Train_Man is an otaku, a geek. He's socially awkward, and he gets made fun of and snubbed. One day, when he's on the train, he sees a drunk salaryman messing with a pretty young woman. Train_Man is the only person on the train who tries to intervene. Later, after the two have talked to the police, the young woman asks Train_Man for his contact information and later sends him a gift, a Hermes tea set (earning her the pseudonym "Hermess"). Train_Man asks people in 2ch, a popular bulletin board website in Japan, for advice - it is these collected posts that this story is based off of. Eventually, Train_Man and Hermess go on dates and get to know each other better. The people in 2ch keep track of Train_Man's progress, breathlessly cheering him on and encouraging him when things seem to be at their worst.
I was first introduced to this story through the manga Train Man: A Shojo Manga, and my public library will soon be getting the book (not a novel, but rather many of the original posts from 2ch, collected together), so I'm looking forward to reading it. I love stories like this, being somewhat socially awkward myself (although I like to think that I'm not as bad as Train_Man when it comes to dealing with people).
Although I mostly enjoyed the movie, the way the Train_Man/Hermess story was presented made it pretty difficult to believe. We got to see so little of how Hermess felt about the relationship between her and Train_Man, at least until the end - it would really have helped to have more of her perspective, since, all on his own, Train_Man didn't always seem to make the best impression. His awkwardness, stuttering, and constant checking of his PDA/cellphone/whatever would, in real life, probably have made most girls uncomfortable. There could've been the feeling that this stranger, while nice on the train, might actually be a potential stalker. Even if someone like Hermess didn't get that vibe from Train_Man, if she recognized that his stuttering and awkwardness meant that he was seeing their meetings as dates rather than friendly meetings, and if she didn't feel anything in return, she might feel uncomfortable being around him and pitied him. The movie doesn't let you know for sure how she really feels about him until near the end.
I also got kind of weird vibes from the movie's Train_Man/Hermess couple, especially near the end. Hermess was always calm, elegant, and together, while Train_Man becomes a sobbing mess who looks all of 14 years old. When she comforts him, it feels to me like a mother comforting a child. When they finally kiss it feels... really awkward, not very natural at all.
I think the one thing that most makes this a difficult movie to watch, at times, is how absolutely geeky and awkward Train_Man is. The actor who played him did a fantastic job, and it was so hard to watch. I kept wanting to yell at him to stop overthinking things and looking to his pre-written conversation prompts to help him whenever things got tough. If he had a script to follow, he did well enough, in his own stuttering and awkward way, but if things didn't go exactly according to plan he fell apart. The movie actually left one such instance hanging - his need to ask to 2ch people for backup advice when his original date plans fail almost ruins his relationship, but there's never any explanation of how Hermess felt about that scene and why she ended up deciding it didn't matter - I needed some sort of explanation, because it seemed to me like it did matter.
I think my absolute favorite thing about this movie is the people following along with Train_Man's story on 2ch. The movie focuses on just a few individuals, but there are a few great scenes where the movie makes it clear that there are many, many more people who are waiting to see what will happen. The movie manages to somehow tell us enough about each of the anonymous people cheering Train_Man on that viewers can start to care about them, too. Each of the people are lonely in their own way. There's the noisy, jealous trio of men in the manga cafe who've had hardly any experience with women. There's the nurse, who, I think, is pining for an ex-boyfriend. There's the guy who pretty much lives in his room in his parents' house. Finally, there are two people who viewers eventually discover are a couple - they're both reading Train_Man's story and giving advice, but the anonymous nature of the boards means that neither of them realizes that the other knows Train_Man's story and has been posting. Every one of these people is most alive when they're posting on 2ch. Train_Man's courage inspires them to try to become more alive and involved in the real world. I found this conclusion to be very sweet and wonderful.
If, as you're watching the movie, you find yourself wanting to know more details about what's going on, I heartily recommend that you try watching the movie with the audio commentary turned on. The commentary reminds me of the translator's notes you'll find at the end of some manga volumes - Patrick Macias, Tomohiro Machiyama, and Jay Tack have lots of wonderful and relevant information to share about Japanese culture (like answering the question, "Why didn't anyone besides Train_Man do something about the drunk salaryman?"), the Train_Man story (things like, "Is this story true? What have people said to prove or disprove it?"), and otaku culture (things like, "What are those things Train_Man passed by in Akihabara?").
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Train Man: Densha Otoko (manga) by Hitori Nakano (story) and Hidenori Hara (art); Train Man: A Shojo Manga (manga) by Hitori Nakano (story) and Machiko Ocha (art); Train Man: The Novel (book) by Hitori Nakano - There are actually several other versions of this story available, but I think these three are the only other versions, besides the movie, that are currently available in the US. If you liked the basic idea (geeky guy tries to save girl on train, gets an expensive gift from her later on, and uses the advice of people from a message board to help him eventually get to his happy, romantic ending), then you should try at least one of these other versions.
- Whisper of the Heart (anime movie) - Shizuku, a young girl in junior high, loves to read. Every time she opens a library book, she always sees the same name on the cards, "Seiji Amasawa" - it's as though this guy somehow reads even more than she does, and she becomes determined to try to find him. As Shizuku learns more about Seiji, she also learns more about herself and her goals in life. Those who'd like to watch another sweet and sometimes awkward romantic story might enjoy this anime.
- Genshiken (manga) by Shimoku Kio - College freshman Kanji Sasahara is an otaku who joins a college club called The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture (aka Genshiken). The club may have a grand name, but it's full of otaku who love going to conventions, buying doujinshi, and more. The story focuses on Kanji and the other members of the club as they do what they love, deal with life, and, in some cases, learn to deal with otakudom and being an otaku. Those who'd like another story with otaku as the main characters might like this series.
- Welcome to the N.H.K. (manga) by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (original creator) and Kendi Oiwa (art) - Tatsuhiro Sato, a 22-year-old man, is a NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) and incredibly socially withdrawn (hikikomori). He believes everything around him is a conspiracy, and he has this theory that there is a secret organization called the NHK that is trying to produce a hikikomori-filled world. He would like to break free from the NHK, but he's too afraid to go outdoors on his own. However, things change when he meets Misaki, a high school girl who invites him to become part of her "project," which she claims will cure him of his hikikomori ways. Those who'd like another story featuring an otaku who needs help acting like a normal person might like this series. One of the characters in Train Man was also hikikomori (it gets talked about a little in the commentary), so this series would provide another view of what that kind of life is like.
- The MacGregor Grooms (book) by Nora Roberts - The MacGregor Grooms is actually composed of three short romantic stories (100-140 pages each). Each story is about a different man in one of the more recent MacGregor generations. Daniel MacGregor, the grandfather of these men and the patriarch of the MacGregor family, enjoys meddling in their lives (i.e. matchmaking), and by the end of each story one of the MacGregor men is happily matched up with someone who's just right for him. Those who liked Train Man may enjoy the third story in the book, which focuses on Ian and Naomi. Although Naomi isn't nearly as socially awkward as Train_Man, the confident image she presents to the world is actually the product of much agonizing and careful planning - for instance, she has a file on her computer that tells her what to wear and which accessories go with various items of clothing. Those who'd like another romantic story in which a character who is somewhat socially awkward tries to look good and confident on the outside might like this story.