Love on the Rails | The Many Faces of Train_Man

train5The story of a man who found love on a train was such a smash hit in Japan it spawned a whopping four different manga adaptations, three of which have reached American shores. Which one should you check out? Find your answer here.


The infamous story of the "Train Man" who fell in love with a girl — which you can read about in more detail in our review of the Train_Man: Densha Otoko movie — was originally published as a novel before being adapted into a hit movie and an even more popular TV series. The original author of Densha Otoko was anonymous, however — the name "Hitori Nakano" that it was published under is a winking pseudonym meaning "one among many" — creating a unique situation where the republishing rights were basically there for the taking. The result was an unprecedented four different manga adaptations, three of which have now been released in the US by three different translation companies.


The main story at the heart of Densha Otoko still ties these three adaptations together: a young, socially maladjusted, "nice guy" otaku saves a beautiful woman from the advances of a drunkard on a train. When the woman thanks him with a set of expensive Hermès teacups, he hops onto the online forum 2channel to ask the advice of his fellow fanboys (and girls, too), who try to help "Train Man" break out of his shell and, hopefully, win the woman of his dreams. The very nature of the original novel — the original posts reprinted verbatim from the 2channel message boards — leaves plenty open to interpretation, and each manga author has distinctly different ideas of what may have happened when Train Man stepped away from his keyboard.



Train_Man: Densha Otoko Vol. 1 (of 3) 

Viz Media; 192 pgs. B&W; $9.99

(W / A: Hidenori Hara)



Hidenori Hara's 3-volume take on Densha Otoko is a seinen manga, a book aimed primarily at twentysomething male readers. It's the most "adult" of the three — in terms of approach, not salacious content — and does the best job of matching the film version's tone.


Hara's biggest asset is his art. With a distinctly 1980s style that melds the loose, cartoony feel of Area 88's Kaoru Shintani with the slick, classicist designs of Macross' Haruhiko Mikimoto, Hara's art is clean and attractive. His pacing is also impeccable, sliding effortlessly from kinetic (and frequently laugh-out-loud funny) comedic scenes into spaciously laid out dramatic moments that linger with the reader. He wields his pen with a gentle touch.


Tackling something as boring as typing at a computer in a comic has the potential to be a total disaster. But like the movie, Hara illustrates Train's 2channel compatriots as a unique crew of regular posters, imbuing the anonymous throng with distinct personalities and treating the message board posts as an engaging, real life conversation. Hara gains big points by developing Hermès' personality much further than any of the other versions at this stage in the game. Far from just an object of desire, Hara's Hermès has a sweet side to her. Sensing Train's hesitance, she gently guides him, and her soft demeanor is as much responsible for pulling Train out of his shell as the "rah-rah!" posts on 2channel.


This first volume runs from the meeting on the train through the couple's awkward first date and up to the beginning of the make-or-break meeting with Hermès' best friend. Despite being a remarkably straightforward adaptation, Hara's Train_Man is still a delight to read, matching the sweet, magical feel of the film version note for note as it crafts a romance you can't help but fall in love with.


Densha Otoko Vol. 1 (of 3)

DC Comics/CMX; 182 pgs. B&W; $9.99

(W / A: Wataru Watanabe)



Unlike Hara's light, mature take on the property, Wataru Watanabe's Densha Otoko aims toward the ADD-riddled short attention spans of the MTV set. This is Train_Man turned up to eleven, starring an electrified hero prone to emotional outbursts at the drop of a hat. Watanabe's Train Man possesses the instantaneous bug-eyed intensity of your typical shonen romantic lead, bearing a similarity to Love Hina star Keitaro in both appearance and actions. The artwork also has a more modern look; the characters are drawn doe-eyed and youthful, with unnaturally large heads, hands, and feet connected to scrawny bodies, and Watanabe's jagged line-style suits the book's frenetic pace well.


Watanabe's adaptation opens not with Train Man's first 2channel post, but instead a lengthy internal monologue meant to spell out the difference between his excitable inner nature and the shy, nerdy shell he shows to the world. In this incarnation, his outburst at the drunk is out of anger and frustration, not chivalry. Watanabe illustrates the forum posts as a conversation as well, but as a conversation between cat-like emoticons rather than the people behind the keyboards, depriving the advice scenes of the human touch but giving them a bit of cartoonish insanity that works well in its own way. This first volume, despite being in a constantly agitated state, actually moves through the plot even slower than the Hara version, only getting up to Train Man and Hermès meeting for their first date. Because of the portion of the story covered, Hermès unfortunately doesn't get much development in this volume, but this problem may very well be solved in future volumes.


This version of Densha Otoko is built for a specific type of reader, and it follows its formula to a T. While lacking the universal feel of Hara's version, Watanabe does exactly what he set out to do. Fans of spazzed out romantic comedies will likely eat this version up with the spoon.


Train Man: A Shojo Manga 

Del Rey; 186 pgs. B&W; $10.95

(W / A: Machiko Ocha)



As the title suggests, Machiko Ocha's take on Train Man is the only one of the three that is a shojo manga — that is, a comic made with the teenaged girl in mind. This sweet, untraditional romance would seem a perfect fit for a genre that thrives on love stories, but this version does more than just tweak the concept for a new audience, making wholesale changes that don't necessarily benefit the story.


One big change is Ocha's strange choice of giving the previously anonymous stars of the book names (Train Man has become Ikumi Saiki, his object of affection Hermès is now Mai Kohinata). Ikumi has been largely sanitized here, presumably to make him more appealing to typical shojo readers, and his nerdier tendencies are almost nonexistent. After his 2channel inspired makeover, there is little that distinguishes him from a standard romantic lead.


Ocha's adaptation packs the entire Train Man story into one volume, so the story has far less room to breathe here. To make it through everything, the writing is extremely dense and text heavy, making it difficult to slog through in one sitting. Despite not having much room to work with, Ocha actually adds new elements into an already packed story, none of which are really improvements. The meeting with Mai's best friend takes a dramatically different turn, with her friend — much cattier here — reveals that Mai has a boyfriend, creating a love triangle not present in the original story. Ocha also tacks on a run-in between Mai and a lecher on a train and a superfluous epilogue that show us a taste of happily-ever-after. The art is attractive if a tad plain, and the layouts are clean and easy to read. The denizens of 2channel are mostly interchangeable, but Ocha manages some nice touches by mixing in a few pieces of ASCII art (elaborate pictures made using punctuation marks and the occasional Japanese letter), which range from cute to downright hilarious.


Where this book does manage to outstrip its rivals is in the extras, one of the main strengths of Del Rey's entire manga line. The Viz and CMX versions both have short essays on the origins of the Densha Otoko story, but Del Rey pulls out all the stops. Included in the book's back pages are a 3-page afterword where Ocha reveals some of her research tactics, 6 pages of translation notes, and an extensive essay by William Flanagan on the Densha Otoko phenomenon that puts the series' success in historical context. Ocha's Train Man isn't bad, by any means, and romance fans will enjoy the book just fine, but it lacks the heart that makes the story's other incarnations so appealing in the first place.

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