March 09, 2007

Densha Otoko

Densha Otoko ("Train Man") is the supposedly true story, first posted on the Internet forum 2channel under the handle "Densha_Otoko," of a lowly otaku who falls in love despite himself. While riding home on the subway, he saves the lovely Hermes (so named for her choice of name-brand fashion accessories) from a mean drunk, and to his great consternation finds himself with a "real" girlfriend on his hands.

Although the comparison that springs immediately to mind is You've Got Mail, the more apt analog is My Fair Lady, with the Henry Higgins role being filled by Train Man's 2channel correspondents, who virtually rally to his side with advice about how to evolve from closet geek into a man worthy of such a high-class girlfriend. (Or for that matter, a real girlfriend, period.)

I haven't read the book or seen the television series that also sprang forth from the 2channel account, so my thoughts are confined to the movie alone. But in short, if the cinematic version is anything close to the truth, then it stands as proof that some stories are too good to be true. Or are too good to serve as the plots of disbelief-suspending narrative fiction.

I understand the appeal of an "ugly duckling" story crafted specifically for the geek demographic. I readily admit to being one of them. But the film stumbles at several critical junctures along the way and then tries too hard to make up for its dramatic shortcomings.

The first mistake is making our hero not just a geek, but a borderline hikikomori, a term (literally meaning "to pull in and retreat") used to describe an extreme introversion that in more extroverted societies than Japan would be diagnosed as autism or Asperger's syndrome.

Of course, like Cinderella or Eliza Doolittle, starting the protagonist off at a low point gives the ugly ducking that much more room to grow. Takayuki Yamada, the actor who plays Train Man, is a handsome-enough man in real life, so the script takes every opportunity to nerd and klutz him up. But the depiction is so over the top that the mind strains to comprehend what in the world Hermes (Miki Nakatani) sees in him.

There are moments that offer a peek into what may be going on in Hermes's head, the diamond in the rough she perceives Train Man to be. For example, when he bursts into an enthusiastic exegesis of The Matrix, or when, asked for advice on what laptop to buy, delivers a fire hose of information, useless in its sheer volume.

Hermes is shown to be so attractive and competent and upwardly mobile that I imagine her parents constantly arranging o-miai for her, and her getting bored with the staid salaryman types she finds sitting across the table week after week. The same way Eliza is ultimately (in the movie, at least) drawn to the eccentric Higgins rather than the insipid Freddy, she is drawn to Train Man's quirky passions.

I've also listened to Dr. Laura enough times in the car to gather that some women are attracted by the idea of boyfriend-as-fixer-upper, though such calls invariably end with the unsparing observation that this is never a good idea and will turn out badly.

After all, the bet that Henry Higgins makes is that he can pass the finished product as a member of his social class. A hundred thousand years of evolutionary psychology has conditioned us to see nothing unusual in zillionaire Tom Hanks ending up with shopkeeper Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail. But we need some convincing when the roles are reversed, as they are in Densha Otoko.

To be sure, practically the entire population of Japan self-identifies as "middle class," but there's middle class and then there's middle class. Ryoko Kuninaka, who fills the ugly duckling role on Brother Beat (again, a very attractive woman in real life), shows up as one of the geeks in Densha Otoko (and is similarly dowdied down). I kept thinking, "Hey, you ought to date her instead!"

In Brother Beat, we know that Tatsuya is going to end up with her because she's arisen out of the same blue collar working class as he has. This is shown in several scenes, such as one where, watching her father at work, Tatsuya recalls a similar image of his own father, who ran a dry cleaner's. Or when Tatsuya's mom invites her over for dinner and she fits right in to their lower middle class digs.

However, Densha Otoko not only doesn't show any of this, it doesn't even tell, and so Hermes remains a mystery, making the movie's fastidious adherence to Train Man's point of view a profound detriment. Granted, the POV is no doubt meant to reflect the POV of the original 2channel postings, but in this case we're left with half a story.

Nothing establishes any kind of commonality between the two leads, other than a chance encounter on a train and a couple of pretty bad dates. They are and remain such disparate characters that the ending--the romantic climax of the story--instead made me think of a kid's movie about a child who finds a cute doggy shivering in the rain and, feeling sorry for him, takes him home. Sentimental, yes. Romantic, no.

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4/30/2007 6:22 PM   
I liked Train Man a lot, it's sitting in the review queue right now, but the geek/goddess thing bothers me a little. I mean, WHY does he get such a fabulous woman? WHY? I don't have an answer, that's why it's still in the review queue. You make a pretty good case that she's bored with the men she usually meets, but still... I must continue to mull this over for yet a while longer.