Densha Otoko (Train Man) 2005 Movie Review
As someone who spends way too much time online, I found the Japanese movie Densha Otoko, in America it’s called Train Man, a bit sobering. I’m one of many people who blogs, chats, and message boards because I find the Internet simultaneously intimate and a means of social avoidance. Densha Otoko may be the first movie I’ve seen that explores that phenomenon well.
“Otoko” apparently is the Japanese word for “Geek” and with the help of an online Japanese dictionary “Densha” is a word for “train”. It may just be one of these happy coincidences that the American title “Train Man” conjures Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant in Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man”. The movie itself has a complicated cultural history. The story exists in Japanese culture in multiple forms as manga (Japanese graphic novel), novel, television series, movie, and probably a cell phone novel. Perhaps most interesting of all, it’s also an urban legend. Supposedly an uber-geek comes to the rescue of an attractive non-geek woman when she’s bothered by some lout on a train. This pushes him out of his shell and he then obsessively seeks the advice of the only people he trusts or even talks to in the world, a group of online friends whom he’s never met in person some of whom may not be in much of a position to give dating advice. It’s hard to tell which came first, the urban legend or the various movies, series, books, but I think that’s part of the charm of the tale. Train Man is about the tenuous relationship between reality, myth, and illusion in a media-saturated culture.
It’s inevitable that there’s going to be an American version of this. It seems that any remotely charming foreign movie gets a hyped up American remake that totally loses the intimacy of the original. Mostly Martha got turned into Catherine Zeta Jones, Aaron Eckhart, and Abigail Breslin and No Reservations, a still watchable but much glitzier remake. Shall We Dansu, a movie about ordinary people drawn into the world of Ballroom Dancing got turned into Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and of all people Jennifer Lopez. It’s inevitable because Train Man translates so easily into a makeover movie. Hollywood could probably fix the trade deficit just by exporting all its geek-makeover movies. In fact, Train Man was clearly influenced by them. In particular, there’s a running gag where the other geeks engage in some sort of trench warfare simulation that looks to be a lift from some generic Hollywood teen movie.
I know it’s asking too much, but I’m praying that when they do the remake they don’t totally trample the movie’s Japanese sensibility. Takayuki Yamada, the Train Man, who never gets known by anything other than his screen name brings his “nerd” just to the brink of over exaggeration yet never lets the viewer lose track of his character’s very real pain, loneliness, and sense of social helplessness. He never really does become suddenly articulate or even romantically attractive the way he inevitably would in an American movie. Miki Nakatini who is known in the movie as Hermes, because she sends the Train Man a set of cups from that company, does manage to get the viewer to root for an essentially unbelievable attraction from her side. At one point, she surprises by speaking perfectly fluent English to some walk on characters and you get a clue that she’s sophisticated enough to see through the routine social graces that the Train Man can’t and perhaps never will master. In any case, the movie hits its climactic moment and it stays wonderfully awkward.
Ultimately, Train Man is a celebration of the power of in-person human contact in an increasingly technological world. Some of the best bits have to do with the way text messages, cell phones, and e-mails keep people constantly in touch with one another yet just out of reach at the same time. It’s done a little predictably yet still quite cleverly with two of Train Man’s technical support advisors, who serve as a Greek chorus for the internet age. The only big downside of the movie is that my wife will surely use the thing over the next several months to remind me that I’m not that far from being the Train Man myself. Of course, those of you who read this blog will advise me on how to deal with her.