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Hino Train Man: Densha Otoko
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by Jay Seaver

"A near-perfect twenty-first century love story."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "Train Man" has conquered the Japanese media quickly and thoroughly. It first captured the public's interest as a blog that was posted as the events took place; it soon became a novel, a series of manga, a television series, a stage play, and, of course, this film. It's not hard to see why - it's a sweet love story that can appeal to all ages, but it's also arguably one of the first movies to really get communications and community in the twenty-first century.

Takayuki Yamada plays the title character, a self-described "gaming and manga otaku" (computer/comic nerd, in American), and he fits the stereotype - he's a shy twenty-two year-old who has never been on a date, works in I.T. tech support, and goes home to an apartment filled with stuff but no other people every night. He's taking the train home one day when a drunken salaryman comes on board, and our otaku stands up and tells him to stop as he's starting to get really obnoxious to a willowy beauty (Miki Nakatani). The transit police take the drunk into custody and ask those involved to fill out a report. Amid his apologies for causing inconvenience, she asks for his address so she can send him a thank-you gift. He posts about it on a message board (signing the message "Densha Otoko", or "Train Man"), and when the gift is an expensive Hermes tea set (tagging the woman with the nickname "Hermes" or "Hermess"), the people responding to the conversation encourage him to pursue her.

Unless I'm mistaken, we never actually learn the characters' real names - they don't come up in the dialog, and they are simply "Train Man" and "Hermes". They're almost abstractions, with Train Man representing what is nerdy or socially maladroit in all of us and Hermes representing an ethereal ideal. But more than that, it's because Train Man's blog entries and the responses are a crucial part of the film - they expand the film's narration from a monologue to a chorus, even while we see things almost entirely from Train Man's perspective. It gives him a sounding board while still leaving him very much on his own. And it gives us a chance to examine the kinds of new, ad-hoc communities that the internet has had a large part in realizing.

The simple, traditional approach would be to point out that Train Man needs to stop looking for his social life on-line and start interacting with people in the real world. Certainly, the nervousness that borders on genuine terror that we see from him in his awkward first dates with Hermes suggests that important parts of his social development are woefully inadequate - although he is, maybe, not the saddest case we see. Most of the people we see responding to the blog aren't other nerds (a trio of gamers is the boisterous exception). There's Rika (Ryoko Kuninaka), a nurse; Michiko (Tae Kimura), a housewife; Hirofumi (Eita), a student; and Hiashi (Kuranosuke Sasaki), a businessman. We get only brief glimpses into their lives, but we learn enough to fill in blanks and to see that the social network they form benefits them all.

Another way the film veers away from cliché is that there are no rivals, so if things are going to happen between Train Man and Hermes, then it's going to be because they make it work. It won't be because the other guy's a jerk and Train man isn't, or because his newfound confidence attracts a less likable alternative. That's hard enough, because Train Man is frequently paralyzed with fear. Yamada's portrayal walks a razor-thin line between earnestness and parody; we'll frequently find ourselves laughing at his awkwardness, but then it will go on another few seconds without any sign of ending, and it becomes almost painful to watch. The slightest difference in how he plays some scenes could make his character seem ridiculous or pathetic, and the combination of Yamada's note-perfect performance and the lack of external factors makes the movie's big turning point both heartbreaking and almost inevitable, because it's all our guy screwing up, and that screw-up doesn't leave us other obvious places to go than "maybe this really can't work".

The comedy is just as genuine as the potential roadblocks are. Train Man's stumbling earnestness is something most of us can relate to, and the movie doesn't spend its entire running time making him look like a fool; take the scene where one of his co-workers calls him over after throwing his body across a computer monitor because the skin site he's been looking at during working hours was spawning bunches of windows that wouldn't go away, or how the three gamers try to emulate him (after playing situations out in their minds as combat scenarios). The comedy may have met an exceptionally receptive audience at the Fantasia screening, but you don't need any special background to understand awkwardness or getting keyed up over small things.

Miki Nakatani doesn't spend quite so much time on-screen as her co-star, since it is Train Man and his online friends telling the story, so it's very interesting to watch her on the occasions when Yamada is not in a scene. It's a subtle shift, from serenity to curiosity, like Train Man can't see her as anything other than fitting into the world perfectly, and that's when we get to see her working to figure things out, to see him as something more than a man who did something good when he really didn't have to. She doesn't speak directly to us until the end, but when she does, it puts a great many things into perspective.

What she says puts the movie into clear perspective, and also points up that Director Masanori Murakami and screenwriter Arisa Kaneko have done something rather unusual. They've made a film almost entirely populated by good people doing good things, and made it captivating. That they managed it on an extremely tight schedule (it was shot in twenty-five days and released to theaters thirty-five days after that) is just as remarkable, because it's a very polished production - they integrate the original message board posts (including ASCII art!) in a manner that will be subtitle-intensive outside its native country but doesn't amount to just a lot of watching screens and people typing.

This was the last film I saw at Fantasia before having to head home, and it was kind of a good place to stop. After a steady diet of serial killers, zombies, vampires, and other monsters, a film like "Train Man" supplies a different, but just as vital, fantasy, with the "based on a true story" making the world seem a brighter place.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14766&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/12/06 10:33:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Masanori Murakami

Written by
  Arisa Kaneko

Cast
  Takayuki Yamada
  Miki Nakatani



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