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Train Man (2005, Densha Otoko) is the film version of a supposedly true story of an internet love connection. The tale was a massive pop culture hit in Japan, spawning a tv show, manga, a book, and of course, this quick turnaround commercial flick, made and released within the span of a few months.
The story concerns a geek, the Japanese term which has also been appropriated by US anime/manga fans, is otaku. Like many negative terms, otaku went from being a put-down to a positive definition used to peg those who are obsessively concerned with arrested development interests like comic books, video games, and general geek culture pursuits. Anyway, our socially awkward otaku (Yamada Takayuki- Waterboys, Dragon Head) briefly bursts out of his shell by coming to the defense of a lovely young woman (Miki Nakatani- The Ring/Ringu 1&2, Rikidozan) who is being harassed on a train by a drunk businessman.
Being a 22 year old virgin whose existence consists of keeping to himself at a cubicle at work, turtling up and never making contact/conversation when out in public, and a life of collecting action figures, reading comics, and watching movies, this is his first interaction with a girl and he is clueless what to do. He turns to the internet for help (the true tale supposedly took place on Japanese largest chat site 2channel) where he goes by the name Train Man. The justification for their continued correspondence and meeting is that she mails him a gift for his help, a set of posh Hermes tea cups, which is the name we know her by, Hermes.
Through the internet, Train Man gets his crash course on dating, help in changing his appearance, picking spots to go to, conversation, much of it coming from the chat site people, represented in the film by a lovelorn nurse, a brooding teen, a distant married couple, and the guys who get the most airtime, a trio of videogame geeks. The chatters realize what a big deal it is for Train Man, how being successful in breaking out and forging a connection with this Hermes is a life-changing event for him, and the chatters become emotionally invested in every step Train Man takes.
Okay, despite being grounded is supposed reality, the film makes no qualms about painting the scenario in strictly romantic fantasy terms. Train Man is a stuttering, naive mess, and even though he cleans himself up with some fresh duds, a swank haircut, contact lenses, and keeps conversation notes on his Palm Pilot always on hand, it is a gigantic leap to think a cultured girl like Hermes would have any attraction to him. She is the perfect geek figment, someone pretty, good-natured, warm, and sweetly tolerant of his awkward nature. Sort of through luck, he becomes her fancy dining companion, one of her hobbies. And, of course, when he gushes over The Matrix, despite not being big on movies, she is enthralled enough by his talk to go to a video store and rent the movie. (Sorry, but if being savvy with cinema nerd knowledge got you chicks, I would have gotten laid more than Wilt Chamberlain). But, again, its fantasy, furthered by things like the wardrobe, which is like a uniform, Hermes always in demure cream colored dresses, Train Man in either his geek Gundam t-shirt and green windbreaker or his try to be cool outfit of a hip blazer and jeans.
So, the two don't seem like a likely pair to gel in reality, but, as I said, this is strictly fantasy where wealthy beautiful girls with expensive tastes see some kind of charm in twitchy nerds who unconvincingly try to wear the camouflage of a cool kid. The real problem I had with the plotting was the finale cop-out. Of course, like all romantic films there is a third act stumbling block (a weepy moment with our poor love struck hero in the rain, of course) and then a grand reveal where they pledge their love for one another, share an kiss, and walk off into the sunset. The cop-out is that while you can clearly see why he'd be attracted to her, aside from him being nice, you don't see why she would go for him, and the writers chose a last minute, seemingly tacked on bit where she explains why she likes him, including many things we were never shown. The writers almost get positive points for having him literally shed his cooler guy exterior and face her in full geek glory at the end, but the execution was extremely smarmy.
Dammit, this is just not my kind of movie. In general, I'm a cynical fucker and these kind of chick flicks just don't fly with me. But, I had, like many people, terrible teen years, including about two years where was I was so socially awkward I had zero, that's right zero, friends. Of course, once I opened up that all went away and I had friends, girls, best buds, enemies, and all the normal social drama. Also, as a pre-teen I collected comics, still own a handful (or two) of action figures, and have many geekish interests, but since I consider 98% of anime and comics to be crap and would rather buy an art book or a new guitar pedal rather than own all the Simpsons figures, I'm hardly an otaku. Yes, I'm the kind of geek, content in my geekdom because I know there are people ten times worse. That said, I can relate. So, despite the prickly bastard within me that sneers at nerds like Train Man and has contempt for saccharine romance flicks,... well, I actually found my defenses a little broken down by Train Man. It isn't my kind of movie, I think its total bunk, but I realize the need some people might have for a genuinely warm and effective sentimental fantasy. And, I'm not so pigeonholed in my taste not to realize Train Man is a spiffy production with decent characters (as unreal as they may be) and engaging actors.
But, for a guy like me, it still would have been neat if they pinned on an extra bit where Hermes see's Train Man's apartment for the first time and shudders in horror.
The DVD: Panasia. NOTE: This is an HK DVD release which is REGION 3 encoded.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Crisp and bright. Sunny and happy. It is so polished and meticulously lit, I kept expecting the actors to suddenly start pitching me products. The transfer appears relatively tight, maintaining the crisp veneer with good sharpness and color levels. I felt the contrast could use deeper black levels. The only further flaw I could spot was some edge enhancement.
Sound:Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS Japanese language or Cantonese 2.0 dub, with optional Chinese (Traditional or Simplified) and dual Chinese & English subtitles. Well-developed sound mix. Dialogue sticks to the center channels while the surround really pumps in the weepy score. If you have trouble with subtitles, the dual Chinese and English subs will only further your annoyance, but I'm probably so used to subs by now I hardly noticed and they didn't seem to clutter the screen.
Extras: Trailer.— Bonus cd containing a collection of ASCII art. As online-savvy people know, basically it is keyboard art, making characters, figures, and such from keyboard letters and characters.
Conclusion: A sappy true fantasy, Train Man makes no pretensions and wears its sugar-coated story proudly. It is the kind of superficial commercial vehicle that could only be called offensive in its utter inoffensiveness. Pretty good dvd presentation. Worth a look for all-region capable foreign film fans with a taste for modern romance.