“Train Man: Densha Otoko” – A.J. Hakari

For me, romantic films have always been the hardest to swallow. Filmmakers have about two hours or even less to paint a convincing portrait of two people falling and staying in love. It’s a feat few have been able to pull off with a sure hand, and the people behind Train Man: Densha Otoko aren’t about to be added to the list. The true story behind this Japanese romance has inspired countless budding lovers, serving as source material for both televised and manga-based adaptations. But while Train Man is a sweet story at heart, its onscreen execution will have even the most hopeless optimists raising their eyebrows.

Our hero is a 22-year-old loner known only to his Internet pals as Train Man (Takayuki Yamada). An office drone who spends his free time collecting models and various other knick-knacks, it goes without saying that Train Man is a bit of a nerd who’s never had a chance at romance. But such an instance arrives one night when he stops a drunk from hassling a woman (Miki Nakatani, Chaos) on the train home from work. Grateful for his intervention, the woman sends Train Man a gift, and in return, he gathers up enough courage to ask her to dinner. Thus begins the pair’s burgeoning relationship, with Train Man encouraged on his way by a network of buddies following his life online. But our antisocial protagonist soon finds his nervousness getting the best of him, and it’s up to him to keep it in check before he ruins his one shot at true love.

In a perfect world, I can imagine Train Man working like a charm. I can envision it as a simple story about a shy guy overcoming his awkward personality in order to get the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately, that’s not the film that Train Man turns out to be. Instead, it’s the pitiful tale of a stammering mess who can barely function and the frail ditz who inexplicably falls for him. I know the movies are chiefly an escapist realm, especially when it comes to romantic pictures. But for the life of me, I couldn’t buy into this crud one bit. The story is purported to be based in reality, but considering this flick’s turn of events, I have a hard time believing any of this took place. Director Shosuke Murakami generalizes the concept to an unbelievable degree, robbing the characters of their humanity and turning them into walking, talking stereotypes. Yamada stutters through two-thirds of his whiny dialogue, and Nakatani provides no insights into her character; she has eyes for Train Man only because the script tells her to. Thanks to their one-note personalities, their relationship works about as well as an Edsel, clunkily trudging forward at the absolute mercy of the screenplay.

I hate to see Train Man fizzle out as quickly as it does, since the main idea is right there in front of me. Essentially, it’s an old-fashioned romance set in a modern age, with Train Man virtually dependent on high-tech gadgetry in order to win over his lady love. But even this comes across as a device designed to lengthen the plot rather than enhance it, especially when the movie focuses on Train Man’s cheering section. I understand that the people drawn in by Train Man’s exploits (which include a veritable recluse and a trio of gaming geeks) are meant to better their own personalities the closer Train Man gets to fulfilling his dreams. But I couldn’t help but think how desperate these characters came across, what sad and pathetic lives they must lead in order to hang on some sadsack’s every word. The absence of even one dissenting, cynical voice in the crowd says a lot for the film’s wide-eyed optimism. These little story threads are just another example of Murakami’s inability to grasp the innocent nature of the plot, serving up tired stock archetypes instead of people we grow to care about.

However, despite my savaging of Train Man thus far, I do admit to treasuring a scant few moments. Nakatani’s performance managed to rise above the rancid material on a couple of occasions, and the movie overall was well-filmed (especially a daydream sequence in which Train Man converses with his online friends in a train station). But while I don’t doubt that many will be touched by Train Man’s ultimate message, it comes at the cost of one of the more grueling, emotionally hollow ordeals in cinema history.

Rating: ★½☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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