Densha Otoko – Review
by Miguel Douglas on January 11, 2010
Computer engineer Otaku (the Japanese term for “geek”) is an average young man, dressed in unstylish clothes and dorky glasses. But as luck would have it, he encounters a pretty young woman on a commuter train and saves her from a lecherous molester, falling in love with her at first sight. A few days later he receives a thank-you message from the woman along with a set of Hermes teacups. Having never had a girlfriend or received a gift from a girl in his life, Otaku seeks out his pals on his BBS website for advice using his codename Densha Otoko (Train Man): “How should I ask her out?” Deeply interested in Train Man’s first love, his BBS pals eagerly supply him with advice. Encouraged by their support, Train Man undergoes a total makeover for his first-ever date with “Hermess”. Little does he know that he is about to ignite an Internet phenomenon…
Supposedly based on a true transcript from the largest Internet message board in the world entitled 2channel, Densha Otoko is a film that explores the stereotypical outlook of what constitutes what an otaku is, and courageously attempts to shatter such perceptions. What starts out as a typical “triumph over adversity” scenario soon develops into a thoughtful look at not only the central character of the film, but also a view into the cultural phenomenon of the Japanese otaku. Given the circumstances surrounding the source material, the film is but one of the many contributions that have led to the labeling of otaku as something that could be viewed as socially reasonable within the realm of pop culture. While usage of the term has been viewed in both a negative and positive light within Japanese society, the film (and it’s predecessor, a novelization of the internet postings) gave way to a new understanding of otaku culture, removing some of the negative weight it once carried.
It should come at no surprise that the source material for the film would be accepted with such fervor; stemming from the message board conversations, the original postings cultivated in the thousands and were already well acclaimed before the film was released. This cemented the film for success, but one should not look at Densha Otoko as your standard romance-driven story—the film also brings to question the usage of technology as a communication tool. The juxtaposition witnessed in the film is truly compelling; on the one hand, the usage of the Internet can be viewed as a hindrance towards having Train Man socially interact with individuals on a physical level, only to later find him using that same communicational source to address his real-world dilemmas and problems. It’s these elements within Densha Otoko that should appease the current generation fixated with using technology primarily as an outlet for communication; the Internet age showcases its opportunity for therapeutic sessions just as diligently as the real world.
Throughout the film, this becomes the source of direction and inspiration for many of its characters. In the particular case of our protagonist, we as viewers begin to feel that we are there with him, walking alongside him in his journey to confront his challenges and overcome them. The intimacy of these scenes is what truly brings the film to an entirely new level. While dealing with the area of otaku culture, the film doesn’t delineate from its proposed cultural references. The combination of the Internet, communication and cultural boundaries really represent the wide spectrum that the film addresses, bringing to light—and in some cases, romanticizing—this specific segment of otaku culture. And while one could appreciate this aspect of the film, its somewhat simplistic narrative significantly overshadowed it. It’s not that the film didn’t appropriately address the cultural concerns above, it’s that the narrative didn’t fully allow the film to indulge in such concerns. It was entirely too focused on the romantic endeavors of the protagonist at times and used the culture as an outlet to focus on that specific element, which would’ve been deemed more successful as a plot device if it was in reverse order. Still, the film aptly wishes to showcase various facets of otaku culture and remove some of the stereotypes it has collected throughout the years.
Even with all these elements, the film would be not be convincing if the cast was not on par with the material. The thing about the Densha Otoko story—including the book, novel and manga—is that it’s a story that resonances well with others because of the anonymous nature of its source material. When transferring this aspect of the material into a medium such as film, you have to take into account what the characters truly looked like—hence artistic liberties must be made. In the case of protagonist of the film, you have him represented by the stereotypical otaku look; side pouch, glasses, backpack and checkered shirt. Takayuki Yamada, who by many margins truly gets into character, plays the Train Man. From the his nerdy exterior in the beginning of the film, to his extravagant exterior makeover by the end of it, Yamada never really removes himself from character, always considerate that he is still an portraying an otaku no matter what mask he puts on to shield it. He essentially makes the role his own, and puts on an impressive performance considering the somewhat vague nature of the source material.
Opposite of Yamada is the excellent Miki Nakatani, who portrays Hermes. Nakatani has always been a superb actress, but her performance in Densha Otoko is rather suppressed to say the least. While a strong advocate for Train Man’s transformation within the film, we never really get to know Hermes as a true character. Perhaps this can be viewed in a more positive light given that Hermes only provides the admiration for Train Man to transform his life. While focusing on their relationship within the film, she provides a mysterious quality to her presence that provides more questions than answers, but since the film is told primarily through the eyes of Train Man, we slowly begin to sympathize with his willingness to find out more about her. With all this said, the reserved manner of her character lends to her portrayal as such, but she still gives an adequate performance.
Another point in the film is the community of the Internet forum in which Train Man communicates his daily happenings. Most of the supporting cast resides here, providing ample advice whenever Train Man needs it, but also providing an outlet for them to view the inner turmoil that exists within their own lives. I believe this is the driving force that exists within the story Densha Otoko—that if an individual such as Train Man can find love and happiness amidst his social awkwardness then perhaps anyone can rearrange their own lives to experiences such things as well. While the film delivers this message in a somewhat standard matter, it by no means feels the need to bludgeon us over the head with it, which is well appreciated.
In the end, Densha Otoko can be viewed as an attempt to remove some of the stigma surrounding the otaku culture within Japanese society. While not the first film to tackle such a subject, Densha Otoko has perhaps retained the most mainstream success in doing so, giving way to a wave of other films regarding the subject—films that at times even surpass Densha Otoko in their investigation of the Japanese otaku culture. While not entirely original in its premise or execution, Densha Otoko is still a great coming-of-age tale stemming from the Internet phenomenon.