The Importance of ‘The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift’ Memes

By  · Published on April 13th, 2017

Can he drive… a franchise to a greater and greater embrace of multiculturalism?

The soundtracks of the Fast and Furious movies (or however you’d like to denote the inconsistently-named series) are second in importance only to the stunts. The latest, The Fate of the Furious, opens in Havana, Cuba to the song “Hey Ma” by J Balvin and Pitbull (featuring singer Camila Cabello). That is, a pop song performed by a Colombian and two Cubans, a delicious continuation of multicultural musical tradition for the series. Furious 7 slightly eschewed tradition with its all-American tearjerker hit “See You Again,” but as a tribute to the late Paul Walker, its roots are part of its respectful appeal.

However, despite that song’s ability to reduce even the most hardened Toretto into a blubbering Roman when the road divides down two irreconcilable paths, I’d argue that the most important song of the series is the one that’s had the most longevity online. Yes, I mean Teriyaki Boyz’s “Tokyo Drift” from a film whose name I bet you can guess.

The instantly recognizable electronic steel drums and breathy beats drive a song with endearingly on-the-nose lyrics. This and its catchiness are the only things shared by the song and the series’ usually Pitbull-packed soundtracks. It’s got a different breed of simple joy, a J-Pop pleasure that radiates from the rappers as they switch between Japanese and English. The chorus is an embodiment of the F&F characters and their simple yet progressive view of world culture:

I wonder if you know

How we do in Tokyo?

If you see it, then you mean it

Then you know you have to go

Fast and Furious (Drift, Drift, Drift)

These Americans in Dom’s crew don’t know anything about the world. They know about cars. And crime. And girls. But they’re certainly willing to learn. How do you think a couple of street racers basically evolved into an intelligence organization rivalling that run in the Mission: Impossible films? If the lyrics themselves didn’t explain the situation for us, the scene it’s often juxtaposed with in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift solves that problem. Twinkie (Bow Wow) introduces Sean (Lucas Black) to the world of Tokyo street racing. “Can he drive?” Black twangs out in his most corn-fed accent. “You know what DK stands for?” Bow Wow responds. After Black’s incorrect answer (it’s obviously “Drift King”), the elevator they’re riding in dings and the doors open to the wonderful world of drift racing – and the Teriyaki Boyz.

That film is from over a decade ago. Yet, that scene (and song) still pops up in meme videos all over the internet today. Though the song and elevator scene appear separately in the film (as seen below in the original clip), fans, remixers, and I agree that they fit perfectly together.

That seems pretty normal, right? Nothing to get obsessed over. But the internet has put that scene’s structure behind kids doing tricks in wheelchairs, Mr. Bean crashing a car, and even pastries on a conveyor belt. People riding jackhammers and tiny scooters, kids in toy cars, everyone is at the mercy of Sean’s question: can they drive? Even Japanese game show contestants drift to the iconic intro.

Why did this scene stick? Is it the goofy face Black makes as the elevator opens and he watches the cars drift by, seeing both the action and vehicles presumably for the first time? Is it the earworm of a song that has become the musical definition of “drift”? Viewed through the fervor created by the new rumor that Han (Sung Kang, undisputed star of Tokyo Drift) will return for the ninth Fast and Furious movie, the internet’s obsession with the song, the clip, and the concept of “drifting” shows the kind of cultural fascination the Fast films can generate with their globetrotting premises and diverse casts.

Certainly the joke video is the basest way of engaging with another culture, but in today’s often governmentally-mandated xenophobia, this is a necessary fascination. Their popularity means the Fast films should continue to be bastions of multinationalism – something that studios often balk from unless the film is co-produced by the nation providing the star, locale, or culture. Or, sometimes, they just cast Matt Damon.

Even if we’re laughing with the different ways we can proliferate the “objects sliding sideways” thing, we’re also – thanks to one of the most successful American movie franchises still running – embracing an unfamiliar subculture within an entirely foreign space. The gang continues to turn up in Russia, Cuba, and different European countries as the series goes on, but this meme makes the case for another Fast and Furious entirely abroad. The racing set pieces in Cuba and Russia are the two best in the new film, so what if it was all set in, say, Nairobi? Make another song, movie, and international hero for people worldwide to enjoy, because if “Tokyo Drift” should make them learn anything, it’s that these ventures have a long shelf life. To that end, if I may quote Pitbull, I say “dale!”

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).