Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 28th 2006
Train Man: A Shojo Manga
Ikumi Saiki is a self-confessed otaku who's never had a girlfriend. All that is about to change, however, when he saves a young woman from being attacked by a drunk on the evening train commute. She sends him a thank-you gift after the incident, but he doesn't know how to respond, so he turns to the universal geek resource—the Internet! As Ikumi spills out his story to an online message board, other users give him advice about things to say, restaurants to go to, proper grooming, and so on. With the help of his online friends, "Densha Otoko" (Train Man) learns the ins and outs of falling in love: going out to eat, meeting her friends, visiting her house, and finally, confessing his feelings.
With three different versions coming out within weeks of each other, the legend of Densha Otoko is sure to make its mark on manga shelves. Fortunately, Del Rey has made a point of differentiating theirs by hanging the shoujo label on it. Don't think that this is strictly just a "girls' comic," though, as the basic storyline is strong enough to appeal to all audiences. (Besides, it's a novel, a guys' comic, a TV series and a movie too, right?) The difference lies in how the story is told—this one goes down like a sweet, bite-size dessert, over and done in one volume and with the romantic angst kept to a minimum. If you want to believe in pure, honest love, with an almost saintly male lead, then this is the one to pick up.
To see how the principles of shoujo apply to this story, just look at how the main character is handled. He's given a name straight away. He spends the first few scenes working some thankless office job so we can see how modest he is. In his musings on love, both to himself and with his online friends, he's pure-hearted in every way—not so much a smelly social misfit as just an innocent guy who doesn't know how to take charge. Think about it ... he's being groomed as a male romantic lead! While other versions of the story set up Densha as "someone who might be just like you," this one tilts toward the female readership and paints him as "someone whom you might just like." The result is double-edged—as an everyday nice guy, he's easier to appreciate, but he's had a lot of the nerd taken out of him.
A similar alteration happens to Mai, the "Hermes" character who falls for Densha. Instead of being an unattainable beauty, here she's basically the typical shoujo heroine, with appealing girl-next-door looks and a desire to find the right guy. So now the story isn't so much about a lowly otaku meeting a beautiful woman, but about an everyday girl realizing that geeks can be attractive too.
With the story being just one volume long, this exploration of love doesn't get very deep; it's basically a cute little how-they-met story. Some of the middle scenes feel rushed, and the emotional ups and downs of romance are reduced to mostly ups, but the parts that count—their first night out; the final confession—are handled with grace. Meanwhile, Densha's dozens of online friends essentially form a nebulous third character for moral support and comic relief: the Internet. They're a lot blander than the actual Internet, though, providing only encouragement and ASCII image macros for our hero. With the focus on romance and little room to expand the story, the edge of online humor is lost.
Pleasant but plain artwork is another factor in establishing the characters' personalities—with Densha and Hermes both set to similar levels of attractiveness, it's hard to see a real "otaku" or "beauty," as they've been toned down to a slightly awkward guy and a moderately cute girl. Also, they look more like high school kids despite claiming to be in their early twenties; the rules of shoujo character design basically keep these two locked in a style that doesn't quite fit the facts of the story. However, the linework is clean and the layouts are easy to follow, so that helps things to go down easy. The confession scene works especially well, blending inner thoughts with external dialogue. However, online dialogue is doesn't work quite so well; text boxes over the assorted faces of computer users don't really express the flow of a message board thread. The one thing that does work is the ASCII art, which adds a humorous and authentic touch with the familiar emoticons and cat-mascots of 2ch.
Or is it 2ch? The nationwide message board goes by "Channel 2" in the translation, along with a few other questionable wordings: "fanboy" is used interchangeably with "otaku" when they probably should have settled on the latter, and some of the Netspeak just isn't realistic. (Does anyone ever say "omgoggles"?) With such high levels of Internet literacy among fans these days, readers might cringe at these awkward attempts to emulate online discussion. Regular dialogue, however, is handled smoothly, bringing out the romantic overtones without getting too cutesy. A glossary in the back provides the usual cultural notes, and a short essay by William Flanagan explains the Densha Otoko phenomenon in all its incarnations. Del Rey's printing is faultless as usual, with sharp artwork and good quality paper throughout.
While other retellings of Train Man focus on the social misfit trying to win over the beautiful woman, this one tilts the viewpoint so that young female readers can see the social misfit as a love interest as well. It's only natural, then, that the heroine should warm up to this shy guy. Those familiar with the story will find this angle unique, but might also be disappointed by the toned-down personalities and superficial treatment of the plot. Newcomers will see a cute boy-meets-girl romance with a contemporary high-tech twist. No matter who's reading this, though—male or female, Densha veteran or first-time rider on the pop-culture train—one message holds true: thanks to the redeeming power of the Internet, even a hopeless geek can learn to love.
Overall : C+
Story : B-
Art : C-
+ Unique character viewpoint and a sweet, lighthearted mood.
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