Review: Train Man: The Novel

October 5, 2009 at 12:00 am 2 comments

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Reviewed By: Jacob Martin

Train Man, as a novel, changed my life. I didn’t even use blogs or forums before I read this book. My parents, they generally think the internet is a minefield of pedophiles and nasty folk. In some ways they still do. But Train Man… it presents things a little differently.

What if you were so hopeless at talking to the opposite sex, that one day, when opportunity arises, you need help to even see that the opportunity is there? When you are so used to being lonely, you’ve never known anything else and the possibility you might have a chance at love scares you because you don’t want to screw it up?

This is the dilemma Train Man, or as he is known in his native country, Densha Otoko, faces. So bewildered by the sharp shock that catapults him into the path of a young woman who he saved on a train from a drunken old guy… he’s at his wits end. But where does he turn? The most unlikely of places. The internet, 2Channel to be precise. What resulted from that thread which records the history of this particularly strange event was edited down by an anonymous forum user from the raw logs, and turned into the novel which I purchased one day after having heard about it, from, of all places, the internet. I don’t know precisely how it happened, nor can I remember it very well. All I know is that the story in this book, changed my life.

I started interacting with people on the other side of the world I’d never met in person. I went to see the recent Star Trek movie with Australian bloggers I had never met in real life, even though my parents were horrified by the idea, their fears for my safety were most telling about the nature of their generation, and my own. Their generation was taught to fear strangers, whereas my generation seemed to embrace strange company.

Train Man is therefore having the potential as a literary work to be just as subversive as Welcome to the NHK by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, but in a different way. The trouble lies in getting people to read it, so their lives are changed too. It’s written in internet forum posts – a literary technique not seen since The E Before Christmas by Matt Beaumont. In that novel, it’s told in emails, but in the Train Man novel, an entirely new and strange technology is equally part of the story as Train Man‘s leaps into love: the internet forum.

Literature is perhaps not quite ready to accept internet literary techniques in Western literature, but Japanese literature has long been a form which embraces innovation years or even centuries before the West even begins to come to terms with it. The multiple viewpoint technique in Japanese literature is an example, but I hope we don’t have to wait half a century before the internet is accepted as a growing part of the human experience. The choice to publish Train Man: The Novel as an edited version of its raw forum post form is a startling decision, instead of “Based on a True Story” type prose fiction, it goes all the way and accepts what it’s got to work with.

The ASCII art presented in the novel is intact: and it truly replicates the experience of the 2Channel forums in hypertext. The book is best read in either novel format or in the Project Densha translation, but if you don’t like sitting at your computer for hours, the book version is the best way to go. The fact there is a public domain translation is fascinating, because it reveals the nature of the story itself: the story of Train Man wasn’t composed by some writer who lives in a country-side cottage, it was built out of the internet posts of the common people. Nobody really owns Train Man/Densha Otoko’s story: it belongs to the common people because they helped Train Man/Densha achieve the courage he needed at the moment where he felt so lonely and helpless that he turned to the solace of strangers.

Train Man’s story is not weird because it’s unrealistic, it’s just very unlikely. To give you an idea of this, imagine a world where Terry Pratchett’s maxim of “Million to one chances happen nine times out of ten” happened to a lonely otaku with not a clue how to talk to women, or how to interact with people outside of the internet. What develops is a fascinating parable of netiquette: people stop trolling Train/Densha because his courage which was there all along completely undermines any bitterness that the people who initially trolled him in the story had against him. It’s a powerful fable about 21st Century cynicism, one that isn’t just applicable to a Japanese context, but the world.

Cynicism is born from doubt, but sometimes doubt undermines any positive change we can act out in our lives. When everything is hopeless, sometimes you just need to believe in yourself, that maybe, that girl you met on the train that you kind of like will feel the same way as you do about her? Maybe she won’t, and she’ll reject you, and you’ll go back to fantasising about anime girls like every other jaded otaku. Or maybe, you’re better than this. Maybe you want to see what happens if you take a chance even though your hopes and dreams might be shot to oblivion. And that’s part of the narrative my generation, Generation Y, born and raised on the internet, is living out RIGHT NOW.

The translation of the Robinson published edition (which is the version available in the UK) is interesting because usually translations of novels Americanise things, whereas this Britishises it. I feel a British approach to the translation rather than an Americanised translation is a fascinating look at how language is preserved by the British (except in instances where things are lost in translation). Instead of “Mom”, the abbreviation of mother in this version is “Mum”, which is what people in Australia like me use (They did start Australia as we now understand it as a British penal colony after all). In that sense I was drawn right into this translation – I felt that I was hearing the voices of real people rather than an American anime dub voice. Maybe you feel differently about translation, but as an Australian I find that maybe, complete Americanisation of all Japanese translation is not the answer for a more accessible text.

The story itself is a powerful one, nerdy guy makes good sounds like a cheesy romance novel plot – but how many romance novels can you say both appeal to men and women at the same time? The gender divide is really balanced here, you can enjoy it no matter if you’re a boy or a girl. Love is universal that way. I am serious. Even if you never buy the novel, read the Project Densha translation just to try it out. I give you a money-back guarantee you will like it, because you will have paid nothing but your time which is well worth it.

* * * * *

Jacob Martin is a blogger, writer and photographer with Asperger’s Syndrome who lives in Sydney. He also thinks like Train Man, he needs to get out more.

Added Note by Ranobe Cafe: While although it is believed by many that these posts from 2ch were in fact real. It should be noted that the novel when released was marketed as such, a NOVEL, a work of FICTION. The English edition makes no mention of it being based on actual real life internet posts or any true story. So while many believe in both Japan and America that these posts within the book were taken directly from the 2ch boards, it is also believed by many that this was a complete work of fiction. Please keep this in mind. Thank you.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jacob Martin  |  October 5, 2009 at 5:11 am

    -wry- I forgot to mention this novel was marketed as fiction!

    Part of me thinks it’s real, part of me is crying inside because it might not be. I’m confused! Perhaps jaded?

    @ranobecafe: Thank you for that editor’s note, you somewhat saved my credibility there.

    Reply
  • 2. kafkafuura  |  October 5, 2009 at 10:29 am

    It’s based on an excerpt of posts from 2ch – collected by the owner at request. So it is based on real posts at least – but as there is no real proof that “train man”/”densha otoko” was re-telling what was going on in his life at the time or just making things up; it’s technically fiction. Plus, I know the film took great liberties and included a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the posts to make it more of a “romantic film” according to their definitions.

    So the novel may have added scenes as well, but it’s based on something that might be fact ^_^.

    Reply

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This marks the english speaking world's first dedicated light novel blog, bringing you news and views from the english perspective on light novels. We are more than just a blog about light novels though, we also stand in awe of the many other literary works crossing over to the West from Japan. So expect to also see articles that dabble from time to time in Cell Phone Novels and Japanese Sci-Fi works, to mention a few.

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