Here’s the kind of movie that’s meant to be goofy and charming, and would be more so if they hadn’t worked so hard to make it that way. It’s a movie adaptation of a novel, which was itself a “based on true events” story: nerdy Tokyoite steps in on a young woman’s behalf when a drunk salaryman harasses her on the train home, and when she thanks him profusely for his effort, he turns to his anonymous Internet friends for help on how to deal with women. Romance ensues—or, rather, ensued, and if the story is to be believed, “Train Man” and his girl “Hermès” are still happy together.
Did it really happen that way? Until proof of the contrary, I’d like to believe so, and the book is quite touching and funny, all the more so since it’s told in the style of the internet chatroom threads that allegedly spawned the whole thing. The movie version takes the basic events of the story and jazzes them up with two things: a funny, breezy visual style, which works; and a hammy, goofy performance by the lead (Takayuki Yamada, also of The Cat Returns), which does not. I’m by no means alien to the ways Japanese comedy deals in goofy exaggerations—I loved Geroppa!, for instance—but it’s hard to root for someone whom you constantly want to smack across the face and order to calm down.
Train Man, as Yamada’s character is christened, is a twentysomething everynerd, living in his cave of anime DVDs and computer parts, commuting to and from his veal-fattening pen while hiding behind a shaggy bowl-cut hairdo and clutching his bags of manga and character figurines to his chest. He’s spent so much time imagining himself as loser material that he’s worked overtime to fulfill the cliché—and when that drunken louse on the subway (veteran actor Ren Osugi) starts bothering Hermès (Miki Nakatani of Rikidozan, Ringu, Chaos and When the Last Sword is Drawn), his first inclination is to look away and turn up the volume on his iPod. But then something boils over inside of him, and he steps in, and before he knows it he’s received a killingly expensive tea set from the girl as a thank-you (hence her nickname).
What’s a confirmed otaku to do? In his case, log onto a giant anonymous BBS system (the infamous “2-channel” board) and start confessing his plight. Before long, he’s developed a bit of a fandom: three other otaku-esque guys who run a manga library; a well-to-do husband and wife; a loner shut-in whose PC is his sole contact with the outside world; and a night shift nurse who catches up on Train Man’s escapades in dating from the privacy of her workstation. They bombard him with advice, all urging him in their own separate ways to stick his neck out and go for the gusto the way none of them (or at least few of them) ever have.
By degrees Train Man gets up his gumption to grow closer to Hermès, and to overcome both his own shyness and hers. He doesn’t imagine her as being the sort of person to be all that shy to begin with, so he’s all the more startled when he finds she’s quite charmed by his geeky, overenthusiastic self. Unfortunately, Train Man’s spastic nature is one of those things that works best in small doses; after a while it becomes more of a mannerism than a personality trait, and towards the end it’s downright distracting instead of endearing. He sweats and twitches and shoves at his hair to such an extent, even if only for comedic effect, that you start to wonder how even cool-calm-and-collected Hermès can stand to be around him for more than fourteen seconds at a time.
The best part of the film is how it takes what is an inherently uncinematic activity—chatting on a BBS—and makes it lively and visual. The director (Masanori Murakami of the Waterboys TV series) uses split-screens, computer graphics, superimposed titles and voice-overs to great and creative effect. There’s one broadly hilarious running gag where the three other otaku see Train Man’s progress as a very literal war, with bombs exploding and tracer bullets chopping up the scenery around them. It’s a bit of a shame they thought their hero needed to have a performance that was just as outré and over-the-top.
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