Friday, November 21, 2008

REVIEW: Densha Otoko (Train Man) - Shosuke Murakami (2005)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

In the fall of 2004 a novel was released in Japan titled "Densha Otoko (Train Man)". Written by a 23-year-old otaku named Hitori Nakano it was apparently based on the true story of how he fell in love with a woman who he saved from a drunk on a commuter train. When the woman sent him a thank you gift of an expensive Hermès cup and saucer set he hoped that this indicated that she shared his feelings, but like a lot of otaku Nakano had nearly zero experience with the opposite sex, so he turned to the internet for advice. Starting up a thread in an online chatroom under the screen name "Densha Otoko" he was befriended by the other users who coached him through those first few difficult dates and in a love story tailor-made for the internet age the two became a couple.

It's the kind of story that renews your faith in true love, even though many have pointed out that Hitori Nakano is just a pen name for whoever ghost wrote the novel. With Japanese internet culture producing such new literary forms as blog and even cell phone novels it's easy to question the veracity of "Densha Otoko", but those doubts didn't stop the novel from becoming a bestseller. In short order the story was adapted into five different manga and a Fuji TV series starring Atsushi Itō as the lovelorn otaku and Misaki Ito as his damsel in distress. As a good friend who worked in the Japanese film industry for over a decade so succinectly put it, "First there's a manga, then a TV show and then a movie," and "Densha Otoko" follows this evolution perfectly. Come 2005 the execs at Toho had tagged television director Shosuke Murakami to helm a big screen version of the book, and (surprise, surprise) it became a huge hit, bringing in ¥3.7 billion at the Japanese box office.

Now, I have to be honest here. I avoided "Densha Otoko" for a long time. Yes, it was a huge pop culture phenomena and it's good to keep up on that kind of thing, but sitting through something that resembled a Japanese "terebi dorama" as opposed to a straight drama got me nervous. Eventually I caved in and caught a screening of it recently and I'm glad I did, and I'm especially glad I saw it with an audience.

The story plays out like the novel/ urban legend before it: Densha, played as one big stuttering and slouching mess by Takayuki Yamada, momentarily grows a spine and saves a demure and make-up free Miki Nakatani from a drunken commuter (yet another fantastic cameo by Ren Osugi). As rescuer and rescuee exchange addresses and phone numbers in the security office of the train station we can instantly see the spark behind Desnha's horn-rimmed glasses ignite. From this point on, as Densha turns to an oddball group of online chatters that include a nurse with a broken heart, a hikikomori, an estranged married couple and three otaku who are geekier than Densha (if that's possible), I found myself trying desperately not to like "Densha Otoko". Okay, call me a snob, but the serious cinephile in me felt like I'd seen all this before: the makeover scene where Densha goes from geek to GQ, the list of things to say on a date he has programmed into his cellphone, the falling in love montage... it's all been done to death, but damn it if Murakami and screenwriter Arisa Kaneko didn't make it very charming and very funny. The audience I saw it with spent good portions of the film in fits of laughter. The use of Densha's online posse brought especially effective comic relief, plus a unique way to cinematically give voice to those critical voices that pop into so many of our heads when we just think that that pretty girl or boy will never, ever have anything to do with us.

Of course the pretty girl does have something to do with Densha, but as the two made their feeling more explicit to each other I went from trying not to like "Densha Otoko" to trying my best to keep liking it, but that's hard when Nakatani's character turns into the pretty and ultra-understanding female cipher of so many love stories and we get treated a nearly 10-minute scene soaked in tears where Densha confesses his true feelings to the girl of his dreams. Even if I can still remember being that ugly fat geek who was me who in high school didn't have chance in hell of meeting a girl I found it hard not to yell "Stop whining and kiss her for Christ sake!" Other audience members seemed to be able to handle the syrupy sentiment much better than I did and came out liking "Densha Otoko" just as much as when it started. I just wish I could have done the same.

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