Train_Man: Densha Otoko (Viz Pictures, NR)

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It's February, the season when Hollywood trots out their bland, formulaic romantic comedies. Looking for an alternative? Try this sweet, charming romance from Japan about a young nerd who finds love on the rails.

 

 

 

In 2004, an unlikely romance seized the hearts of Japan with the publication of Densha Otoko, a novel that told the (supposedly) true story of an otaku -- an obsessive anime fan -- who stood up to a drunk who was harassing the women passengers of a commuter train. Several of the grateful women took his contact info to send him thank yous, including one gorgeous woman his own age. When her gift arrived in the form of an expensive set of Hermès teacups, this shy, awkward "Train Man" turned to the online forum 2channel, asking his fellow fanboys for help winning the woman of his dreams.

 

The Densha Otoko novel, which simply compiled the original messageboard posts, struck a chord within the otaku community and, eventually, Japan at large. The book was a smash hit, spawning a TV series, four different comic book adaptations (three of which are now available in English; click here to read our reviews), and this 2005 movie, one of the most successful films released in Japan that year. One viewing of this new English edition, released on DVD February 6th from Viz Pictures, and it's easy to see why.

 

What makes the story so resonant? The biggest credit goes to Takayuki Yamada's effortless performance as Train Man. Some fans have groused that Yamada is too attractive to play the title character. Nonsense. When we first meet Train Man, Yamada certainly looks the part, with awkwardly matched clothing, bad posture, and a shaggy mop of hair hanging in his eyes. But after his Princess Diaries-esque makeover at the behest of his 2ch brethren, the ugly duckling may now look like a swan, but he hasn't learned how to act the part just yet. Train Man is uncomfortable in his own skin, which Yamada implies skillfully with body language (hunched shoulders, jerky movements) and a nervous stammer. It's an honest, affecting portrayal that will ring true with any shy niceguy who has yearned to break out of his bubble.

 

Miki Nakatani's Hermès is even subtler. In their first phone conversation, Train stammers apology after apology until they begin to tumble in upon each other ("I'm sorry I caused you so much trouble that you're worrying about having caused me trouble," he mumbles at one point), something that would send many women running for the hills, but not her. His chivalrous actions on the train showed her that there was a sweet, brave soul underneath his geeky exterior, so she responds to his quirks with a loving gaze and a gentle smile as she draws him further and further out of his shell. Slowly, he begins to open up, whether it's finally asking her out on that second date -- "I was hinting at that, you know," she jokes -- or showing his true colors for the first time as he geeks out over The Matrix.

 

At each step of the way, the denizens of 2ch are there to hang on his every word and offer their advice. Having a story that involves characters spending this much time typing sounds like a guaranteed snoozefest, but director Shosuke Murakami handles it wonderfully. The posters are shown as a mosaic of overlapping panels within the screen, and their comments back and forth with Train Man are treated as a real-time conversation across cyberspace. The text even becomes its own character, at times vibrantly dancing across the screen. In keeping with 2ch's anonymous nature, every character in the film remains nameless, but we still get a peek into the lives of a select group of posters: a teen boy (Eita) so detached from the world that he doesn't even leave his bedrooms to speak to his parents; three fellow otakus (Yoshinori Okada, Hiroki Miyake, Makoto Sakamoto) who provide comic relief as they post their own desperate pleas for a girlfriend; a lonely nurse (Ryoko Kuninaka) who looks forlornly at a torn-up picture of an ex, cheering on Train Man to succeed where her own romantic life has failed; and a married couple (Tae Kimura, Kuranosuke Sasaki) who have grown so detached from each other that they don't even realize that they've both been posting on the same messageboard. Kimura and Sasaki do wonders with their very small roles, communicating a whole film's worth of character development in a series of small, mostly silent scenes.

 

The film takes a dramatic turn for its final third, and both Yamada and Nakatani rise to the occasion, with Yamada in particular giving a powerful, heartbreaking monologue. Murakami does meander a bit on his way to an ending that is both moving and satisfying but, unfortunately, far too drawn out, and a brief final scene and a post-credits vignette confuse the themes of the movie, feeling tacked on and unnecessary. Fortunately, they do little to dull this highly enjoyable film. Train_Man: Densha Otoko is that rare romantic comedy that doesn't feel manipulative or cloying, but rather an honest and moving reminder of what it feels like to fall in love for the first time. | Jason Green

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