Train Man (2005)
Nicholas Driscoll
February 12, 2009
Note: review may contain spoilers

People love a good romance. In the fiction publishing in the U.S., romance novels are by far the biggest sellers, especially in the paperback market where nearly one out of every two novels sold are romance. Love stories, however, are a universal human interest, no less in Japan than in the West, so it's not surprising to find that in the land of the rising sun idealized, improbable, or especially emotionally charged romances are extremely popular. Enter Train Man. Along with being an unusual, emotionally arresting story of love blossoming in the unlikeliest of circumstances, the story happens to have a basis in an allegedly true story, as related by some anonymous soul via Japan's enormously popular (and terrifyingly powerful) 2channel message boards. Riding the "Pure Love" boom, it was only a matter of time before the smash hit novel was made into a movie, and the sweet, innocuous, and thoroughly unexceptional Train Man of 2005 was the result.

Following the adventures of an individual identified to the audience only as "Densha Otoko" (Takayuki Yamada). Densha Otoko is a hopeless social misfit, nerdy and reclusive to an extreme, refusing face-to-face social interaction and collecting anime and movie paraphernalia—the very embodiment of the negative "otaku" stereotype. One day, Densha Otoko happens to be on a train, coming home after another successful toy shopping trip in Akihabara, when a drunk man begins assaulting a beautiful woman (Ring's Miki Nakatani). Otoko grows enough of a spine to stumble into the conflict and rescue the damsel in distress. The woman, very grateful for his assistance, insists on sending him a thank-you gift, and soon Otoko receives an expensive set of Hermes tea cups. He writes of his adventure on 2channel, where a large audience of complete strangers urges him to ask her out on a date. He does, going on a series of dates with the woman of his dreams, relying on the dating advice of his Internet support group, while they are in turn inspired by his transformation. But can an otaku achieve true love? Or will the most beautiful woman he has ever seen dump him because he is such a complete nerd?

True or not, Train Man is choked with clichés, make no mistake, and the classic trope of the mismatched couple receives no significant new life here. Despite some attempts to make the story about more than just a simple romance between two people, like the film's positioning of Otoko's tale being an inspiring impetus for positive change in the lives of those looking on, the central romance doesn't have the strength to carry interest. The protagonists are very thinly characterized. Indeed, they are specifically designed that way, as we'll see in a moment.

The film makes a weak choice early on by never revealing the real names of anyone. Densha Otoko is only the nerd's nickname; essentially, he is only a template, an amalgamation of stereotypes with little voice of his own. The woman he loves is worse yet; throughout the film she is referred to as Hermes, after the gift she sent, and she, like many female love interests in Japanese films, is more idealization than human. She is merely a pretty shell, smiling and charming, instantly forgiving and virtuous, a cynically designed empty ceramic doll to be desired by men, but never to live or have a developed opinion.

The actors add a modicum of life to their roles, but not much more than that. Takayuki Yamada, memorable in Dragonhead (2003) as the bizarre tribal psychopath, becomes a loser so over-the-top in his social maladroit nature that he quickly becomes annoying, stuttering and sputtering like a ludicrous cartoon. Occasionally Yamada's performance showed great potential, and I recognized some of my more bashful Japanese friends in him, but the writing doesn't do his character justice, and neither does Yamada when he regresses too far into generic stereotype. Miki Nakatani, meanwhile, made very little impression on me, except as this almost ethereally smiling presence, blithely floating through her scenes. There is almost nothing of substance to Hermes' character to make me care about the outcome of her romance with Otoko, which is a shame.

There are a number of supporting characters that weave into the story, most of them being Otoko's Internet 2channel readers, including three losers, a slacker nurse, a tepid couple, and a hikikomori, a sort of social recluse who never leaves his room. Otoko's stereotypical romance inspires all of the members of his audience to change their lives, but each of these characters is painted in such broad strokes that it's difficult to care about them, either, with the possible exception of the tepid couple. The loser trio is especially obnoxious, operating as comic relief and playing out one of the lamest running gags of recent memory in which they show up as soldiers fighting on the warfront whenever Otoko makes further strides in his relationship with Hermes.

The throwaway nature of the movie reaches a climax with the very ending of the movie, in a move that will infuriate some. (MAJOR SPOILER WARNING) Basically, as the movie reveals in the final moments, all of the events of Otoko's romance were nothing more than a daydream. This is the ultimate copout ending, but it reflects the trustworthiness of what one reads on message boards. Frequently, those stories aren't true at all. But that doesn't mean a generic daydream makes a good movie, either. It doesn't. (END SPOILERS)

All that said, the music is a high point. Composed by Takayuki Hattori, who has composed a wide variety of Toho film soundtracks, including Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla (1994) and Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999), he provides a wide variety of lively, enjoyable cues and themes, from soft piano melodies, to a horn theme, to a spunky electronic ditty that plays over some of the Internet interactions. I wouldn't mind listening to some of them on my MP3 player.

Train Man isn't a total loss. The movie moves briskly, and some of the gags are genuinely funny. Something also should be said about the production design, which works in the themes of computerized text and message boards creatively, in a visually attractive and compelling manner. If only the rest of the movie could have been so strong. Train Man doesn't completely derail; it just clunks along that same predictable path, with no big surprises, no one interesting to meet, and a destination so very tediously familiar.