April 22, 2007
by: Serdar Yegulalp
A love story about a boy, a girl, and a BBS.
Novel Description: An instant bestseller when it was first published in Japan, Train Man became a multimedia sensation, generating a smash-hit TV series, a blockbuster film, and multiple manga series. Now here’s the novel that started it all.
Boy–bashful and not overly brave–defends girl from obnoxious drunk on a Tokyo train. Girl sends boy a thank-you pair of pricey Hermès teacups. Boy’s a geek and doesn’t know what to do next. End of story for most nerds–but this one turns to the world’s largest online message board and asks for help, so for him it’s just the beginning. This matchless love story is told through a series of Internet chat room threads.
As Train Man, our hero charts his progress and unveils each new crisis–from making conversation to deciding what to wear on a date and beyond–in return, he receives advice, encouragement, warnings, and sympathy from the anonymous netizens. And Train Man discovers the secret to what makes the world go round–and proves we really do live in a universe where anything can happen.
Content: (This section may contain spoilers.)
It’s hard not to be cynical in this day and age. The headlines get worse every time you open the paper, the price of gas is beyond belief, and the 4Kids version of One Piece was an atrocity. Simple love and affection, especially in our entertainments, is even harder to come by.
This probably goes a fair ways towards explaining why the “Train Man” phenomenon, or Densha Otoko as it’s known in Japan, has garnered such a huge following: it’s a happy story with a happy ending. The book version of the tale has been billed as the “Internet-generation love story from Japan,” but it’s more like an updated version of the epistolary novel—a story told in letters or diary entries, except this time the letters are electronic and the diary is open for the whole world to read.
First, the backstory. In 2004, a regular member of Japan’s famous anonymous BBS system “2-channel” (aka 2ch or 2chan) posted about an incident that had occurred while riding home on the train. A drunken man in his fifties had been harassing a bunch of women; one of them a young lady about his age. He intervened, and bought enough time for the conductor and the police to show up and drag the guy off. When it was all over, the young woman thanked him profusely and said “I’d like to return this favor soon.” When she did pay him back, it was in the form of an Hermès-brand tea set—a gift that cost no small amount of money and promptly sent poor Train Man (as he came to be known on the BBS) into a frenzy of indecision.
Train Man had never dealt with anything like this before, and never imagined he would have to. In his own words, he was a 24-year-old Akihabara nerd, an anime and video game lover, a sloppy dresser, and a homebody who never imagined he’d ever snag the attention of a lovely young woman. In dismay, he begged the other 2channers to give him some advice, and over time they schooled him into getting himself cleaned up, working up the courage to ask out “Hermès,” as Train Man refers her as on the BBS, and go from being a member of Japan’s shut-in generation to a true mensch. All the while, the other 2channers cheered him on, celebrating each step he took away from them. . .much to their own mixture of joy and chagrin.
Not long after the original message thread became legend, the story appeared in any number of adaptations: several manga versions, a live-action film, a theatrical play, a TV series, and a novelization. The novel itself is little more than the original 2ch threads cleaned up and presented with some slight editing for continuity and pacing, which made me ask if it really deserved to be called a novel or a piece of journalism or even a kind of digital archaeology. . .unless the story was indeed made up out of whole cloth or forged (which would be tough to prove at this point). Del Rey actually labels this story as a work of fiction because they are unable to get a trusting confirmation on its legitimacy, and there are other questions that remain unanswered—like whether or not it would have been ethical or feasible to get permission to publish this material as-is. Me, I am indeed inclined to believe it happened that way, unless proven otherwise.
The message-board-style formatting is actually the biggest stumbling block that many people might have with the book. The threads are presented more or less as they were originally posted; complete with the often-hilarious character-set emoticons and macro-artwork that people inserted into their messages. But it doesn’t take long for the core of the story to come through. And the outpouring of warmth and support for Train Man as he struggles with each step on the ladder to manhood is absolutely irresistible. It is as funny and warm-hearted a story as any you could imagine, and I think that’s a good part of what draws people to it: it wasn’t made up (again, according to the official version of the story, but for now I’m a believer), but just spontaneously emerged—a record of people’s kindness to total strangers taking root and flowering in unexpected ways. The biggest laughs come from the gallery of anonymous posters, all forming a giant Greek chorus to Train Man’s running descriptions of his outings with Hermès.
A lot of what else makes the story special is Train Man’s sense of gentle wonder about himself, his online friends, and especially Hermès. He’s stupefied that he could be considered man-material by any woman—and doubly stupefied that the woman who thinks this of him has in some ways such a low self opinion as well. They are genuinely good people, these two, and the anonymous crowds who cheer them on know it as well—and are inspired by that to help Train Man and Hermès get together and stay together.
There are a number of theories why anonymous message boards like 2ch are so popular. In a country like Japan, they fill a deep and largely unspoken need—the need for a normally deferential, polite society to say exactly what they want to say without worrying about being pilloried. They offer a way for people to connect when conventional ways of connecting are becoming, well, disconnected. The best online communities I’ve known have all had a bit of that in them—they’re not just a bunch of gaudy icons and snotty taglines—and Train Man is like a distillation of what’s best about people online. Maybe even also what’s best about people, period.
Translation: Del Rey did not commission their own translation of the book, but instead sublicensed Bonnie Elliott’s translation for Constable & Robinson in the U.K. That makes for some occasionally awkward moments—prices are in pounds sterling, and the odd bit of British-only slang turns up from time to time. For the most part, however, the translation’s a perfectly smooth read, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious for all the right reasons. They also managed to preserve and translate all the emoticon artwork posted by the other users, no small trick in itself.
The Bottom Line: A must-read. Not just because it’s funny and heartwarming and earns every bit of it, but because it stands to become a cultural touchstone for anime fans.