The United States is notorious for its racial discrimination of ethnic minorities’ traditions. While intellectuals of the country attempt to bring attention to these issues, mass media continues to reinforce racial stereotypes. Ethnic minorities do not inhibit the United States evenly. As for Asian Americans, they live mostly along the coasts, being concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, and Hawaii. Whereas people living in these areas can adjust the stereotypes that they pick up from mass media to real people they see in their everyday lives. The residents of the Midwest and Southern America have rarer opportunities to meet Asian Americans and accept the mainstream representation of Asian Americans at face value. However, the issues of racial-ethnic stereotypes have more attention from scholars, and the general public becomes more aware of the problem, so there is a prevailing hope that soon the situation will begin to change. For example, the third film of The Fast and Furious franchise was shot by the director of Asian origin Justin Lin. The fact that Tokyo was chosen as the major location for the film, and that the director was Taiwanese-American, who must have been well aware of the problem of racial stereotyping, could signify for the audience that The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift would be celebrating multiculturality or at least would be free of the most blatant racial banalities. Those were vain hopes. The director did not want to blow up his chance to participate in a mainstream production and did not exercise his power to go against Hollywood producers, thus sending a message that Asian Americans need to comply with the rules if they want to stay in the show business. Even though The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift presents the multicultural generation, it still reinforces the myth of stereotypical Asians. The story revolves around cardboard personalities of a tough white guy and his opponent – a “cunning villain” Asian guy supported by an equally stereotypical image of a mixed-race beauty and a good Asian guy.
Even though stereotypes are important in some way for human mind because they help the brain process new information, people should not rely on them too heavily. In the case of ethnic-racial stereotypes, they misrepresent minorities, affect social relations, and preserve the existing situation of racial prejudice and racism. According to the cultivation theory, people see what they had defined beforehand and not vice versa. Under the influence of the mass media, people come to believe that what they see is reality (Zhang 20). Therefore, when they meet representatives of ethnic-racial minorities, they do not find time to get to know them better because they already have preconceived notions about people “like them.”
In this regard, despite its superficial multiculturality, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift checks all the major stereotypes about Asian Americans. Reckless daredevil Sean comes to Tokyo to avoid imprisonment for racing on a construction site involving the destruction of a semi-built house. As a white protagonist, he is confronted by a Japanese man, Takashi, stereotypically portrayed as a “cunning villain” (Zhang 21). Even though Takashi does not demonstrate martial arts, which is the most common representation of Asian men, he is depicted as aggressive and blatantly negative. Together with his uncle, he is a part of Yakuza, Japanese mafia. Therefore, he runs a shady business, is surrounded by skimpy dressed girls, and occasionally brandishes a gun. In the scene of the initial confrontation under examination, Takashi is shown as yellow peril, an aggressive macho eager to eliminate the white protagonist. Takashi is first to approach Sean upon seeing him talking to his girlfriend. Making implicit threats without valid reasons, Takashi’s portrayal encourages the audience to side with the white-skinned Sean, who in contrast is rather placid, apart from his compulsive racing.
Other elements of the film are also aimed at showing the White supremacy in the person of Sean. According to the film’s logics, Takashi’s girlfriend Neela of mixed ethnic origin is wrongly paired with a Japanese man. Making Takashi’s image flat and purely negative Asian/Mixed ethnic origin pairing is shown invalid in favor of the white hero. This complies with the existing tradition of the White domination to pair with ‘exotic’ beauties only white protagonists. Whereas Neela has a long history of relations with Takashi having known him from her childhood, she is instantly drawn to Sean as soon as she sees him. This gives the audience an impulse to “legitimize anti-Asian mentality” and builds unconsciously negative or disparaging attitudes toward Asian Americans (Zhang 23).
However, the stereotypes about Asian Americans “exist within a dialectic” (Zhang 24). On one end of the continuum, there is yellow peril, a villain, or a mobster, while on the other end, there is the model minority and an absolutely positive character that seems to refute all accusations of racial discrimination. Nevertheless, scholars insist that one stereotype feeds the other, and they both “help to maintain the White supremacy” (Zhang 24). In Tokyo Drift, behind Takashi’s shoulder, the audience sees Han who is not aggressive and vicious as well as is ready to help the white guy. On the one hand, Han’s image can counterbalance the negativity of Takashi and claim to create if not a multidimensional portrayal of Asian men, then at least a little more complex. On the other hand, the makers of the film decide to kill Han, and again the white guy is left with the Asian villain one on one.
Moreover, the image of Han initiates the yellowface discourse, because the actor who plays Japanese Han is Korean American. It is a case of implicit yellowface when “Asian and Asian American actors play ethic groups other than those they themselves know most intimately” (Ono and Pham 54). Whereas this fact has no visible effect for the white audience simply because they may not know about the ethnicity of the actor playing Han, the Asian audience is quick to understand his origin, and it has a detrimental effect on them as it signals that their authenticity and complexities are not important. Besides, it highlights the fact that for the American audience all Asians “All Seems Identical, Alike, No different” (Ono and Pham 55). Thus, both implicit yellowface and downright stereotypical portrayal of Japanese men in Tokyo Drift downplay cultural identities and reinforce the White domination.
The noticed ambivalence in the film is logical. On the one hand, Americans are drawn to the Asian culture. In the case of Tokyo, it is a beautiful city with beautiful people and rich traditions. On the other hand, white people are interested in maintaining the status quo because if the racial imbalance is corrected, white people will have to share their wealth and resources. Not having enough knowledge to properly show other cultures, the mainstream media chooses to show the simplified versions of Asianness responding to the expectations of the whites, rather than making an authentic display. In their book Asian Americans and the Media, Kent A. Ono and Vincent N. Pham explain the yellowface logics and stereotypical portrayals as “depend[ing] fundamentally on an oscillation or fluctuation, if you will, between a kind of racial love on the one hand and a racial hatred on the other” (Ono and Pham 58). On the one hand, films representing Asians and Asian Americans signal that the United States is multicultural and is attentive to all minorities; on the other hand, this representation is false and misleading and, therefore, does more harm than good.
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Furthermore, such stereotypical and yellowface portrayals of Asian men reveal what non-Asians think of Asians. However, it is not what Asians think of themselves. Even if Asian Americans now are 8%, they are rarely involved in mainstream film and TV industries and allowed self-representation (Zhang 21). In the case of Tokyo Drift, it would reveal what Americans think of the Japanese. Conversely, as the director is Taiwanese American, it reveals that Asian Americans are not independent enough to dictate their own conditions.
If one would say that The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is not a film with a deep meaning, so there is no point to search truthful representations of ethnic groups, the refutations can be as follows. Even in superficial and shallow films such one-dimensional portrayals reinforce the existing stereotypes about Asians that, in turn, denigrate Asian Americans and remind them that they are excluded from the American social life. While the film could have appealed to young people of Asian American and African-American origin, the false and stereotypical depiction of the main characters reinforced the white supremacy.