Drama & Film Review: Densha Otoko / Train Man (Fuji TV, 2005)
Beauty and the Geek
by Ender’s Girl
The Cast (drama):
Ito Misaki, Ito Atsushi, Shiraishi Miho, Toyohara Kosuke, Horikita Maki, Oguri Shun (hehe)
The Cast (film):
Yamada Takayuki, Nakatani Miki, Kuninaka Ryoko, Eita (hehe)
Directed by Murakami Shosuke; Adapted screenplay by Kaneko Arisa / Toho Company, 2005
In a Nutshell:
Guy meets Girl on a train. (Except that our Guy is your Ultimate Akiba Geek — a bespectacled, backpack-lugging, action figure-collecting, Tokyo Anime Center habitué who lives in his tiny cubicle of a room and has never scored a date in his life, while our Girl is a 6-foot-tall, Benoist tea-drinking, angel-faced goddess who was raised in luxury and is more or less genetically predisposed to being, oh, PERFECT. DOES OUR HERO HAVE A SHOT IN HELL????)
(SpoilLert: Very! But it doesn’t matter because anyone who’s ever been online knows this fairy tale by heart–and how it ends.)
[Recommended companion track: What else? “Twilight” by the Electric Light Orchestra]
“I Choo-Choo-Choose You!”
– Valentine’s Day card given by Lisa Simpson to Ralph Wiggum, The Simpsons Season 4
Otaku of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Evangelion action figures, Nintendo joysticks, and Pokemon hand puppets! Hahahahaha
But seriously, never before has the geek counterculture enjoyed so much social acceptability as it does now. The Information/Technology Age IS the Age of the SuperGeek: Geek chic is the new cool, nerdishness is practically mainstream. Oh, the old stereotypes are still there — the gadgetry and gizmos and the gawkiness and the geekspeak esoterica and a hundred-and-one other oddities, and they aren’t really expected to go away anytime soon in media and pop culture. But with society’s growing dependence on technology and all its fringe benefits, and with a thriving film and TV drama niche dedicated to advancing the Cause of the Nerd (and the Revenge of the Otaku!), comes this one inescapable truth: “Blessed are the geeks, for they shall inherit the earth.”
But first, to disambiguate: The term “otaku” is probably closer in meaning to “geek” than to “nerd.” Although both terms connote a conspicuous lack of social skills, geeks are distinguished by their “eccentric devotion to a particular interest,” while nerds are usually perceived to be “intelligent, single-minded experts in a particular technical discipline” (Oxford Dictionary of English). But the otaku spectrum is an eclectic one, and anywhere within its ambit you will find the audio/videophiles, gamers and techies, manga/anime junkies, cosplay enthusiasts, “technosexuals” and “infornographers,” seiyuu groupies, mecha collectors, maid café regulars… and maybe an actual Trekkie or two. But for the most part, geekhood is mostly a harmless, if rather arcane calling. Geek extremism, however, is never pretty: on the fringe of the fringe you have the otaku as sociopathic killer (take the 1989 Miyazaki Tsutomu kidnap/murder case for instance, or even the more recent Akihabara Massacre), as well as the crazies who actually marry video game characters in webcast ceremonies officiated by actual freakin’ priests, ugh.
Come On, Mister Train Man, Do the Locomotion!
Enter Densha Otoko or the Train Man himself (Ito Atsushi), well ensconced in the happy medium of the geekhood bell curve. An Otaku’s Otaku for all intents and purposes, he bears the indispensable trappings of Geek Pride: the glasses and the heavy backpack, the checkered shirts and high-waist pants, the shuffling gait and poor eye contact, the obsession with an anime super-heroine who wears skimpy clothing (natch!) and has giant carrot missiles growing out of her bum (natch!), the zero social life apart from his equally geekazoid friends, the compulsive side trips to the Akihabara district aka the Otaku Mother Ship, the cache of robot action figures lovingly encased in bulletproof (lol) cabinets in his little garret of a room, the fanboy obsession with voice actresses, the netizen lifestyle, etc. etc…
As Densha, Ito Atsushi reminds me of MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman crossed with Stephen Hawking (now there’s an otaku of… cosmic proportions, lol) crossed with that pig-man hybrid from the drama Saiyuuki… oh wait, Ito Atsushi WAS the pig-man hybrid from the drama Saiyuuki, lol. But really — you can’t find a more fitting actor for the part; it’s as if he was born for this role. Admittedly, all that stuttering and stammering and quaking in his scuffed-up loafers was grating at first — borderline pestilential, even. But what won me over was Densha’s (neurotic, but well-meaning) earnestness — and really, his basic decency. The whole drama, the whole story is really this tortuous, hysterically awkward courtship dance between two impossibly suited individuals, but bear in mind that the clincher — the decisive point where our Hero wins his Ladylove’s heart — probably happened at the very beginning, when a mousy-looking geek stood up to a belligerent drunk. What happened was a case of “You had me at ‘P-p-please leave her a-a-alone,’” lol. If anything, our story proves that true grit and gallantry can come in different packages, some more unlikely than others, ne? Chivalry is not dead, people, it lives on in our blighted world… and sometimes, it roams the streets of Akihabara buying giant robot action figures…
In the movie version (also released in the same year), it’s Yamada Takayuki who plays the part of Train Man — albeit a noticeably more toned-down version, someone who’s actually… normal, and less of a cliché. He’s also much more withdrawn and wrapped up in his emotional isolation, that the daily struggle of facing society has become a painful ordeal. Whereas in the dorama, the character of Densha actually has friends in the real world — it’s just that they’re equally geeky, but at least he has some semblance of a support system, and finds a regular outlet for his weird idées fixes in their seiyuu fan meets and Akiba-kei group excursions. Plus, the dorama Densha has his family to interact with, albeit a mildly dysfunctional one — with an absentee mom, a dork of a dad, and a precocious but normal younger sister (Horikita Maki) who obviously just can’t wait to turn legal and disown her entire bloodline, lol. (And it came as a mild surprise that I actually found Maki adorable on Densha Otoko — I thought she gave exactly what was required of her character, and didn’t annoy me at all.) Another difference lies in the movie and dorama Denshas’ respective “brands” of otakuness: the movie Densha’s specialization veers more towards technogeekery in contrast to the dorama Densha, who is more of an obsessive anime action figure-collecting fiend. But interestingly enough, these different takes on Densha Otoko suit their respective mediums: Yamada Takayuki is ideal for the film version, which is tonally more subdued and the comedic touches more scaled-back, just as Ito Atsushi’s more stereotypical portrayal is in perfect accord with the drama’s frequent forays into manic absurdity.
Admittedly, at first I thought Yamada Takayuki waaay too cute to be playing an introverted social klutz, but then I also realized that geekhood is a frame of mind more than anything. (But believe me, if I ever bumped into an otaku who looked like Yamada Takayuki, I’d waste no time… downloading him to my hard drive, lol. And Yamada Takayuki never stopped being cute in the film so that every scene of his had me yelling, “YAMADA!!!!”–just like Densha’s friend Jinkama (Shiraishi Miho) would on the drama version, haha.) Despite his obvious physical attractiveness, Yamada Takayuki delivers the geek with enough believability, for such is his amazing gift. (Watch out for his face in the scene where he visits Hermès-san at home, and he’s sitting nervously on her couch and something she says makes him nibble frantically on the sugar cubes — LMAO!!!!!) My only gripe would be the film Densha’s post-makeover styling and wardrobe: Yamada Takayuki looks too… consistently polished and fashionable, his trendy haircut too well maintained, to convince me that this geek had never experienced a single makeover since birth. You don’t just grow a fashion sense overnight, so it would have worked better if the film had shown Densha 2.0 still struggling with his newfound (or newly foisted, lol) sophistication, instead of going around looking and dressing like a freaking yuppie in every scene following his great makeover.
The Geeks Get the Girls, or Love on the Orient Express
To paraphrase the tag line from Notting Hill: “Can the most beautiful woman in the world fall for the geek on the street?”
The drama and the film’s dissimilarities do not end with Densha: Even the character of Aoyama Saori, to be known affectionately as Hermès-san, is portrayed very differently by Ito Misaki (drama) and Nakatani Miki (film). The stunning Ito Misaki is the very stuff of otaku fantasy: model-slim and ethereal, graceful and gracious, a flawless vision that seems too good to be true. You take one look at her then you look at Ito Atsushi’s Densha, and think that the likelihood of these two ever ending up together would be slimmer than Galadriel falling in love with a hobbit. Nakatani Miki in the film version is lovely but in a more understated way, and this actually makes her character seem more attainable. Hermès-san and Densha’s physical disparities — in height, looks, styling — are less pronounced in the film than on the drama, a tack that lends itself well to the whole tenor of the film. But then the time constraints of the film don’t really allow the character of Hermès to be as well-rounded as she is on the drama, and don’t afford her the same emotional baggage and love inhibitions as the dorama Hermès. What is she thinking, how does she deal with her growing affection towards the diffident geek who’s obviously so into her, and how does she come to grips with his oddness? These questions don’t get answered in the film, so we’re left with a Hermès-san who is little more than a pleasant two-dimensional figure and whose eventual capitulation to Densha’s gauche but sincere romantic overtures can ring a bit hollow. And it doesn’t help that the writing uses a rather unconvincing Major!Conflict! to spark off their “breakup” — when a glitch in the Matrix on the day of their Big Date prompts Densha to slip into a net café to SOS his virtual friends, completely forgetting that he’s left Hermès-san outside. The conflict just doesn’t feel major enough, making the film’s eventual resolution on the streets of Akihabara seem rather… railroaded, lol.
The dorama, on the other hand, fully explores the relationship issues vis-à-vis Beauty-and-the-Geek couplings. The first major conflict on the drama (after the initial pre-date jitters and Densha’s tearful seaside admission that what he really surfs is the Internet, and not that icky blue-green stuff they call “the ocean” lol) is the inevitable unmasking of Densha’s true otaku nature. But the twist is that it’s not the geekhood that’s the turn-off for Hermès-san, but rather Densha’s lying about it. It felt too convenient at times (at least, for jaded li’l me) that Hermès-san could be such an open-minded soul whose one deal-breaker was dishonesty — not the giant robots, or the techno-fetish, or the Lunar Rabbit toys. (Mental note for geeks: a straight-shooting nerd has a better shot at love than a lying, cheating hottie!) At any rate, it was indeed touching (and inspiring, for the nerds of this world) to find Hermès-san so well-disposed to Densha’s true self. Because you DON’T want Densha to renounce his otaku identity, which comes to him as naturally as breathing. A few tips on social graces and better fashion sense won’t hurt — because they do help in bolstering one’s esteem — but you still want Densha to be a WYSIWYG kind of geek, and not another sellout who turned mainstream because he couldn’t buck the system. (The scene where Densha tries to get rid of all his geek stuff — oh, you can just feel his little otaku heart breaking in two.) And besides, anyone who can’t love another person for who they are, warts, Metal Gear action figures and all, probably isn’t worth the effort to win them in the first place.
But irony of ironies, it turns out that the biggest obstacle threatening to… derail Train Man and Hermès-san’s shot at romantic bliss is the exposure of the thread itself, the very catalyst which — despite Densha’s many missteps — helped keep their love story on the right track. Not that I fault Hermès-san for feeling violated at first — how’d you like the intimate details of your fledgling romance to be laid bare for the entire cyber-world to see? Not to mention the (not-altogether-baseless) implication that Densha’s words and actions weren’t so spontaneous after all, and much of his behavior was actually coached by a bunch of faceless strangers taking a lurid interest in your private affairs. But, well, this was bound to be the last major roadblock of the story, anyway, and the only reason why this conflict gets resolved so smoothly and credibly is the fact that the thread people are portrayed as pretty decent fellas, every single one of them. The posts used on the drama are very… wholesome actually, no salacious comments or off-color jokes anywhere. Not very real-life-ish I know, but for purposes of the drama… it’s all gravy, baby.
Ah, yes, the thread community!
The drama comes peppered with all the usual geek/netizen clichés, and it parodies the Akiba-kei otaku culture more than the film ever does. But what keeps this drama from becoming a total farce is the treatment: the writers and directors render these freaks and geeks with great affection and understanding, and painstakingly imbue each netizen with his/her own distinct personality and back story. I love how the writing weaves the thread regulars’ little personal details into the narrative. Man, I love these netizens! Dare I say they were the best part of Densha Otoko? The Aladdin Channel users became real people to me, these little shipper geeks who found a Cause Worth Fighting For in Densha and Hermès-san and made it their own, and in so doing got to vicariously play out their own unfulfilled love aspirations. And there’s a certain “awwww” aspect to how it isn’t just Densha’s life that gets touched by the threadies, but it’s also the other way around. I found myself seriously caring about each of them, wishing they’d all find their happy endings one way or another… Hoping that the sad-faced, portly guy would patch things up with the missus, that the young misanthrope who never left his room would someday muster the courage to venture out into the real world, that the cynical basketball player would finally bounce back from his injury, and so on and so forth… I also had the most fun watching the thread community’s various reactions to Densha’s latest love mishaps, as well as their sincere (though sometimes hilariously misguided) efforts at dispensing nuggets of advice — seasoned with their distinct stamp of geekery, natch! (One of my favorite sequences is in Ep. 4 when the channel users give Densha a cyber crash course on Surfing 101, with the clueless Densha only too happy to comply. So funny!) And the direction very cleverly has the netizens verbalizing their thread posts in between voice-overs, a technique that lends itself well to the lively and engaging style of the drama.
In the film, the netizens are (understandably) rendered with more normalcy, and only a select few are really given ample coverage, so we only get to know those three manga café nerds, the nurse, the married couple going through a rough patch, and of course, the uber-talented Eita as the black-clad hater of mankind, lol. (ZOMG! Rats, foiled again! Eita, Eita, Eita, you have outwitted me once again with your preternatural ability to dissemble on-screen — whatever the role, drama, or movie. Eita you bloody chameleon, it took me 20 minutes to realize IT WAS YOU. Which, if I think about it, isn’t too shabby considering it took me all 12 episodes of Lunch Queen before I realized it. was. you, lol. Those 20 minutes on Densha Otoko? Piffle.) But both the drama and the film do have these charming little love sub-arcs that don’t grab too much attention, but are still very sweetly done and will have you rooting for: the estranged couple living under one roof with more to say in the thread than to each other (=> in the film), and the board administrator-cum-Shift_JIS artist (Oguri Shuuuuuun!!!) and his ex-ladylove, the one who programmed the chicken software thingy (=> in the dorama). Shun is the hot, hot, hot stuff, and each shot of him had me squeeing his name while clutching my Voltes V throw pillow, except that when his name came out of my mouth it sounded oddly strangulated, more like “Shhrrrnngngnkmmpf” than “Shun.” Odd, very odd indeed…
It was also very clever of the writing to cause the paths of the threadies to intersect from time to time — and usually in the most hilarious of circumstances — like the time they try out the Benoist tea on the same day and very nearly find each other out (LOL!!!), or the time (this is in the 2006 Special) when the famous Sir Otaku the Brave Rescues Yonder Damsel in Distress scene is unwittingly spoofed on the same train by a number of the Aladdin Channel users — with side-splitting repercussions (LMAO!!!!!). That scene alone (which I found myself replaying over and over again while laughing like a loon) is reason enough to watch the rather lackluster SP, which revisits some of the peripheral characters’ own stories while Densha’s epic saga is unfolding. (New material featuring the happy couple makes a token appearance in the opening and closing scenes. The focal point of the SP is Densha’s geeky friend who apparently has been going by the cyber-moniker “Guitar Man,” and whose “I look like a turtle, so I might as well act like one, because I am that desperate for laughs” shtick is the least funny thing in the drama/film/SP combined. That doofus of an actor just gives the world one more reason to keep poaching sea turtles, endangered as they are. Blerg.)
Another Worlds!Collide! moment worth mentioning is the longish sequence near the end of the drama, where the threadies rally behind Densha, who has gone incommunicado since Hermès-san found out about the thread. So the netizen nerds leave little “Come back, Densha! Ganbatte, Densha!” messages in and around Densha’s usual Akiba haunts — and in the only way they know how. The concatenation of shots from their different POVs, interspersed with shots of Densha literally bumping into them, and both parties as clueless as ever, is as hilarious as it is wonderfully built-up, with enough tension to keep you guessing when Densha will finally take notice of their ubiquitous messages. And there are also those surreal moments by the railroad tracks, though they’re given different treatments in the drama and film. (Corny or heartwarming — you be the judge.) But it’s touches like these that make something as impersonal as an Internet chat room really come alive for you.
There’s a special place in my heart for the two most hilarious supporting characters I’ve encountered in a long time, and who come very, very close to upstaging the lead actors with their spot-on portrayals: (1) “JINKAMA!!!” (lol) Shiraishi Miho nails the very essence of our favorite Serial Man-eater with Despotic Tendencies, the exact antipode of Hermès-san’s princessy sweetnesss… AHLUVZHER!!! DONCHAJUZLUVVHER?!?!? Lol. And the Star Wars “Imperial March” used as her BGM was a brilliant choice that underscored this power-hungry virago’s ultimate plans for world domination — one besotted (but loaded!) fool at a time. LOL! (2) And as Hermès-san’s restaurateur friend Sakurai, Toyohara Kosuke has elevated the part of the “Second Fiddle as Comic Relief” to a freakin’ art form. You can’t hate the poor chump for his elaborate, supposedly idiot-proof schemes to win Hermès-san’s heart, which always seem to backfire when executed in the real world. In fact, in the midst of all that insane amusement caused by his bungling, you actually feel sorry for Sakurai as each tactical gambit, each proposal ploy goes all fubar on him. Making things worse is that Hermès-san always misconstrues Sakurai’s actions as encouragement of her relationship with Densha, one spurred by “brotherly affection” => LOL, oh Hermès-san, if you only knew. And Sakurai’s face every single time Hermès-san warmly thanks him for his “help” => LMAO!!!!! What makes Sakurai a tragically comic (or comically tragic?) Second Fiddle is the fact that he really is a decent guy — who just happens to have this ONE crazy/evil button that keeps getting pushed the more deeply he falls for Hermès-san… although the only thing he falls into is his own self-dug grave, lol. (K-drama crossover! — Sakurai reminds me of Billy Park (Kim Sung-min) on the 2006 MBC rom-com Fantasy Couple, the ex-hubby who tries vainly to win Han Ye-seul back from Oh Ji-ho. So funny, both guys!)
One of my favorite Sakurai moments is the time he poses as the Train Man on the message boards — one of his many pathetic little ruses to break up Densha and Hermès-san. But it turns out that the joke is on him, as he just gets ignored, then later flamed all the way to Alpha Centauri by the entire thread community. => LMAO!!! That being said, however, it just seems way too coincidental that so many people with personal connections to Hermès and/or Densha (Sakurai, Jinkama, Hermès’ younger brother Night-o — er, Keisuke, and the two nerd friends) serendipitously discover the Aladdin Channel, and so by keeping tabs on Densha’s LoveQuest they get to play a bigger role in his story. This tack sure makes for a more dramatic climax (Keisuke outs the thread — and Densha — to his Oneechan! Oneechan feels betrayed!), which would obviously lead to a more touching finale (Hermès-san gets to read the thread and has a change of heart!). So plot-wise, I guess it works after all.
But all good things reach their final stop after a rollercoaster (train) ride. When Densha and Hermès-san kiss and make up and their unequivocal Happy Ending is assured, the thread instantly becomes irrelevant to Densha’s life, and to the story. It was bound to happen, anyway. For the thread to die a natural death (i.e. members gradually wandering off, having lost interest — or starting a new topic for discussion and debate) would have been more realistic (but less cinematic) than how the drama portrayed it, which was to have the board admin (Shun!!!! ngnnfjdsdrrgh) decide to end things at the 1,000th post mark — or as soon as the Densha-Hermès proposal daisakusen (lol) project was deemed a success. But you don’t really mind the emotional manipulation in the board’s touching “graduation ceremony” for their beloved Train Man, and also his equally tearful valediction. Because by the end of this drama, you’re practically a thread member yourself, albeit in lurker mode.
Quo Vadis, Train Man?
The cynical little part of you still clings to doubts about Densha and Hermès-san’s Happily Ever After: is such a thing really attainable 3, 5, 10 years down the road? When the romantic afterglow has dimmed and the novelty of having this homely little dweeb (but with a good heart!) for a boyfriend has started to wear off, what then? What now? Will Densha’s geek insecurities come bubbling to the surface whenever a cute new colleague works at Hermès’ office? And will Hermès eventually get fed up with her man’s nocturnal foraging sessions in Akihabara, or become resentful of all those Lunar Rabbit Weapon Mina posters and figurines clogging up their bedroom? (It is hard to compete with an idealized anime version of Barbie in weird skimpy clothing, isn’t it, while normal human you can’t seem to shake off the excess poundage with each baby that gets born.) You realize that this Happy Ending, with Densha and Hermès-san riding off into the sunset aboard their faithful (iron) horse while the Aladdin users send them off with their blessings, is really just the beginning. But this time, it ain’t no fairy tale anymore.
An even bigger, more cynical part of you suspects that the Train Man Saga as narrated by the eponymous forum member was probably nothing more than the fabrication of some dweeb out there who managed to pull off the biggest cyber-hoax in history (lol) while “living” out his own romantic fantasies. We’re not even sure if Train Man really was a male in his early 20s, as he reportedly claimed he was. (For all we know, “Densha Otoko” could’ve been this 108-year old obaasan on Okinawa who happened to have Internet access and a very, very screwy sense of humor.) The original story seems too fantastical as well… too smooth, too neatly played out. (Maybe the Densha in question was a huge fan of the 2001 Korean hit movie My Sassy Girl? => i.e. train meeting + unattainable girl + plain but goodhearted hero = same basic formula, ne?) But the flip side of it all is the fact that truth IS sometimes stranger than fiction, and there really ARE people out there who are truly beautiful inside and out, so… who knows, right? The Ballad of Densha Otoko might actually be more deeply rooted in reality that we may think.
But veracity debates aside, the bottom line is this: Whether the events in question really happened or not is irrelevant. So long as you were touched and entertained by the Tale of Train Man and Hermès-san, so long as the story and the characters feel real to you, and can stand apart from the source material–then that’s all that matters. More than being a love story between Train Man and Hermès-san, Densha Otoko is really a love story between the writers/directors and the otaku, geeks, nerds, dweebs, dorks, and nimrods of this world. This whole train ride is an ode to them, an ardent exhortation to: wear your weirdness like an honor badge, wave your (digitized) flags proudly, stay true to your freaky little selves, live long — and prosper. And yeah, inner beauty rocks. As drama or film, Densha Otoko may not have the sleekness of a Shinkansen or the on-your-edge thrill of a TGV ride, but it has an exuberant, offbeat charm all its own. This story of The Little Train Man That Could will chug into your heart and leave tracks… quite like no other.
Artistic & technical merit: B- (drama & film)
Entertainment value: B+ (drama) B- (film)
Overall: B (drama) B- (film)
Photo credits: animenewsnetwork.com, eugenewoodbury.blogspot.com, goddesscarlie.com, 133.tinypic.com, iamotaku.wordpress.com, jdorama.com, megaijin.squarespace.com, nanoda.com, uisceros.livejournal.com