nation where all teenagers are required to dress in school uniform, has provided some pretty substantial material for dirty American minds.

Japanese teenagers are very skilled when it comes to transforming school clothing into avant-garde fashion. Harajuku, one of the hippest parts of Tokyo, is otherwise known as “the place to dress up or dress down your school required duds, so that they become nearly indistinguishable.” Rip your skirt, dye your socks, insert safety pins everywhere, bedazzle your shoes with freaky designs, spray paint everything orange. Anything goes. Needless to say, few teenage girls are letting down the hems of their skirts or adding extra buttons. 

The appeal of this one is a no-brainer: One need look no further than the legacy of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video to see that Americans, and especially those of the male persuasion, have a healthy appreciation for any individual or society adept at transforming juvenile fashions into the stuff that gets you 10 to 15 years in a striped suit. 

In movies like “The Fast and the Furious 3,” Japan is personified a bit like “Gogo” the lovably psychotic schoolgirl from “Kill Bill” — a cute giggling teenager wielding a lethal mace. American audiences love the idea that, beneath its shiny landscape of karaoke parlors and Hello Kitty lunch pails, there really is a sinister Japanese underworld like the one portrayed in “Tokyo Drift.” We love to imagine that a culture, so often stereotyped for either its cartoon offerings or rigid adherence to social protocol is, in fact, a gritty world of unbelievable vice.

We don’t really know the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, but we imagine that they make Tony Soprano and his cadre of New Jersey goombahs look like criminal dinosaurs. Whether or not it’s true, movies like “The Fast and the Furious” let us peer inside this fantasy, while retaining all the cinematic accoutrement American audiences have come to expect: speed, women, troubled bad-boy heroes, a battle between good and evil, and lots and lots of crashes.

Japan is certifiably cool. If “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” is any indication, it will continue to hold cool-kid status in America’s popular imagination for a long time to come.

Perhaps Americans can even sit back, relax, and enjoy the hegemony of pigtailed schoolgirls, fast cars, and raw fish.  After years of taking over the world one burger at a time, aren’t we due for a break?