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Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Getting to the next stage in life and love
Why has the Japanese birth rate fallen so low that pandas are starting to look fecund by comparison? I had read the experts, naming everything from workaholism to scarce day-care as causes, but my light-bulb moment came during a press screening of "Densha Otoko (Train Man)," TV hitmaker Shosuke Murakami's debut feature about an otaku who meets a woman on a commuter train and woos her with the help of his Internet friends.
The shy guy who is a bumbler with the ladies has been a staple of Japanese films since . . . well, forever. The best-known is Tora-san, Kiyoshi Atsumi's wandering peddler, who fell in love in every of the series' 48 installments, from 1969 to 1996, but never got the girl. But as hapless as Tora-san was in the crunch (never the clinch), he was a true romantic, always dreaming of the perfect woman, but running the other way when a likely candidate appeared.
The otaku portrayed by Takayuki Yamada in "Densha Otoko (Train Man)" is of a different breed altogether. Instead of pursuing his latest infatuation, this 22-year-old systems engineer lives in a fantasy world of games, toys and other fanboy-friendly media, in which sex is safely abstracted into plastic and pixels. An actual relationship with an actual woman doesn't compute.
Instead of delving into why the hero has effectively become an eternal 10-year-old, like the Tom Hanks character in "Big," minus the boyish optimism, the film ticks off its plot points, based on a true-life incident that became an Internet, and then a media sensation last year.
The hero, known only by his chat-room handle of Train Man (Densha Otoko), stumbles into the role of rescuer when a drunken salaryman (Ren Osugi) harasses a 30-ish woman (Miki Nakatani) on the train. The salaryman is apprehended and, to express her gratitude, the woman sends the hero an expensive Hermes tea set.
He is hopelessly smitten, but has no in-the-flesh friends or relations to tell him what to do next. (He lives at home, but Mom and Dad might as well be on the next planet.) Instead, he describes his dilemma to seven strangers in a chat room, all of whom, we come to see, are similarly lost souls. Collectively, however, they quickly become his cheerleaders and advisers, their first words of wisdom being, "invite her to dinner, doofus." Amazingly, Train Man follows through and Ms. Hermes says yes.
Happy ending? Not quite, since Train Man, though fluent in computer programs and "Matrix" lore, dissolves into a stammering fool in the presence of Ms. Hermes. His only salvation is an endless stream of messages from his online buddies, beginning with detailed instructions on how to cut his hair and what clothes to buy.
Murakami and his colleagues at Fuji TV wanted to make a sex-role-reversal comedy along the lines of the 2001 Korean hit "My Sassy Girl," but as played by Yamada, a popular TV-drama actor ("Water Boys," "Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu"), Train Man is beyond sexually hapless -- he is beyond sex, period. Unlike the multitudes of otaku with their bookmarked porn sites and handy soapland guides, Train Man is frightened silly by the very idea. (By contrast, Tom Hanks' boy-to-man was thrilled giggly by the thought of bedding Elizabeth Perkins.)
Which leads to the next question: What's in it for Ms. Hermes -- a smart, attractive professional who in the real world would be dating real men? One answer is the kick of initiating cute, young, inexperienced guys into the mysteries of the flesh. But since Fuji intends "Densha Otoko" for prime-time broadcast, Nakatani can only suggest a big sisterly friendliness and affection, meaning that the sexual chemistry between her and Yamada is zero. When she finally held his hand, in what was intended as a big romantic moment, I was half expecting her to take out her hankie and wipe his nose.
The immense labors of Train Man's friends pay off, as they formulaically must, but there's an air of Sisyphusian futility about their enterprise (unless he takes his keitai to bed with him). Meanwhile, my irritation with Train Man was building. Is this, I wondered, Japan's future -- guys who can't get through a date without ducking into an Internet cafe? Pathetic.
Tora-san may have never produced an heir, but he gave encouragement to all those shy guys out there, who gained confidence (if not always success) from watching him step up to the plate alone (even if his batting average was .000). What are today's shy guys going to learn from Train Man? Love can be yours, as long as you have an online support group? It's easier to shut the door -- and log on to the "desperate housewives and their hot pets" site.
One last question: When Japan finally empties out, say around the year 2150, who is going to be the last one to log off?